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‘Snow when the Saints go marching to Burnley’

The trip to Burnley is always trying, let alone when the village you derive from has been submerged by a blanket of snow. Sure, the conditions were welcome Friday, hazardous roads meaning a lay off from work, however, the novelty soon wore off. Having booked to undergo the journey via coach from St. Mary’s (seemingly ingenious at the time, supposedly allowing for a relaxed, stress free coast up the motorway), this meant a 5am alarm, allowing enough time to depart Wiltshire and make it to Southampton prior to the 7:15am departure. With the snowfall unrelenting, as it finally began to ease Friday evening, I wisely took the opportunity to rid the car of its dusting, hoping to alleviate the following morning’s pressure somewhat.

The village of Chilmark, my lifelong home is a quaint part of the world, particularly picturesque in such a wintery setting, resembling a scene you might expect to see on a festive card. With it being situated in a dip though, the love in was soon brought to a halt as we attempted to escape its confines, the first leg of the embark up to Lancashire more problematic than usual. Thankfully, a combination of low speed and low gears saw the test passed, despite a couple of close shaves with the back tyres slaloming upon the naked to the eye ice as tight corners were weaved through. With Chilmark conquered, it was onto the rest of the journey, a relative doddle in comparison.

Having left home slightly earlier, taking no chances with the adverse conditions, we made good time and arrived in one of the official club car parks that sits outside the Northam stand in great time, before the coaches themselves in fact. Aiming to avoid being subjected to the cold for any longer than was necessary, we sheltered in the car before the car park barrier raised once more, coach 1 majestically passing through – I could hear the roar of the crowd in my mind already. 

Once parked up, we darted to the bus, one of five on the day. In doing so, passing countless familiar faces that make up the club’s hardcore support, just about registering the fact in such a weary state, sleepwalking onto the coach as our seats were made aware to us. Touching on those aforementioned supporters – the die hard contingent that are in attendance week in, week out never fail to amaze me. Since the first away game I drove to back in 2009, a short trip to Swindon’s County ground (a 1-0 reverse on a cool Tuesday August evening – how far we’ve come), Dad and I have struck up many friendships, born through the acknowledgement of a genuine shared love for the football club. It is these very individuals who are the lifeblood of Saints, testament to the club, present through the hard and good, player and managerial departures – truly those that make the game we all know and love so much what it is today.

Having arose at such an unearthly hour, the majority of the journey’s first stint was used to catch up on some much needed shut eye, that was, until, our somewhat questionable driver decided to make a misjudgement whilst collecting fans at Chieveley. The lapse in concentration lead to a huge crash as the curb was overly intimately met, causing me to jump out of my skin and thus went further sleep as I had hoped for – the things we do for football. After a brief stop for a warm beverage at Norton Canes service station, just prior to Staffordshire’s M6 Toll, we powered on up the country. As the clock passed twelve midday, rolls so lovingly made by Mum were foraged out of our well-travelled rucksack and demolished in no time at all, the journey taking its toll, no pun intended M6. 

After some vital research carried out in the week, I had targeted a well respected nearby pub and therefore, to allow for more drinking time, food was taken care of during the journey – forever a method to my madness. Burnley – a town synonymous with the infamous away chant “this is a shithole, I wanna go home” but in actual fact, this could not be further from the truth. The area is actually one of natural beauty, forming a part of the Pennines and as we drew closer, I gazed on in awe out of the coach window, digesting the breath-taking sight of snow draped hills and frozen canal systems. 

Arriving outside Turf Moor at 1:30pm meant plenty of time to seek out The Bridge Bier Huis, a pub renowned for its unrivalled selection of beers, and one that is recognised by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). I punched its details into my phone’s map app and typically, we were taken on the longest possible route. What should have been a five minute amble actually quadrupled in time as we bravely (some may judge stupidly) set out to tackle the town’s thickly ice riddled pavements. Dad did his best Gemma Collins impression on a couple of occasions but we survived, despite the sternest of tests from Burnley’s meandering gradients and at last, our chosen destination for a pre match tipple stood in front of us.

