Looking at the league table suggests a solid start to the 2011/12 season for Burnley – three wins, three draws and four defeats, with a comfortable mid-table position, and a place in the League Cup 4th round after home wins over lower league opposition to boot. However the stats do not reflect what has already been a very up-and-down season, with some excellent and some horrendous performances, some excellent points against tough opposition coupled with points dropped to some of the league’s weaker sides, and some decent transfer business tallied against some very disappointing departures. Burnley fans could be forgiven for finding it very hard to assess the team, manager and season thus far.
My pre-season expectations were hampered by the sales of key players like Mears, Eagles and Fox, without proper replacements being brought in, and nothing suggested to me that our rather threadbare squad was likely to improve on last year’s 8th place finish. Disappointing results against some of the division’s weaker sides (one point from games against Watford, Crystal Palace and Peterborough) exposed major weaknesses, particularly in the centre of defence, where the burden of expectation has been seemingly too much for Manchester City loanee Ben Mee, and in the middle of midfield, where Dean Marney in particular seems far too limited to be an effective part of a two man midfield. The performance against Middlesbrough in particular was one of the worst seen at the Turf since the days of Steve Cotterill (apologies Nottingham Forest fans), and it really did seem that we had a relegation battle on our hands.
Recent weeks have produced the best results of the season though, and on top of the excellent away win at Derby in August, a confidence-boosting point was gained against leaders Southampton, before the thumping 5-1 victory over Nottingham Forest, which really demonstrated the attacking potential in the team, particularly the exciting young trio of Charlie Austin, Jay Rodriguez and Junior Stanislas.
The pairing of David Edgar and Andre Amougou at centre-half seems to have stabilised things at the back somewhat (although both have a frightening tendency to switch off at crucial times), and one of many acquisitions from Bournemouth; Marvin Bartley, has begun to carve out a niche for himself in central midfield after red cards at Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace hindered his progress since signing in January. A win away at Millwall just before the international break was another excellent result and, miraculously, brought our first clean sheet in twenty-four attempts; a real monkey off the back of the defence. Saturday’s game against Reading, while something of a flat performance, would even have produced a mind-blowing second clean sheet in succession, bar a ridiculously late 99th minute winner for the away side.
The club has become known for cup runs in recent seasons, and after avoiding an upset in a tricky fixture against Milton Keynes, the anti-climactic draw of Cardiff away in the fourth round should not detract from the fact that the League Cup is acting once again as a helpful distraction from the patchy league form for the fans.
This recent on-pitch success has tempered fan criticism of the board somewhat, although constant reports in the press of possible signings “next week” have become a running joke amongst Burnley fans, predictably met with (as it turns out, well-placed) cynicism. Fans are still smarting from the abrupt sale of Wembley hero Wade Elliott, pushed out of the back door despite a promise from the board that no more players would be sold (the second such promise broken this season), and the continuing lack of acquisitions is a real worry. Zavon Hines seems an able replacement for Rodriguez and Austin up front, and Stanislas, Wallace and Treacy offer options on the wings, but beyond that, the threadbare squad is a big concern. There are literally only two full-backs at the club, and Amougou or captain Chris McCann would prove very difficult to replace in central defence and midfield respectively. The spine of the Burnley team is far from complete, and the winter months will test it severely.
Fans have a tendency to get swept away in the emotion of a famous victory or a dire defeat, but the international week is an excellent time to take stock, and it seems that positives and negatives have, thus far, balanced each other out at Turf Moor. A positive or negative run before Christmas will set the focus for the rest of the season- will we be looking up the table or over our shoulders, and will the board finally back Eddie Howe in the transfer market? For myself, a mid-table squad can only ever equal a mid-table finish, but it will be fascinating to see what happens on and off the pitch between now and January. At least in the Championship, not even mid-table is dull!
Written by Tom Whittaker, We Are Going Up’s Burnley Blogger
Tom tweets at @tomclaret