DECEMBER PART ONE
DINDANE MERRILY ON HIGH
With Mrs T’s sister living in Midhurst only an hour away from Portsmouth this was a game that we always intended to see. Had this game been early in the season when Portsmouth were in absolute turmoil, not a win to their name, and living financially from day to day you’d have been confident of a result. Truly this was a club in an utter total mess, desperate to get rid of all the best players to raise money (including Nugent to Burnley), new owners coming and going, the CE in a spot of tax bother, Paul Hart barely knowing what his next team would be, and administration looking likely. Oh, and on top of all that, a transfer embargo because of unpaid debts and the League threatening to withhold a large slice of their next tranche of Premiership money. But, of course, the nearer Burnley’s visit got, the more organised and settled Portsmouth seemed to become, albeit still rooted at the foot of the table. Then the admirable and dignifed Paul Hart, working on less than a shoestring and slowly but surely improving things, was sacked and replaced by the solemn, funereal-faced Avram Grant. Football is a cruel and heartless business. Just what more Hart could have done is beyond most peoples’ reckoning. Portsmouth, in fact, provided us during 2009 with our latest football ‘Soap’. The newest owner, Falcondrone Ltd appointed Ali al Faraj chairman, and he, by the end of November hadn’t even seen a game. Falcondrone Ltd, registered in the British Virgin Islands, bought the club from the previous very brief owner, Sulaiman al Fahim, after he had done little other than mess the club about, having bought it from Alexandre Gaydamak, who had bought it from Milan Mandaric. There are some stoical football supporters up and down the land, patient, tolerant and long suffering. Many of them are to be found at Fratton Park. Just how they relate to this procession of foreign owners, intrigue, muddy water, legal and financial battles, sacked managers, player sales and bottom place in the division, is anyone’s guess. As we motored south it was hard to believe that this club, in complete disarray and unable to pay the players’ wages at the beginning of October, won the FA Cup and a place in Europe just two years ago. Sometimes you think that clubs deserve all the troubles they get, but then you remember their fans. Thank goodness for Barry Kilby at Burnley and his ten calm years of uncomplicated, genuine, loyal chairmanship.
So it was this game that optimistic Burnley supporters fancied as our first away win. Yet again support was there in numbers even though it was another long distance away game immediately after the trip to West Ham. Games in the south are a magnet for all southern-based Clarets of whom there are hundreds dotted about the area. On paper yes indeed it was down as an away win. But conceding an average of over three goals every away game, nothing was certain. And anyway, if there were any certainties in football, we’d all be pools winners every week. Nugent, signed on loan from Portsmouth just before the end of the transfer window was ineligible. Caldwell was suspended. Manager Coyle stuck to his principles of going for the win and not packing the defence and midfield. And in the Telegraph was the most eyebrow-raising article. It looked at mighty Chelsea’s next ten games one by one and tipped them to win the first nine of them. Then it tipped them to lose at Burnley at the end of January. What the writer no doubt had in mind was the ground packed with howling, belligerent supporters, a night of gales and freezing rain, and those tiny antiquated dressing rooms that so far have had away teams turning up their noses in horror. A bit of the old Corporal Jones syndrome: “They don’t like it up ‘em.”
As we journeyed down, heavy rain in Leeds was replaced by sunnier skies in Sussex, and Portsmouth’s problems were increasing. Having already failed to pay the players’ wages once, without a huge loan, once again wages for November were unpaid. Yet another loan was conjured up, this one for £3million, and then more news broke that huge amounts totalling millions were owed to agents. Against all of this, new manager Avram Grant insisted he would need money in January for new players. It was hard to believe that he actually came from planet Earth.
Surely to God we can beat this motley, chaotic crew we thought. To cut a long story short – we didn’t. It was a depressing defeat, on a dismal day, in a decrepit, dilapidated stadium. And yet at halftime all of us wondered how we were not ahead by at least two goals having carved them open time and again. At full-time we went away heads hanging at the unfairness of football; that you can dominate a game and lose and feel miserable. You miss the chances you create at one end and you let another two soft goals in at the other. The second was a playground howler when Dindane, in acres of space in the 6-yard box rose merrily on high in between the carefully observing Bikey and Jordan. Unfortunately, the pair of them were observing everything but Dindane, the weather, each other, a couple of pigeons flying low, a stray crisp bag, maybe even the Portsmouth bloke behind the goal with the big belly and rings a bell all the game. Dindane gratefully headed home. It wasn’t even a good header, hitting the ground and then bouncing into the roof of the net. And in between Burnley had to contend with the refereeing of Phil Dowd who got so many things wrong and penalised Burnley so often, we just despaired. The worst was the penalty awarded to Portsmouth when Elliot was adjudged to have felled Hraidarsonn. Dowd had the whistle in his mouth faster than a banker can say ‘bonuses’. There was no contact whatsoever and film footage confirmed that. “I slipped, it was no penalty,” said Hraidarsonn after the game on camera. At the other end the same player had hold of Bikey’s shirt collar round his neck so tight that it was a wonder he wasn’t throttled when he went for a header at goal. The header flew over. THAT was a penalty Mr Dowd. Fletcher and Elliot missed golden opportunities. Bikey had two headers that went over and one that was going in but for Eagles getting the ball stuck under his feet as it was on its way in. The goalkeeper made two fizzing saves one from McDonald and one from Fletcher. Blake had a good 25 yard free kick that had the sting taken out of it by – guess what – a hand in the defensive wall. Other than the penalty save, a long distance shot, a headed clearance, and picking the ball out of the net twice, it is hard to remember anything Jensen had to do. Coyle made changes but in truth once Eagles and Blake went off Burnley created little and the game petered out after the second Portsmouth goal with all of us quite disbelieving and despondent. It was as depressing as an Alastair Darling budget.
