It has been a busy month for Wembley Stadium. So stratospheric were the costs of building it that there is an element of danger that it will lose its sense of mystique before it has the chance to develop one. This month alone it has already played host to three play-off finals, the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals and has the FA Cup final yet to come. Last month it hosted two FA Cup semi-finals. No wonder they’ve been having problems with the pitch. This match is the third to be played on it this weekend. On Saturday, Gillingham beat Shrewsbury Town in the League Two play-off final by a single goal, and yesterday Scunthorpe United booked their place in the Championship with a thrilling 3-2 win against Millwall.
In the semi-finals, Sheffield United squeezed through against Preston North End by a single goal, while Burnley cruised through against Reading. Owen Coyle’s Burnley team are probably the form team, but Sheffield United finished the season in third place, four places above their Lancastrian rivals. In the build-up to the match, the Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell has expressed his displeasure at the decision to appoint Mike Dean as the referee for this match after Dean sent off United’s Matthew Kilgallon in a recent Sheffield derby match against Wednesday. “I’ve spoken to the people that matter, who do the appointments, because it’s not fair on Mike Dean, Kevin Blackwell or Sheffield United football club, because our last meeting was less than amicable. Now he suddenly turns up for our biggest game and the biggest club game in the world”, said Blackwell. Well, it’s nice to know that Blackwell considers the referee avoiding embarrassment to be paramount.
A warm, sunny Bank Holiday afternoon and a crowd of over 80,000 at Wembley welcomes the teams out. The Championship play-off final used to be an annually thrilling match, as players threw off the shackles of tactical sensibility to stretch every sinew in order to force their way over the finishing line, but times have changed. Perhaps the imposing venue gets to them. Maybe it’s all the talk of money – this used to be described as “the £10m match”, but the number then started to rise inexorably before stabilising at “the £50m match” – that has started to paralyse teams. The performance of Stoke City – and to a lesser extent Hull City – in the Premier League this season demonstrates that relegation isn’t inevitable for clubs aiming for a place at the top table, though.
Burnley start the stronger of the two teams, but what turns out to be the only goal of the match comes from the first clear goalscoring opportunity. Wade Elliott pushes through the middle and feeds the ball to Chris McCann. McCann’s shot is blocked but the ball runs back to Elliott, who thumps the ball into the top corner to give Burnley the lead. Sheffield United pushes forward in search of an equaliser, but their direct approach has clearly been anticipated by Burnley manager Owen Coyle, whose central defenders comfortably tidy up the long, sweeping balls that are lofted towards the edge of the penalty area. Half-time comes with Burnley having comfortably held onto their lead.
In the early stages of the second half Sheffield United continue to look for a short cut to the Burnley goal, but Burnley continue to show greater invention and look more likely to score again. Steve Thompson’s header down from a corner is stabbed wide by Michael Duff, and soon afterwards a deep cross is headed back across the goal by Thompson, but Joey Gudjonsson’s prod towards an open goal is somehow blocked by Nick Montgomery. Sheffield United are clinging on in this match by their fingernails. For the first fifteen minutes of the second half, it has looked more like a damage limitation exercise for Sheffield United than a serious attempt to get promotion.
When they do get the ball down on the floor, though United show that they are capable of dragging themselves back into this match, but they suffer for the quality of their final ball into the penalty area. They have a couple of appeals for penalties turned down (one convincing, one less so), but a team that is dependent upon the benevolance of the referee in order to get a clear shot on target should probably be looking at itself rather than the match official. With ten minutes left to play, United’s final chance goes. A long ball into the penalty area seems to have got away from Jamie Ward, but his deliberate handball is spotted by the referee, who issues Ward his his second yellow card.
Burnley, then, are back in the top division for the first time since 1976. They will get the chance to reacquaint themselves with their rivalry with Blackburn Rovers, and matches against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Wolves may also cause a stirring in the loins of men of a certain age. More than anything else, though, this has been a triumph for Owen Coyle. He spent less than £3m last summer, and Burnley’s success has stood in his tactical acumen. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, being linked with the newly-vacant Celtic job. Whether he will want to give up on his project at Turf Moor is another matter. At the end of a sixty-one match season, though, one suspects that they thoroughly deserve their summer break and their chance in the big time.