MARCH 19th, 2011, proved to be a very topical day in the calendar year.
The 78th day of the annum marked a pivotal moment in the Libyan Uprising, with the United Nations endorsing multinational military intervention against Colonel Gaddafi hours, after the dictator’s unilateral cease-fire declaration. And on the same day the moon made its closest orbit to the Earth by nearly 30,000 miles in the last 18 years.
But more significantly for the Clarets, away from talk of enforced military action and astronomy, it represented a 2-0 defeat at Ashton Gate against Bristol City, as Eddie Howe’s play-off charge continued its frustrating derailment.
It may seem harsh, but there was nothing suggestive in the Clarets performance that a top six finish would be achieveable. Nathan Delfouneso’s debut strike against Hull City at the KC Stadium had moved the Clarets to within three points of Nottingham Forest in the final play-off spot with two games in hand.
However, despite results in the higher echelons of the division working in Burnley’s favour, a solitary point acquired from a trio of Championship fixtures in the previous week of action has afforded little progress. Instead current form has allowed Reading, Watford, Hull City, Leicester City, Millwall and Portsmouth back in to the fray.
Dean Marney wasn’t present in the squad for the trip to the South West, while Delfouneso and Michael Duff dropped to the bench.
In came Andre Bikey, making his first league start since the 2-0 defeat to Scunthorpe United at Turf Moor in Brian Laws’ final game in charge, Marvin Bartley for his first Clarets start, and Wade Elliott.
The latter had been employed to tuck in behind lone striker Jay Rodriguez, a move that was to backfire. The pair had limited success throughout the afternoon against a compact home defence led expertly by Steven Caulker.
It was the hosts who fired the first warning signal when Nicky Maynard span inside the area following a low corner, before sending a goalbound effort past a stranded Lee Grant, only for Elliott to head clear off the line.
Prior to Howe’s team selection, nine players had all started the opening 13 fixtures of his tenure. That statistic dropped to seven after Saturday’s game, but was forced to spiral further after Danny Fox picked up his 10th yellow card of the season, earning the full-back a two-game suspension following a tug on Albert Adomah.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce then cut inside from the left and fired an angled right-footed drive towards the near post, but his effort found the side-netting. The winger tested the Clarets keeper soon after with an identical effort, but Grant was equal to the strike.
Burnley were limited to speculative efforts which suited former England international David James. The imposing stopper gathered comfortably from Chris Eagles’ bending 20-yard free-kick before diving low to his left, tipping Ross Wallace’s drive from the edge of the area around the post.
The Clarets did go close to breaking the deadlock when a penetrative Rodriguez pass released Bartley in to the area, but an outstretched arm and a strong palm thwarted the midfielder’s attempts to round James. It looked as though the Clarets had done enough as the interval crept closer, but a ghost from Howe’s past struck to haunt his half-time team talk.
Adomah escaped down the right and whipped in a tantalising cross for former Bournemouth man Brett Pitman to bring the ball down unchallenged, before sending a half-volley past Grant and in to the roof of the net. “When the chance fell to him he was the one player you didn’t want it to fall to,” Howe said. “He tucks them away. I thought he performed very well and he looks like he’s improved from the step up.
“He scored 28 goals for us last year. He wasn’t a player at the time, when I was Bournemouth manager, that I wanted to let go, but now he’s making a new career for himself.”
Tyrone Mears claimed he had been upended in the box soon after, but referee Mark Brown, who replaced Andy Haines before kick-off, waved away the Clarets’ protests.
Maynard threatened again early in the second half, when he pierced through the Clarets defence before slipping the ball past Grant and the far post. Bikey had two opportunities to draw level with neat crosses from Eagles and Wallace, but the defender’s respective headers lacked power and soared over the crossbar.
Pitman’s clever back heel created space for strike partner Maynard on the angle of the 18-yard box midway inside the second half, but his resulting finish towards the far post was disappointing and Grant saved.
But he wasn’t to be denied five minutes later, courtesy of some shambolic defending.
A long punt clear was misjudged by Bikey, Clarke Carlisle’s pass back to Grant was underhit, and Maynard latched on to the invite before touching the ball past Grant and firing in to an empty net. That was the seventh goal conceded by the Clarets in three games.
Jordan Spence stung the palms of Grant in a bid to increase City’s advantage, while Adomah’s low volley from the edge of the area was blocked inside the six-yard box when en-route to goal.
James was equal to Mears’ set-piece with quarter-of-an-hour remaining and Rodriguez failed to bring down Eagles’ through ball, but it was the hosts that went closest to scoring again.
Pitman’s free-kick was rolled in to the path of Maynard inside the area who stole a path ahead of his marker before flicking the ball home. However, the linesman’s flag fortunately spared Burnley’s blushes. It was a performance lacking cohesion, imagination or intent; passes were mis-placed and attempts were limited to ambitious long range efforts.
Howe added: “I thought the two goals we gave away were really poor. Ultimately that’s cost us the game.
“I thought we controlled possession for long periods, although I’m disappointed we didn’t work their goalkeeper more than we did.
“It was an improved performance from our last two but still a little bit short.”
The Clarets now have nine games to save their season, starting with Ipswich Town at Turf Moor on Saturday, April 2nd.