If you ever find yourself in the pretty, old worldly town of Burnley, I cannot recommend this pub enough. Welcoming home and away fans (how it should be in my view) and offering quite possibly the finest selection of alcohol I’ve ever seen (everything from cider to ale and even international alternatives) – many options at just £2.50 per pint also, you can’t go wrong. The bar staff wear Burnley colours but there is no antagonism whatsoever. Locals were welcoming, well mannered and although often receiving a bad press, I’ve never experienced any issues with Burnley supporters and on the whole, the majority are happy to help out and simply talk football, regardless of your allegiance.

The plan had been to meet good friend and former schoolmate of Dad’s Clive at the pub and this came to fruition seamlessly. In actual fact, the first encounter had occurred a few hours previous at the service station. Clive, a train driver by trade, usually attends matches by way of train track but, in typical British fashion, strikes on the Northern Line were scheduled for 5pm. Therefore, he was forced to slum it on a supporters coach, an even more dragged out journey considering he resides in Bournemouth. Quickly preying upon the fact that his self and I were kitted out in the current yellow away shirt during the chance meeting in Staffordshire, Dad not so, was in for victimisation, Clive disgusted by Dad’s lacking in this department, as well as a questionable claret coloured jumper.

Reacquainted in our pub of choice for the afternoon, Clive kindly bought the first round in and we all elected for a Moorhouse’s Pendle Ale – Being a Moorhouse’s owned pub, the decision to sample their staple beer was a simple one. With the incredible array of drinks and ridiculously low prices (when compared with the South at least), the pub was understandably packed and wading through the sea of people at the bar in search of seating, beer in tact, was no certainty. Sheer determination however, saw us prevail, there was simply no chance of a single drop being spilt, proud of the efforts we had gone to in order to secure. 

There was a gathering of Saints fans near the entrance and we opted to join, a teenage away supporter kindly giving up his seat for the old man. Speaking of which, Dad seems to have an unrivalled ability when it comes to downing pints, bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘blind drunk’ – his excuse? “There’s forever a hole in the bottom of my glass!”. I soon caught up and we debated a second pint for good measure, the move questioned somewhat considering the time (40 or so minutes to kick-off) and presence at the bar. Ultimately the temptation of further prime value Lancashire hops prevailed and Dad dug deep this time, fighting off the cobwebs off his wallet in order to treat us to the next round.

Whilst waiting at the bar, my mate Aydin saw us and came over for a natter. Aydin’s a top lad, albeit a Saints fan based at the wrong end of the country. I got talking to him initially through Twitter, met him for the first time at Molineux earlier in the season and if you’re looking for someone genuine, with a serious passion for all things red and white, I couldn’t recommend anyone higher – give him a follow @Aydin_Osman96. When four like minded individuals, all with a similar passion for the same football club are bound together, time is all too easily frittered away and having checked Dad’s wizardly talking watch, it turned out that the match was under 30 mins away from commencing.

Bearing this in mind, we drank up, well most of us, Aydin wisely electing for a bottle instead, allowing for every ounce to be relished during the walk to Turf Moor. Thankfully, with a small army of Saints fans now in tow, we trod the shorter route. Burnley is almost a throwback to old worldly industrialised England, littered with cobbled roads and disused factories from a bygone era. As the Saints talk continued, we travelled under a road bridge – locals had humorously emblazoned the tall structure with a sign welcoming new recruit Peter Crouch, warming him to ‘mind his head’ in reference to the striker’s lanky frame. On the other side of the road was ‘The Royal Dyche’ pub, renamed after last season’s heroics which saw The Clarets qualify for a Europa League berth. Past the Cricket Club to the tune of programme sellers hollering in the ice cold air, the away turnstile had been arrived at, at this point the four of us parted ways in search of our seats for the game.

In the week leading up to the game, I had been in touch with Burnley in the hope of securing radio commentary for Dad. The endeavour lead to me liaising with Hannah, Supporter Liaison Officer at Turf Moor. Hannah was fantastic to Dad and I, going the extra mile, providing a map of the ground, commenting on road conditions and even giving out her mobile number – offering to bring a hearing loop to our seats if necessary. Considering the late arrival and desire for a pub stop, I took Hannah up on this offer, texting to notify her we were heading to the ground and once inside, she was waiting, even handing over two loops in the event of any issues with the first. In 10 years or so of regularly attending away games, I can wholeheartedly say Hannah’s service was the best I’ve ever experienced and it is people like her who are the unsung heroes at football clubs up and down the country.

