Our journalist, Cuban Claret in his new regular column ‘Have a Cigar’ writes his first article previewing our debut game in the Premier League against Stoke.
On the face of it, Stoke City away is just about as inglorious a Premier League initiation as Burnley could have hoped for.
Never mind fortress, The Britannia Stadium was a bearpit last season. Stoke’s supporters were rated the loudest in the Premier League by decibel monitors and the hostility generated by their intense supporters clearly gave the team a huge lift.
Tony Pulis’s side ground out 10 league victories at home last season amidst scenes, at times, of almost religious terrace-like fervour.
Their style of play was not exactly endorsed by the purists but when you are effectively a Championship club taking a shot at the big time, survival is success and Stoke achieved it with positions to spare. Any team that finishes above Blackburn deserve respect.
For all its voluminous renditions of ‘Delilah’ by shaven headed men, the Britannia is, nevertheless, a ground where Burnley have enjoyed a fair share of success.
Just one defeat from eight visits there makes the place one of Burnley’s happier hunting grounds.
For small mercies, we should be thankful, with four of last season’s top five opponents ready to test our flimsy top flight credentials in the opening phase of this most exciting of seasons.
Tony Pulis appears acutely aware of the pitfalls of ‘second season syndrome.’ As he pointed out himself this week, only two teams promoted to the Premier League have ever bettered their first season after promotion in 14 years. That does seem an incredible statistic but Stoke could fail to beat last season’s tally and still be comfortable.
It is unlikely Stoke’s 12th place finish has placed a false sense of security in the Potteries, Pulis wouldn’t allow it, but he has seen fit to recruit only one major signing, bringing in the box-to-box midfielder Dean Whitehead from Sunderland. How Chris McCann competes with him could well be a key battle on Saturday. That’s assuming the midfield see much of the ball.
As much respect as Stoke deserve for their efforts last year, their football was horribly one-dimensional at times. Yet the power and pace of their well adjusted partnership of James Beattie and Ricardo Fuller, will always cause excitement for the home fans and flutters in even resolute visiting defences.
It is this spectre of the battle Burnley supporters might fear the most. Steve Caldwell looks like he’s definitely out, following the hamstring strain he suffered in Scotland’s damaging defeat in Norway.
Manager Owen Coyle was blatantly pretty sick about this when he talked to the press on Thursday afternoon.
It means the central defensive duo that finished last season so strongly is broken up and with David Edgar suspended and Mike Duff injured, our squad depth is severely tested before a ball is kicked.
Much, then, will depend on our positive mindset, our ability to keep hold of the ball, create chances of our own and get behind Stoke’s giant and well drilled defence.
It looks highly likely we will field a back four of defenders who have never played as a unit together.
Looking for a positive omen, we beat a Beattie-led Sheffield United at Bramall Lane last season with a totally random defence that featured Wade Elliott and Graham Alexander at full-back.
Stephen Jordan excelled that day at centre-half alongside Caldwell and he will have to again at Stoke on Saturday, this time alongside Clarke Carlisle, probably the player we would most want in the heart of the aerial action after his formidable finish to our glorious Championship campaign.
It would be a mistake to assume Stoke’s danger is restricted to the long ball. Wingers Liam Lawrence and Matthew Etherington can both turn full-backs and a stern test lies in wait for our full-backs, likely to be Richard Eckersley and Christian Kalvenes.
But when we have the ball, there is no reason to see why we won’t construct some positive attacking opportunities and we can be sure the buzz of playing in Burnley’s first top flight fixture in 33 years won’t be lost on the players who got us there. I expect to see Alexander, McCann, Elliott, Eagles and Blake providing sparks from midfield in support of our exciting new forward Steven Fletcher with Paterson, Guerrero and McDonald among a bench bristling for action.
Stoke earned four points from their first six games of last season starting with a decisive 3-0 reverse at Bolton on the opening day. We should be delighted with a similar return from our first six but, realistically, we might need something in this game to get there.
It’s going to take a performance of huge endeavour. The players will have to show all those Coyle buzz words ‘hunger, desire’ etc, in abundance. If we pass well, defend above ourselves and get a bit of beginners luck, there might just be a 2-2 draw in it for us. Though anyone who witnessed the defensive debacle of last season’s curtain-raiser at Sheffield Wednesday might imagine the haunting potential of history repeating itself.
With it being our first meaningful fixture of the season, I expect and hope the match will be preceded with a minute’s reflection on the life of Bobby Robson, a genuine hero of football for the vast majority of us.
My favourite quote of his came when England were preparing for the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 1990.
‘It’s going to be white hot. There’ll be no room for fluffies.’
Words that seem fitting as we step into our first experience of Premier League football.