Date: 24th May 2009 at 11:24am
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On Sky

Spring Bank Holiday Monday 25th May 2009 could go down as one of the most important dates in the history of Burnley Football Club. The Clarets of course are playing Sheffield United at Wembley in the Championship Play-Offs Final.It has been nine long years since we got promoted to the Championship and apart from two heartbreaking 7th place finishes we have never come this close to making it to the top flight. We are just 90 minutes (or maybe longer if we go into extra time and penalties) from reaching nirvana and playing in the top flight for the first time since 1976.

Clarets fans have had to endure 33 long years to get to this stage, a roller coaster of a period that has seen the club drop to the bottom tier of the Football League and nearly lose its League status before making the steady climb back up. We have of course celebrated promotions from the lower leagues over those years but there has also been a fair share of relegations. The most important match in relatively modern times probably our history was the ‘Orient Game`, the 2-1 victory that ensured our league survival back in May 1987. All Clarets fans have the date of 9th May 1987 engraved on their hearts but a new date could well be engraved on them soon and we all have to hope its the 25th May 2009.

Victory will mean so much to a small club like ours, one that has continually struggled financially to make ends meet. Promotion to the top flight is estimated to be worth £60 million and even if a club comes straight back down, almost expected these days, parachute payments come to the rescue allowing the club to re-build for a better challenge next time round.

It`s not just that though, it`s the prestige of playing against the top clubs and visiting grounds like Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates not to mention rekindling our local rivalry against Blackburn Rovers.

Setting the Scene

The good news for the Clarets is that they don`t appear to have any injuries or suspensions to worry about

Owen Coyle has virtually a full squad to choose from even Russell Anderson out with a cruciate ligament injury all season has been in training and played in the reserves.

The biggest dilemma for Coyle could be whether to play Eagles in the starting eleven. He was on the bench in our play-offs semi-final second leg against Reading at the Madejski, a move which allowed both Thompson and Paterson to play up front to good effect with both strikers scoring wonder goals in our 2-0 victory. Chris Eagles though has played well in our two league games this season against the Blades. We completed the double over them winning 3-2 at Bramall Lane back in December last year with Eagles getting one of the goals and then recently defeating them 1-0 at Turf Moor last month in a crucial game that kept our play-off hopes alive and dented the Blades chances of automatic promotion.

I suspect Coyle will be tempted though to select the same sixteen named for the last match against Reading. This would mean Thompson would be the main target up front with Paterson playing a wider role again

Jensen, Duff, Carlisle, Caldwell, Kalvenes, Alexander, Elliott, McCann, Blake, Paterson, Thompson

Subs: Penny, Gudjonsson, McDonald, Eagles, Rodriguez

The Clarets unfortunately lost the toss for the rights of being designated the home team so will now be playing in their away strip although the rule is a bit daft considering both home kits do not clash. The Clarets actually played in their normal Claret & Blue away to the Blades this season. Oh well as long as the victory is ours, I don`t care so let`s hope that toss is the only thing Sheffield United win!

We may have beaten the Blades twice this season but they did finish above us in third spot, four points ahead of the Clarets in fifth. They are a strong, physical side and will be difficult to beat for the third time. It will be interesting to see what sort of tactics they adopt for this clash and whether we shall see a return to the ‘hit and hoof` approach that they seemed to abandon to good effect in knocking out Preston in their play-offs semi.

In terms of form the Clarets have won nine of the last 14 league and cup matches, including the last three and it is comforting to know that despite the Blades having lost only one of the last 15 matches in all competitions that one defeat was against the Clarets!

The Blades also have never been promoted through the play-offs, although this is their fifth appearance in them so we shall have to keep that record going too.

So this is it with so much resting on one game as 36000 Clarets fans make the journey to Wembley tomorrow leaving a town buzzing with excitement and one that is decked out in Claret & Blue from the town hall clock, to shops, to homes and offices. It means so much. Come on You Clarets!!

Burnley Team News:

The Clarets will be at full strength for the final with no injury or suspensions to worry about. This will be their 61st and final game of the season. This is a remarkable number of games that only Manchester United can beat and they have used a lot more players than the modest 23 players we have used throughout our campaign this season.

