EDDIE Howe celebrated his first anniversary as Burnley boss with arguably his side’s most complete performance to date.
And the manner of this victory at The Riverside suggests the Clarets have to be taken seriously as potential play-off material.
While Howe was unconcerned with his personal milestone, the media are fond of measuring clubs, managers and players by dates and numbers – and the former Bournemouth chief’s figures certainly stack up.
Going into the game, Burnley boasted the same amount of points as they had at the same stage last season, remarkable considering the turnover of players and loss of real quality and experience, and the need for prudence in view of the onset of Financial Fair Play rules.
The difference from last term is level of expectation, and while the squad underachieved last term, this younger, streamlined group is ahead of schedule and justifying Howe’s faith that the future is bright.
Whether that means fulfilling ambitions this season – lying just three points outside the play-off places – or further down the line, it’s clear the manager and players are very much on the right track.
It’s a far cry from November, when four straight defeats sent the side hovering over the danger zone, when I, among others, wondered that, even if there was much to admire in the performances, defensive lapses were not exceptions, but almost the rule, and a significant Achilles’ heel.
Seven wins in nine league games later, and, in the main, hard graft has been rewarded with greater defensive solidity, while the flair and attacking threat remains as potent.
All this with a young side that has vast potential for improvement.
There have been a number of memorable performances, unusually for Burnley the majority of which have been away from home.
But Saturday topped the lot – the performance against Southampton that deserved better, the hammering of Nottingham Forest, the intelligent performance in victory at promotion favourites West Ham and more.
The Clarets managed to combine a defensive organisation and resilience, with an attractive brand of attacking, intelligent, incisive and entertaining football.
It sounds obvious, for a group of professional footballers, but, it was apparent that, to a man, each and every player knew their exact role, individually and collectively, showing real confidence in the way they have been asked to play – they were a joy to watch.
The last time I found myself saying that about Burnley, was in the promotion season – and this side have only four fewer points than they had at the same stage that campaign, with as many away wins in the bank as they achieved all season.
The Clarets needed to find the consistency in performances and results to go with their undoubted ability, and they certainly have over the last two months.
Over the season they have the third best away record in the division, but the 18th best at home – although successive wins at Turf Moor point to improvement there.
It all adds up to an important few days, in terms of games, with Derby to come north on Saturday, and in terms of the transfer window.
If the club can stay strong amid inevitable interest in Jay Rodriguez – who got his 14th goal of the season at Boro, and was pretty much unplayable – and add to the squad, there could be real substance to the chants heard in the away end after the game – up the Football League we go indeed!
Howe’s men set the tone from the off here, pressing high, forcing mistakes and moving the ball at pace.
Martin Paterson was a great outball with his pace in behind, helping create space for Rodriguez to operate in, and the pair caused countless problems.
The Clarets were ahead after six minutes from their trademark training ground corner routine – which was also successful against Boro at the Turf in April.
Ross Wallace drilled the ball to the penalty spot where David Edgar dummied, and Rodriguez unerringly found the corner.
Burnley kept Boro at arm’s length while continuing to create chances, as a smart piece of skill saw Rodriguez turn and loop a half volley agonisingly wide, before, from a quite superb cross with the outside of his right boot, Junior Stanislas delivered an enticing ball for Paterson, who sent his effort beyond the far post.
You wondered whether the Clarets would pay for not taking advantage of their supremacy when Ben Mee’s throw in was headed clear to Kieran Trippier, and his half volley, from fully 35 yards, dipped and kicked up to beat Connor Ripley – son of Stuart – on his full debut.
There was a let off when a lucky ricochet presented Justin Hoyte with a great crossing opportunity – after Stanislas had done the hard work and tracked the full-back back, only to switch off – but Scott McDonald’s air shot saw the chance squandered.
You expected a response from Boro after the break – especially with Lukas Jutkiewicz, who will tie up a £3m switch from Coventry imminently, on the bench – but Burnley put bodies on the line and defended stoutly with great discipline.
Not that they were overly stretched, even when Tony Mowbray threw the dice and introduced Jutkiewicz alongside McDonald and Marvin Emnes.
Mee felt he should have had a penalty when his shot struck Hoyte’s hand, while Wallace almost compounded Ripley’s day to forget when he almost scored direct from a corner, only for former Clarets loanee Rhys Williams to spare his blushes on the line.
Lee Grant made his first save of the game with a minute remaining to deny substitute Tony McMahon from point blank range, as Burnley ran out convincing winners.
The only downside were the hamstring injuries suffered by both Stanislas and Paterson, who could potentially be out for up to six weeks each, but this could prove a real red letter day for the development of this side, as Howe brings the feelgood factor back to the club.