Some people think that tumbledown old stadiums like Fratton Park are a reminder of what football used to be like and look at them fondly. Of course they are a reminder of other times, they are a timewarp, but in truth the dilapidation, the antiquated facilities, the crumbling concrete, uneven steps and stairways,the dreadful toilets, have no place in the Premiership. Turf Moor is hardly state of the art, but is nothing like this. A Portsmouth fan summed things up. “We’ve had plans for new stadiums for years, but a procession of sh*t owners have resulted in nothing happening.” The stewards were as per West Ham – low profile. It was ok to stand. No one bothered and there was not one jot of trouble as a result. You therefore wonder why stewards at places like Southampton behave like gestapo cretins when someone as much as sneezes.
The pundits all agreed that our football was bright, inventive, attractive and deserved reward, but that’s no consolation when you’ve left Burnley by coach at 5 in the morning and then have a 6 hour journey home on stop-start motorways. At least Mrs T and I were lucky. We came down to stay at the wife’s sister’s house down the end of a winding country lane where woodsmoke drifts through the trees. Bacon and eggs for breakfast before we set off; and then roast pork for dinner when we got back with all the trimmings, plenty of el vino and a log fire crackling in the hearth. The park-and-ride bus took us a weird and wonderful winding route to the ground that eventually gave us a view of the city centre as an added bonus. Allegedly this is a rough old place on a Friday and a Saturday night; a cross between Dodge City and Beirut said someone I chatted to who had stayed over the night before and who looked decidedly the worse for wear.
After the West Ham game I could see the funny side of football. After Portsmouth I could see nothing that raised a smile. And at the end of this miserable day the league table said we were just 4 points above the bottom three. I could see little humour in that. If… if… God forbid… our stay in the Premiership is to be just the one season and by the narrowest of margins; then we will look back at this game in particular and wonder just how we did not come back with all three points.
Next up, Fulham, a club that under Roy Hodgson seem to be well run, well organised and rarely hit the headlines, even if their chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed, sometimes does grab the front pages from time to time. To his credit the Harrod’s owner has stuck by Fulham for a number of years when the pundits thought the novelty would soon wear off. In some ways they are similar to ourselves; having produced many great players, been down to the depths of the lower divisions and back, experienced all the same financial hardships, know what it’s like to be hard up, and retained the feel of a family and community club amongst the glamorous, glitzy London giants. Al-Fayed promised Premiership football within 5 years when he took over in 1996. He achieved his target in four. The appointment of Roy Hodgson as manager in 2007 was shrewd and has been extremely successful. Without fuss, flamboyance or megabucks he has fashioned a good side. They arrived at Turf Moor in 8th place in the division. A year earlier we beat them in the Cup quite easily. It seemed far too soon to be saying this was a must-win game but that was the feeling many of us had. A win was badly needed.
The signs were good. Fulham had not won at Turf Moor in the last 24 visits and had not won an away game since the first day of the season. “Has to be a home win,” was the betting tip. “1 – 0 is a safe bet.” The bookies might also have mentioned that another safe bet was for Burnley to concede yet another penalty – six so far in the season.
There was no penalty. There was no 1 – 0 home win and it is now 25 visits since Fulham have won at Turf Moor. Tea was rationed then. It was 1 – 1 on a raw, cold day. There was, alas, precious little good football from an out of sorts Burnley who were laboured, leaden-footed, lethargic, and by and large preferred to pass the ball to Fulham. Fulham on the other hand were neat, tidy, workmanlike and organised. The first 45 minutes few, if any, people would wish to sit through again with Burnley’s lone striker system, with Blake wide left, Elliot in midfield and Eagles wide, right failing miserably. It cried out for sweeping half-time changes. West Ham cried out for half-time changes. The gaffer is not afraid to make changes but seldom early on. Move Elliot right, Eagles left; take Blake and Bikey off for Nugent and McDonald. All these changes did eventually come in the second half. By then Fulham had taken a 1 – 0 lead shortly after Elliot had pulled a shot wide when put clean through.
The Fulham goal should never have been allowed. A very quick free kick from inside their own half caught Burnley out (remember West Ham anyone), Caldwell was outmuscled by Zamora who went on to score. But this was a free kick taken three yards in front of where the foul took place and was allowed by a referee standing just feet away. 99 times out of 100 a referee would have the kick taken again. Poor decisions like this one, when they result in goals, are infuriating if at the end of a season when you have been relegated, you look for points that were lost through no fault of your own.
The equaliser was reminiscent of Blake’s memorable goal against Manchester United. This time the volley was by Elliot, by now back on the right wing where he is at his best. McDonald showed again, as he did at Portsmouth, that the time has come to bring him into the side as a first choice player. Blakey other than one fizzing shot looked in need of a spell on the bench and Bikey was anonymous in midfield simply patrolling that area and rarely getting forward. It was one of those games when nobody played truly badly, but alas no-one played really well.
Again we said to ourselves that it’s a measure of how far we have come that we expected to beat Fulham after all the other home results so far. But the realisation was increasing that we can’t be saying that every Saturday. This was now 5 games without a win and this was another game where the early Premier League adrenalin was clearly fading, although the other results kept the status quo, with us 4 points above the bottom three. The manager spoke positively and cheerfully afterwards. Harry Potts was always cheerful too. If there was an earthquake he’d come out and say “it’s a grand day for football.” I fancy OC shares the same philosphy. But Coyle’s cheery optimism could not hide the fact that (OK there’s a long way to go) Fulham made Burnley’s Premier League place look just a little fragile and this Burnley performance very, very flat.
Dave Thomas December 2009