In previous trips to Turf Moor, we have always been situated high up in a corner, feeling somewhat distant from the action. This time however, Dad outdid his self, booking tickets directly behind a goal, right in the thick of it. The away end at Turf Moor is long past its sell by date to say the least. Comprising of wooden seats and little leg room, The Labrokes Stand, as it is now referred to, is not one for the faint hearted. I like to think that its one for the purists though, offering an opportunity to reflect on an entirely different era, one consisting of full blooded challenges, very modestly paid footballers and shorts resembling speedos.

Saints hadn’t won at Turf Moore since 2007 and in recent years, the fixture has failed to produce much goalmouth action. In trying to put this to bed, Hasenhuttl made two changes from the draw at home to Palace. In came midfielder Slattery for his full debut, stepping in for Hojbjerg (presumably still ailing from the head injury sustained against the Eagles) and Armstrong, as the Austrian went more attack minded than was the case last time out.

Saints started brightly and the first real opportunity fell to former Claret Ings, who latched onto a rangy pass from Targett. The incisive pass cut through the Burnley rear guard, only for goalkeeper Heaton to impose himself, alertly leaving his line to thwart a strike that ultimately was aimed directly at him. Next, it was Targett who went from provider to threat, unfortunate to just miss out on latching onto Ward-Prowse’s delivery before Slattery was unable to redirect Redmond’s clipped ball into the opposing area.

Burnley, a different proposition than the side that struggled early on in the season, winning their last 3 home matches responded. Tricky winger Dwight McNeil was giving Ward-Prowse all he could handle at the unfamiliar position of Right Wing Back and it was his tempting delivery from a corner that was met by Mee. The ball eventually fell to Barnes but the colossal figure of Vestergaard was present to block superbly. Ralph was then forced into an unintended change, Ings limping off to be replaced by Long. I’m a big fan of Ings, a local lad, blessed with a footballing brain and clinical up top. However, his injury record continues to raise red flags and it’s certainly cause for concern ahead of the club’s obligation to shell out in the region of £20 million to Liverpool for his permanent signature in the summer.

Shortly after, with 30 minutes on the clock, McNeil put his blazing speed to good use, slaloming down the left wing before teeing up Wood. The burly forward timed his run well, cutting into the Saints box but rather than cutting back for a better positioned teammate, went for glory himself and blazed over the bar. Saints were hugely fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty in the next passage of play. The deft touch of Barnes brought down a high ball over the defence beautifully and the striker then took it around McCarthy who went to ground, appearing to wipe out the former Brighton man with the ball long gone. Remarkably though, referee Anthony Taylor signalled for a free kick the other way and booked Barnes for simulation. 

Minutes after the restart, Burnley were almost architects of their own downfall. Attempting to clear their lines was so very nearly costly, Wood attempting to head away to safety, only to divert towards his own goal but fortunately for those of a home persuasion, Bardsley anticipated the danger and cleared. The pressure was becoming too much for the home side and when Bednarek forwarded onto Redmond, the speedster, given a free role under Hasenhuttl leading to renewed verve and confidence, had nothing but attack on his mind. Goal bound he strode, former Saint Jack Cork having his legs tangled in the process before an unstoppable rasping drive was unleashed, nestling in the bottom corner, Heaton no chance whatsoever. As the ball rippled into the net, the away end went wild, countless rapturous fans spilling into different rows. Personally I came off worse in a battle with the sturdy wooden seat in front, not that I cared whatsoever with Saints now ahead.

When the signing of Peter Crouch was announced on deadline day, I instantly feared that he would play a part in the outcome of Saturday’s match, so typical being a former Saint. With fifteen minutes remaining, he was given an opportunity to, Sean Dyche handing him a debut for the departing Wood. It almost paid instant dividends as Crouch battled for a high ball with Bednarek, limbs flailing everywhere, with the ball falling to Barnes who was denied by McCarthy. Burnley almost went one better when Gudmundsson’s flick on was followed on by Barnes but his thunderous volley rattled the crossbar before going behind for a goal kick.

