Cuban Claret previews the new campaign with something of a summer glow
THE best part of four months is what I call a proper close season.
Not sure it would have been so appreciated had it not been an otherwise sumptuous summer of sport, but I`m one of those who has been schmoozed by the Olympics, engrossed in the feats of the athletes and intrigued in the journeys they have been on.
Football has been put in its rightful place; practically wiped from the pages of the newspapers when there is nothing of note going on. It seems to be the lightest build-up to a new campaign I can ever think of. Even the in-depth sports coverage in the Sunday Times devoted barely a page to the Premier League kick-off this week.
Sports journalists have been rocked on their heels. For proof, one only needed to listen to an ebullient Alan Green commentating on the Rowing for 5Live. I find Green excruciating when he reports on football, largely for the apparent disdain he seems to bring to practically every match he covers these days. At Eton Dorney he effused with great insight, passion and excitement. Maybe he`s just jaded by the impotence of the personality of the Premier League and its stars.
I`ve never been a great follower of pre-season friendlies but August 18th is about the time when the football season should begin in my book. Its just a shame we can`t have an Olympics every year to realign our sporting equilibrium.
So with an alternative sporting adrenaline still coursing through our veins after almost four months since the Clarets concluded an ultimately deflating campaign, how do we look for the rather more parochial prospect of Burnley v Bolton Wanderers on Saturday?
Well the fixture computer could hardly have been kinder to the Clarets. The return of Owen Coyle`s Championship favourites certainly brings the season to life with immediate effect rather than a Watford at home or an Ipswich away.
I was checked a little in my generally positive observations of Burnley last season. After a really difficult start afflicted Eddie Howe`s first full season in charge I thought he did wonderfully well to turn things round in the Autumn. We threatened to really kick on in January after fine displays at Middlesbrough and Forest. But then the last third of the season hit us like a double dip recession.
Once we hit the home straight out of contention it was just a case of seeing out time. We were literally planning for life after the inevitable departure of Jay Rod. Thankfully we did that business quickly enough to plan; quite why it`s taken the club so long to procure such well publicised targets will remain behind closed doors. It might have helped greatly to have Brian Stock sharing his pre-season with us.
But, we are where we are, and thankfully no weaker for any last-minute leaves (touch wood) despite strong links (genuine ones I believe) surrounding Chris McCann and Norwich. I have not given up on McCann and think he remains our most important player. If he can stay fit (ankle knock from Tuesday withstanding), he will benefit hugely by (a) not being captain and (b) having Stock beside him. There was some bunkum thrown at Chris from the imbecile element last season and I hope supporters get behind him. Apparently he never felt fully fit and also had to play a role not naturally to his strengths.
Quite rightly for a former centre half, Eddie has reinforced from the back. Long time target Jason Shackell was talked into joining us in a deal that reminded me of Steve Cotterill`s similarly determined bid to bring in John McGreal. During his commentary at Port Vale, Chris Boden likened Shackell to an off-field Steve Caldwell, on-field Steve Davis. How we have missed that player at the base of the spine since Caldwell indeed departed.
People tell me Joe Mills looks good and it`s pleasing to see options across the back. Of the players I have seen play, I`d like to see Ben Mee on the left side of central defensive pair with a man of the stature of Shackell but David Edgar seems to have the nod. Certainly we shouldn`t want for an aerial challenge for Kevin Davies should Coyle pick him on Saturday.
Stock is a Carrick rather than a Scholes from what I have seen of him, a quietly efficient schemer type who sits and retains possession. Finally a replacement for the “Alexander role” – but with a more accurate pass. If he can bring freedom to McCann`s game it could be the steal of the season. I recall seeing Nicky Bailey in that cajoling role for Middlesbrough when they played us off the park early season last year. Having him there will help both Dean Marney and Marv Bartley too.
A week ago I would have deliberated ending this preview with a ballsy prediction of 6th place but I cannot help feel the deflation shared by those who saw Danny Ings as something of a secret weapon for Burnley this season.
He was our certain air of unpredictability. Someone who could beat a man where it mattered, turn a full back around with a twist or burst of pace. Create and score audacious goals.
That fearlessness takes some replacing and I`m not perturbed that we haven`t gone straight to the loan market to bring someone else in.
I feel desperately sorry for the lad but his loss could be the making of another player.
Assuming Charlie Austin spearheads the attack, the remaining two supporting roles are up for grabs between Vokes, Paterson, Treacy, Wallace and Stanislas. George Porter and Alex MacDonald might also have a say.
That`s got to be seen as decent competition while players remain healthy.
What Ings`s misfortune has served though is a reminder to keep things in perspective before a ball has been kicked. It also raises the question mark of just how robust this squad is to withstand the rigours of 46-game campaign.
Last season I felt if we won more than we lose it could be seen as a success for Eddie. We fell narrowly short of that target with a 17-11-18 record.
The fact that we recorded just seven wins at home and only one of those was achieved at 3pm on a Saturday reflected a poor ROI on a season ticket. Our away form was sixth best in the division.
The real campaign-changer last season came in that momentous 3-2 November win at Hull when we had gone 2-0 down and stared down the barrel of a fifth straight loss. We`d finally got over our tepid start and the momentum we carried forward from then had us looking like a team again.
From that game, we recorded 1.48 points per match which over a season would give us 68 points. While this would not be enough for a play off berth, it could be classed a play off challenge and would mean progress. Throw in a better than usual return from our derbies (a win against Blackburn please) and maybe a League Cup run, we Burnley fans could be enjoying a better than satisfactory season.
An optimistic outcome would certainly be hugely helped if we can beat Bolton on Saturday.
It`s a tall order but if the supporters make Turf Moor as hostile as it was for Bolton`s last visit then we have a chance.
So a top 10 finish is my punt for Burnley this season and the hope of a much more enjoyable time especially at Turf Moor. At least our improved defensive edge should eradicate those nasty late 1-0 defeats, which would be a start.
As I’m sure our new Chairmen and Captain will tell us in the programme on Saturday. GET BEHIND THE LADS.
Cuban`s Tips: Promotion – Cardiff City, Leicester. Play-offs: Bolton, Wolves, Blackpool, Sheffield Wed. Relegation – Bristol City, Peterborough, Ipswich.
Burnley 10th, Blackburn 11th.