FORMER Claret Russell Anderson summed up what everyone was thinking when he saw Chris McCann in the tunnel after the game: “Good to see you back!”
Anderson will know from personal experience the lows McCann will have gone through as he has spent the best part of 19 months on the sidelines.
The Scottish international suffered, as McCann did, a cruciate knee ligament injury the year before, four games into a loan spell with Burnley from Sunderland early in the promotion season.
And though McCann put the seal on defeat for Anderson’s Rams, it said a lot that he could spare a thought for his old teammate after enduring a torrid afternoon. McCann, after just over four hours’ reserve team action, was thrown in at the deep end at Pride Park, after Dean Marney suffered a recurrence of a medial knee ligament problem.
But it was as if he had never been away, as he helped inspire a performance and victory that put Burnley level on points with Nottingham Forest and Leeds for the final play-off slot, going into the last three games.
The Dubliner was fast-tracked into the first team by yesterday’s visiting manager Steve Cotterill, and described by Owen Coyle as the “photofit of a modern midfielder” – a player capable of playing in the Premier League week in, week out.
That chance was cruelly robbed from him seven games into last season, and Brian Laws would see only McCann play 100 minutes in his reign.
Eddie Howe, another to go through the same injury as McCann, has been impressed by what he has seen in training and reserve games, and showed great trust in starting him at Derby.
What looked a calculated gamble at the outset proved nothing of the sort, as the 23-year-old came roaring through the game better than anyone could have dreamed.
He rattled into a tackle to test out his knee in the opening 30 seconds, and generally looked like the Chris McCann we all know and love – and have missed greatly. Composed in possession, using the ball intelligently, winning back the ball, dominant in the air and striding box to box, eating up the ground, while providing a goal threat.
He produced a remarkable performance in his first taste of first team football in 15 months, and that was before he advanced and drilled in Burnley’s fourth goal 16 minutes from time.
He admitted after that he didn’t know what to do when he scored – coming two years after his last goal, on the same ground.
There could be no more apt place than Pride Park, with a real outpouring of emotion from his team-mates, who mobbed him to a man, to the travelling support who belted out his name.
Martin Paterson said it would be like signing a five-million pound player when McCann returned – a lovely gesture, but somewhat underselling his mate in the current climate!
We can only imagine what might have been had McCann been fit last season and this, but it is time to look forward, and what a mouthwatering prospect seeing him and Jack Cork in the same midfield.
The pair ran the show as Burnley built on Tuesday’s fabulous win over Middlesbrough, with another stunning display of attacking football.
In the first half they were put under pressure by a Derby side who mixed up some nice interplay with more direct stuff; pace merchant Theo Robinson giving Danny Fox as uncomfortable a 45 minutes as he has endured all season.
The Rams were ahead within five minutes as Stephen Pearson fed the ball into the near post, and Robinson got across to finish well.
Then Jamie Ward, part of a fluid front three, dragged a shot wide of the near post after warhorse Robbie Savage’s flick-on took Fox out of the game.
As Burnley struggled to get a foothold in the game, Pearson pulled the ball across the face of goal after John Brayford’s cross was deflected, before James Bailey shot over the top.
But once Burnley got to grip with Derby’s extra man in central midfield, they began to get in behind Ward down their right, isolating Anderson with Wade Elliott and Tyrone Mears.
It was from this area that the Clarets had much joy, with the equaliser coming on 15 minutes as Elliott’s centre was headed down by Jay Rodriguez, and Chris Iwelumo held the ball up for Chris Eagles, who almost nonchalantly passed the ball inside the far corner.
Moments later, Rodriguez was forced wide by a heavy touch from another Ellliott centre, and fired wide.
Burnley continued to look the more likely, and Elliott saw a shot turned around the post by Brad Jones, after Iwelumo flicked on Brian Jensen’s clearance.
However, against the run of play, a Derby corner was headed away by skipper Michael Duff, but Ward’s shot took a deflection and found the net.
Derby ended the half on top, and it looked like Burnley had a job on their hands after the break – even more so when Jensen had to come out to save from Pearson just after the break.
From that moment onwards, there was only one winner as the Clarets came forward in waves, piecing together scintillating attacking moves.
McCann dragged a shot narrowly wide, before Burnley’s trademark corner routine almost reaped dividends again, Eagles dummying Fox’s kick for Rodriguez, whose shot was blocked by Davies.
A goal looked imminent, and when Savage lunged at Eagles, who appeared to nick the ball away from the Welshman, ‘penalty’ was the cry.
The referee was unmoved, but moments later, Eagles threaded a superb pass for Tyrone Mears, who looked certain to score before Ward intervened, and, like at Wembley, was sent off against the Clarets. With half an hour to play against 10, Burnley scented blood, and though Eagles’ penalty was saved by Jones, he followed up to make it 2-2.
The Clarets continued to raid down the right, with a desperate block denying Iwelumo a gilt-edged chance from a Mears pass.
However, Burnley got in front for the first time when Elliott, the shortest player in the box, rose superbly to hit home a header from a pin-point Eagles cross, before McCann sealed the win with a daisy-cutter to crown a magnificent performance.
It took Burnley’s tally of points from losing positions to 29 for the season, and if the Clarets can ally that fighting spirit to their sublime football in the last three games, who knows where it can take them.