Player to watch: Steven Caldwell

There will of course be a big weight on our captain`s shoulders at Wembley on Monday. He will have a big responsibility to steady the nerves of his players and ensure he gets the best out of them. While he is doing that he will also have to be a rock in the back four and lead by example.

Sheffield United Team News:

Greg Halford has been passed fit but there are doubts over Darius Henderson (Achilles), Jamie Ward(hamstring) and John-Joe O’Toole (ankle). Blades gaffer, Kevin Blackwell will give all three players fitness tests on Monday morning.

The Blades also have long term injuries to Gary Speed (back), Ugo Ehiogu (hamstring) and Gary Naysmith (crucial ligaments)

I had the opportunity recently to speak to the Blades Mad editor, Paul Holland and in an email exchange he predicted the following:

“Line-Up (4-4-2): Paddy Kenny, Kyle Walker, Chris Morgan (captain), Matthew Kilgallon, Kyle Naughton, David Cotterill, Stephen Quinn, Nick Montgomery, Greg Halford, Brian Howard, Craig Beattie. Substitutes could be anybody as they change game by game although I would expect Ian Bennatt (gk), Arturo Lupoli (st) and Billy Sharp (st) to be amongst them with l Leigh Bromby (defender) and Lee Hendrie (cm) likely to make up the players in reserve.”

Of course this assumes the three doubts fail their fitness test on Monday and I would be very surprised if they all did!

Player to watch: Greg Halford

Greg Halford picked up an Achilles injury in the Blades 2nd leg match against Preston but has made a full recovery and will be available for the final. He of course also scored the winning goal at Bramall Lane against the Lilywhites with a header in the 59th minute to put the Blades through to Wembley 1-0 on the day and 2-1 on aggregate.

The 24 year old right winger, who can also play right back was signed from Sunderland on a season long loan in July 2008 and has played 41 games for the Blades this season making some vital assists and scoring four goals.

Last Time We Met

We have already referred to the two games we have played against the Blades this season in the Championship. I am not sure psychologically whether completing the double over them this season is a help or an hindrance in our efforts to make it three in a row in our most important match this century if not our history! At least the Clarets know they can beat them and shouldn`t fear them.

To recap though, in a thrilling game at Bramall Lane back in December 2008 we came out 3-2 victors to secure our first victory on this ground since 1974! Alexander, Paterson and Eagles got the goals. The return match only last month was a very tense affair with the Clarets still fighting for a play-offs spot and the Blades seeking automatic promotion. A goal by Paterson was enough to secure victory that day with the Clarets winning 1-0.

The Wembley Roses clash will be the 120th meeting between these two sides. Sheffield United have won 49 of the previous 119 games, Burnley winning 40 matches whilst 30 have been drawn.

They stand equal in FA Cup clashes with four wins each while the one clash in the League Cup in 1966 was won by Sheffield United.

Ref Watch:

Cheshire referee, Mike Dean has been named as the referee for the Coca-Cola Championship Play-Off Final at Wembley.

Already Kevin Blackwell has been whinging about the appointment, bless!

Blackwell has described the decision to appoint Mike Dean as ‘absolutely inexplicable’. The Blades gaffer was deeply annoyed with Dean after he dismissed Matthew Kilgallon at Hillsborough last October. A game they lost 1-0

He also severely criticised the Professional Game Match Officials for asking the Premier League referee to take charge of a game that could put him in an ’embarrassing position’.

Well I think it`s a brilliant choice so there!

Match Prediction:

All Clarets fans are in turmoil trying to predict the outcome of this game. A defeat would be both unbearable and unthinkable. I have a feeling we will win but I still have a squeaky bum thinking about it! Watching the League 2 final at Wembley yesterday just brought it all home to me. The winner truly takes it all and looking at the Shrewsbury fans faces after their 1-0 defeat to Gillingham following a Gills goal in the last minute of normal play sums all the emotions up. That can`t happen to us and it won`t. 2-1 Clarets and Old Trafford next season!

Next Match

What do you say? Whoever we play at the start of the 2009/10 season, it simply has to be Premier League opposition. Whatever happens though Vital Burnley will be here again to provide you with Match previews and Match reports as the close season friendlies get underway and the new season kicks off.