MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 2 Burnley 1
JUST when Wanderers’ season looked destined for the intensive care ward, an injection of new blood might just have given them a new lease of life.
There was no ignoring the league table after last week’s defeat at Watford, just as there was no disguising the fact that just after 4.15pm on Saturday, Dougie Freedman’s side were 1-0 down against Burnley and actually level on points with the bottom three.
For a few dreadful minutes that realisation seemed to dawn on the Reebok too – possibly accounting for the negative reaction when soon-to-be matchwinners Craig Davies and David Ngog emerged from the bench.
But credit where credit is due; Freedman made that call and was proved correct.
Indeed, the Wanderers manager has come in for some stick in recent weeks, but it was his defensive addition, Craig Dawson, who provided the backbone of this derby victory.
Another January loan signing, Steve de Ridder, showed for an hour that his hustle and bustle – which helped Southampton clinch the Championship title last season – could be an exciting addition.
Most important of all, Freedman’s first permanent capture, Craig Davies, gave us a brief glimpse of why he was elevated to hero status at his previous two clubs, Chesterfield and Barnsley.
Fresh blood, fresh perspective. In fact, you could argue a new spine to the team.
And even though it was an old boy in Ngog who finally clinched victory over the Clarets with a wonderful finish, the promise of Medo, David Wheater, Mark Davies and Matt Mills to add into this mix over the last 16 games is an intriguing prospect to say the least.
Of course we have been here before, and the swallow-summer analogy has been used so many times around the Reebok this season that you wonder whether May will ever arrive.
But while some fans would have been wishing away the remaining third of the season after Vicarage Road last weekend, this result might just rekindle a little bit of hope.
Freedman had made three changes, drafting in Dawson and De Ridder for debuts and Tyrone Mears against his former club. Tim Ream, Josh Vela and Sam Ricketts made way.
Local derbies are rarely feasts of football and the early going was not easy to watch.
Darren Pratley excelled in the nitty gritty, making one superb clearance after Ross Wallace and Dean Marney had combined well in the penalty box to drive a low cross towards Clarets hitman Charlie Austin. It was as close as the striker got to adding to his 24 goals this term, and another minor victory for Freedman’s preparation.
Wanderers’ early threat came almost exclusively from set pieces. Dawson was the target, and after putting one effort disappointingly wide and having another blocked by Lee Grant’s legs, the defender may have wondered if this was going to be his day.
He need not have worried. On the few occasions Burnley did get behind full-backs Mears and Marcos Alonso, the defending in the penalty box was generally top notch.
Making inroads into the Burnley back four was slow going, however, not least for Clarets old boy Chris Eagles, whose very public battle with form continues unabated.
Playing just in behind sole striker Marvin Sordell, Eagles went for the extravagant when the simple would have done. His effort cannot be questioned but one wonders whether this is the time for Freedman to give him an overdue rest.
I find myself willing the former Manchester United man to catch a break – but his two chances to get a confidence-boosting goal were snatched at just before half time.
Wanderers had been defending so well, the ease with which Burnley opened the scoring was incredible.
Junior Stanislas swung a corner into the back post, headed across goal by Marney with minimal fuss, and then over the line from close range by David Edgar.
There was an argument that the corner should not have been given in the first place, as the ball seemed to come off Wallace and not Mears.
The question has to be asked, though, why Jay Spearing – at 5ft 6ins – was the only man to try to intervene.
The mood soured. Elsewhere, the likes of Peterborough, Bristol City, Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday were picking up points. This was getting serious.
So when Freedman called for Ngog and Davies to change the attacking direction – it was hard to fathom quite why the jeers poured down quite so heavily.
De Ridder had run his race by then, and Sordell had cut a lonely figure without much support. That Eagles remained on the pitch was perhaps the reason for all the negativity, but that seems harsh in the extreme.
Thankfully, we did not have long to dwell on it. Eight minutes after he came off the bench, Davies was celebrating after steering an excellent cross from Chung-Yong past Grant with a deft header.
The subs ran the show from there on in.
Grant denied Davies with a last-ditch save after he had run on to a clever pass from Ngog and poked the ball towards goal, and Burnley’s desperate defending saw goal-bound efforts from Dawson and Alonso repelled on the goalline.
Alonso had been quieter than in recent weeks but nearly grabbed a spectacular winner with a 25-yard free kick that was pushed away superbly by Grant at the foot of his post.
Wanderers kept the pressure on from the throw-in and when sub Kevin Davies kept the ball alive in the box, Spearing’s wild blast at goal was seized upon with clinical coolness by Ngog, who arced a low shot into the bottom corner for his fifth goal of the season.
Pressure lifted, it was party time. Burnley’s spirit was damaged beyond repair and there was no route back into the game after that.
With a mixture of new signings and returning casualties, Wanderers may yet succeed in reinventing themselves in the next few weeks and finish this season on a high.
It is with cautious optimism we look to next weekend’s trip to Nottingham Forest and, dare I say it, the league table?