Thirty-three years is a long time and in that time more than one generation of Burnley supporters has grown up on fading memories that have gone from glorious technicolor, through black & white and into sepia as time has come to pass. This evening, though, the top flight – so unrecognisable from the last time they were there – came back to Turf Moor. Burnley’s supporters, so long in the shadow of their neighbours from Blackburn and Bolton, as well as Manchester and Liverpool, had good cause for concern ahead of tonight’s match. They were outplayed at Stoke City on Saturday, and their opponents this evening were the team that most assumed would be the European champions until they ran into a red and blue striped wall in Rome last May.
For all of the talk of inevitability, however, football has a habit of finding a way to confound and amaze, but Manchester United started brightly enough and Evra crossed from the right-hand side only for Michael Owen to slide in but make fail to make contact with the ball. Burnley, however, started to push forward and the stuttering that United had displayed in squeezing past Birmingham City at Old Trafford on Saturday started to show itself again. Michael Paterson was put through but was well blocked by Ben Foster. Burnley tails, however, were up and they took the lead after nineteen minutes. Stephen Jordan’s deep cross was slightly misjudged by Patrice Evra and his header fell pleasingly for Robbie Blake, whose volley whistled past Foster and into the top corner of the goal. Turf Moor erupted into delirium and disbelief – Burnley, patronised and written off by the press, were leading against Manchester United.
It was no great surprise that Manchester United came roaring back, but they still weren’t firing on all cylinders. This wasn’t the swaggering arrogance that most people under the age of twenty-five have come to expect from Manchester United. They had clear, obvious chances, most notably when Blake tripped Evra after a smart through ball from Owen for a penalty, but Michael Carrick’s kick was mediocre to say the least and Brian Jensen saved it comfortably. Half-time came with Manchester United looking almost completely one-dimensional, and with Wayne Rooney’s face starting to turn that familiar shade of puce which happens when things aren’t going his way. It wasn’t his fault. He was being expected to be four players at the same time.
Predictably, Owen Coyle chose a more defensive formation for the second half and allowed Manchester United to come at them to an extent that one suspected that goalkeeper Brian Jensen may have needed to pull a Ned Kelly style upturned bucket over his head for extra protection. On the whole, though, he was plenty big enough to stand up for himself and he made three or four outstanding saves, including a block from a through-on-goal Ryan Giggs that was probably the moment at which it started to sink in amongst the travelling supporters behind Jensen’s goal that this wasn’t going to be their night. United continued to create half chances – a half-hearted appeal for handball against debutant Andre Bikey and a late header from Evra that flew well wide of the post – but full time blew, Turf Moor erupted and Manchester United had been beaten by the better team on the night.
One swallow does not a summer make but, to put it bluntly, Manchester United need to improve if they are to stay in touch at the top of the table. It’s all very well throwing the phrase “no one player is bigger than the club” like a hand grenade filled with cliche, but there is a Cristiano Ronaldo shaped hole in their attacking options at the moment which is leaving Wayne Rooney looking like a bhoy thrown out at sea, bobbing around aimlessly and looking desperately for someone to create something for him. Meanwhile, Burnley supporters, who are probably sick to the back teeth with being told that they are doomed this season and should just feel grateful to be invited to this party in the first place, can take a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done and the hope, however transitory it may turn out to be, that this Premier League malarkey just might not be as difficult as everyone seems to think that it is. In the Premier League this season, August continues to be the month of hope against hope.