Owen Coyle might have grabbed all the headlines in the buildup to this afternoon’s season opener – but it’s Eddie Howe who deserves them in the aftermath.
The first home game of the season is always met with great anticipation, but I expect few openers in the long, checkered history of our great Club have been approached with such voracious fervent.
It says much for the status in which supporters hold Coyle that this fixture has been every bit as eagarly-awaited as those with our neighbours down at the chicken farm. Ever since Adam Bogdan bundled over Peter Crouch, allowing Stoke’s Jonathan Walters to confirm Bolton’s Championship status, we’ve looked forward to enacting more revenge on our former boss – but had no idea we’d be allowed the opportunity so early on.
Eddie Howe has invested a much time and effort this summer into building on his squad’s mental side, with team-building and inspirational and motivational sessions – and if that is indicative of his work it’s been well worth it.
From the off we played with passion and class, demonstrated by the elation and togetherness the players showed after the goals and the final whistle. Howe wanted his players to care about the Club just as much as a fan would – and despite only two of the starting lineup having served under Coyle, each and every one of them fed off the occasion just as much as those three home stands that literally rocked when Martin Paterson and Charlie Austin sunk Bolton.
Those goals tell anything but the story of our performance. Both were scrappy and might appear to have been allowed with thanks to luck and defensive mix-ups (that’s never happened to a Coyle side before, has it?). But the reality is we tested their back four from the first ’til last and forced both goals through nothing but our own quality and determination.
Perseverance was the name of the game as Paterson opened the scoring five minutes before the end of the first half. Dean Marney, Junior Stanislas and Austin were all thwarted in quick succession – before the latter teed up Pato who could make no mistake in heading past the hopelessly stranded Bogdan to celebrate a much better opening game than he endured a year previous.
He started against Watford a year ago but after an anonymous first-half was taken off at the break, complaining of a tight thigh. That tightness turned out to be a tear that kept him out of action until December and injury problems have limited him to just a handful of appearances since helping us into the Premier League. They looked well behind him as he ran about with real purpose like the Pato we knew for terrorising defences in that promotion year.
Chris McCann was the only other player on the field remaining from that promotion squad and he looked more like his old self than was the case for much of last season. And in the heart of defence his successor to the captain’s armband – Jason Shackell – played with the leadership qualities we’ve so severely lacked since Steven Caldwell was released by Brian Laws in 2010. He never shut up, shouting instructions throughout the team from the off and was at the heart a solid structure unfamiliar for a Burnley side.
Bolton actually began the game the stronger, coming forward a couple of times but never getting close to breaking through our new-look defence.
It was McCann and Paterson that combined for the first real chance of the match. The Northern Ireland international set up the Republic of Ireland somehow-non-international to volley ever-so-narrowly over the bar. Austin then took over Jay’s role in our trademark corner kick but his shot could only start a game of penalty-box pinball and Marney, fresh from his fine strike against Port Vale, forced Bogdan into a dodgy punch for the cameras with a powerful strike from afar.
Martin Petrov hit a powerful shot inches over Lee Grant’s bar in their only threatening move of the first half not long before Pato gave the Clarets a well-deserved lead. That opening goal did had a hint of offside about it and Paterson looked to glance at the ref to make sure it was deemed legal before jumping into the gleeful arms of strike-partner Charlie Austin – but they all count, especially against Mr Coyle. It was pretty much the last action of the half.
Burnley continued to create all the chances after the restart and it didn’t take too long for the visiting defence to get themselves in an almighty muddle once again. This time it was more straight-forward – a wicked cross from Stanislas slipped perfectly in-between Bogdan and his defence – nobody knew what anybody else was doing until one of them aimlessly whacked the ball against Charlie Austin, from whom it flew into the back of the net.
Like the first, it had much more to it than might first seem apparent. Yes the ‘keeper looked lost and yes we got lucky that the defender’s clearance hit Charie – but they were forced mistakes. That cross really was perfectly placed – intentionally or otherwise – to cause mayhem and confusion and Charlie Austin’s fierce pressuring did the rest.
Judas brought on Chris Eagles, who might have expected the chorus of boos he received even if they were not totally deserved, in an attempt to stage a comeback but it was Burnley that could have had more. Bogdan saved well twice from Paterson as we began to play with added caution, focused more on retaining the lead than increasing it.
We had a bit of a shuffle when Eddie took off Stanislas for Ben Mee, who slotted in at left-back with impressive debutant Joseph Mills pushing up to the left of midfield. Sam Vokes came on for his second Clarets debut in place of Pato and while Bolton were allowed more of the ball they never did anything to suggest our two-goal advantage – and place at the top of the Championship – was in any doubt. We ended the match with four new signings on the pitch as Brian Stock was introduced to help us through the final moments.
I expected Owen Coyle to dominate this match report – after all he played a huge part in the build-up and in creating the sort of fiery atmosphere that we hadn’t heard ringing around Harry Potts Way since beating Manchester United three years ago – but on reflection an outstanding Burnley performance limited his role to little more than that of an extra.
This really was a first class EDDIE HOWE team performance. When he was appointed in January of last year Mr Howe said it would take a few years for him to build a Burnley side that reflected all of his ideas, he emphasised the need for patience in introducing new elements to the squad and it’s game.
If this is a work in progress, I can’t wait to see the final product. It’s important not to get carried away by one game – but if we can play with 50% of that fluidity, passion and class through the season it might well end up being a very special one indeed.
For all the focus on Coyle – and he did get much attention from the home fans – the crowd was at it’s loudest and most excitable when celebrating the current leader. The hairs on the back of the neck stood to attention as calls of “Eddie Howe’s Claret and Blue Army” sounded around the stadium. What began as the Owen Coyle match was now most certainly Eddie Howe’s.
It would not only be unfair to pick one standout individual for man-of-the-match – it would also prove pretty much impossible. Jason Shackell was a rock and his influence was clear to see already and David Edgar looked much more comfortable than ever before – this could be a very strong partnership. Chris McCann played with the confidence he lacked last season - where he might have stopped and passed sideways a few months ago he now looked on to take on defenders directly.
Martin Paterson has finally returned from 2009 and Charlie Austin was as hungry as he was effective – between them they terrorised Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts. Dean Marney bossed the game like a good Premier League player. Kieran Trippier was Kieran Trippier and put the sulker in white to shame. Joseph Mills was very solid with excellent positional sense, a strong tackle and looked comfortable going forward. Ross Wallace and Junior Stanislas caused Adam Bogdan all sorts of trouble with their balls int0 the box.
Not everyone was outstanding, though. Lee Grant didn’t do anything special – but that’s through no fault of his own. For he did nothing at all. We could have had John Spicer between the sticks and won comfortably.
What a day. What a match. What a performance. I love you Burnley Football Club.