A top-half finish could bring us some positivity for the summer, writes Jamie Smith.
Less than a fortnight ago, I wrote on these pages that the Club’s negativity was starting to have a stifling effect on the Club. The fans were bored, the team was slipping down the league and nobody was excited about going to the Turf any more.
But even now, after a 3-1 home win against bottom side Bristol City that lifted us into the top half, there’s a sign of improvement, some progress ahead of the summer.
One win in 12 has become four games unbeaten – a vast difference – while we’re up in the right half of the division, within striking of the top ten. The play-offs remain well out of reach, but we’re as close to them as the bottom three now.
Last year, a promising campaign petered out with a four-match winless run at the end of the season and we finished in 13th place with 62 points on the board.
Sean Dyche now has a great chance to show he’s had a positive impact on the Club in the few months since his arrival and a top-half finish would be something to remind his detractors of all summer.
With five games to go, including a couple of derbies at Blackpool and Leeds United next up, we’re in 11th with 54 points. It’s conceivable we’ll finish in the top half with fewer points than last year, simply due to how tight the Championship is this year.
I’ve been first in line to criticise Dyche at times, but he deserves credit for turning around a seriously concerning dip in form during February and March.
Draws against Watford and Nottingham Forest – two sides aiming for promotion – were highly creditable results, while we were very unfortunate not to win at Ewood Park.
A victory over Bristol City might be nothing to crow about, but anything less would have left us in serious trouble and we got the result we needed. Trailing 1-0 at half-time to Albert Adomah’s strike, the relegation fears were becoming all too real.
So Dyche has to be praised for leading his side to a first victory from behind since taking over at Turf Moor in October, though he has Lee Grant to thank for his superb penalty save at 2-1. Grant has strengthened his hand in his contract negotiations with some brilliant displays in recent weeks.
3-1 arguably flattered the Clarets at full-time, with Martin Paterson’s sharp finish in injury time putting the gloss on the win after Chris McCann smartly gave us the lead soon after skipper Jason Shackell – continuing his tremendous form – headed us level.
But the statistics – 25 shots for us to their three – show we were dominant throughout, as we rightly should have been against comfortably the worst team in the league.
The challenge for Dyche will now be to extend our four-match unbeaten run through the testing trips to Bloomfield Road and Elland Road in the next week, before we host league leaders Cardiff City at Turf Moor.
Wolves away and Ipswich at home brings our season to a close and it’s important we have a strong finish. League placings can make all the difference when persuading players to sign up for next season, not to mention persuading the likes of McCann, Grant and Dean Marney to sign new contracts.
Blackpool and Leeds are both still anxiously looking over their shoulders and with our 54 points looking to have sealed Championship status for next season, we can start to play with some freedom.
Sam Vokes has been restored to the starting line-up and this has helped us to score four goals in the last two games, even though he hasn’t found the net himself. He’s a real handful for defenders and he creates space for the likes of Charlie Austin and Junior Stanislas to exploit.
We lost at Middlesbrough and Huddersfield when Vokes partnered Austin at the start of the season, but since then we’ve won four, drawn one and lost one of the six matches he’s started, including a run of three straight victories when Austin was injured in January.
Perhaps next season, when he will probably lead the line in Austin’s expected absence, he will really kick on and be a Steven Thompson-type player who can improve those around him.
If the Clarets can push on and finish in the top ten – Middlesbrough in ninth spot are only a point ahead of us – Dyche can be relatively happy with himself.
The football hasn’t been fun to watch a lot of the time, but we’ve done okay considering the inevitable problems caused by losing a manager midway through a season. Eddie Howe, meanwhile, has worked miracles and has his Bournemouth side in the running for promotion. He could be back at Turf Moor next season.
Dyche will have the chance to rebuild during the summer and put his own stamp on the team. Austin’s sale should provide him with a sizeable transfer budget and we can properly start to judge him at around Christmas.
But for now, a place in the top half has to be the aim for the rest of the season.
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