When all looked set and done, Saints having seemingly survived the worst on the way to a pivotal three points, disaster struck. Westwood launched long for Crouch, Burnley having desperately adopted a route one approach and the huge target man headed onto the raised hand of Stephens. Crouch appeared to be fouling Stephens in the build up, Jack perhaps trying to make the referee aware of this but you always run a risk of punishment with a raised hand in your own area. Taylor pointed to the spot and Barnes made no mistake, undoubtedly adamant to make the most of the awarding, having been shockingly denied a stone wall penalty earlier on in the game.

So a point in the end, admittedly it felt like a loss considering the heartbreaking climax but having said that, I’d have been happy with the result prior to the match. Burnley have been resurgent of late, almost snatching all 3 points at Old Trafford against an all conquering United side and therefore, I think putting everything into perspective, a draw was more than respectable and probably a fair outcome on the day. With regards to the conceded penalty, some of the vilification received by Jack Stephens on social media post game was disgusting and I truly feel that certain supporters of ours need to get a grip. You could see how heartbroken he was as he pleaded with fans before heading down the tunnel after the final whistle and on the day, Jack put in yet another all action performance full of heart and passion. People forget that he’s still acclimatising to regular Premier League football, other managers often having left him out, not to mention an entirely different playing style under Hasenhuttl and the decision itself was debatable considering the part Crouch played – though admittedly you simply can’t raise your arm in your own area. That being said, Jack rarely puts a foot wrong, fantastic with the ball at his feet and underrated aerially. He’s a fantastic player, even better person and I just wish people would support the team sometimes rather than looking for a scapegoat as has regularly been the case in years gone by – Yoshida, Redmond etc.

Unfortunately due to inclement weather our women’s side saw their encounter at Winchester Flyer’s postponed. They are due in action again next Sunday, Oxford City the visitors for a crucial top of the table clash. The Under-23s were in action though, a daunting trip to Lancashire to take on the might of Manchester United. With a chance to take top spot, Saints had extra incentive to seek out maximum points but in truth, were forced endure the majority of the contest devoid of possession. Livewire Mason Greenwood turned and fed Chong down the right, only to see his first time shot sail harmlessly over the bar. 

Greenwood was again involved, striking low but Rose stood up to the test in the Saints goal. Attempting to fight back by way of the counter. Smallbone linked up with Marcus Barnes, one of many youngsters promoted to the first team under Hasenhuttl this season, sadly this time his effort was blocked. Realising possession was going to be hard to come by, the visitors stuck to their best form of attack, countering once more and this time it proved devastating. Full Back Vokins bombed down the left and was picked out by Smallbone, the influential midfielder playing a Quarterback like role. Vokins centred and the delivery was trapped wonderfully by Afolabi, who swivelled on a sixpence and buried hard and low. 

Saints held onto the lead until the break but their mettle was tested profusely in the second period. Bernard saw a long range effort saved,  whilst Aaron O’Driscoll and Tom O’Connor proved their worth, the Irish duo both turning efforts off the line. Rose earner his wages between the sticks once more, matching a shot from Gomes but that was far from the last action he’d see as the game entered its final 10 minutes. Tanner swung a cross into the area for Sub Bohui but his header flew over the bar by only a few agonising inches. It was now do or die for the hosts and Greenwood, a nuisance all evening tried his luck but it was that man again, Rose, who scuttled across his line and got a crucial hand to the effort, making sure all three points would be heading back to the South Coast. United dominated the affair, particularly statistically speaking, 77% possession to 23% and 22 shots to 6, two staggering figures. The resolve shown by Jaidi’s young charges is not to be scoffed at however and his side now sit top of the pack, having played one more match than fellow challengers Wolves and Reading. 

The first team return to home confines Saturday, hosting Cardiff City. The Bluebirds currently languish in the bottom 3 but did secure maximum points last time out in a 2-0 win over Bournemouth. In all truth, in the fight for survival, an away win probably would have been best but I was happy Cardiff won – a victory dedicated to January signing Emiliano Sala who tragically lost his life when the plane carrying him went down just off of Guernsey’s coastline. The last time the two sides met was at the start of December, Hasenhuttl’s first game in charge in fact, a 1-0 reverse but in fairness to the Austrian, he had only been in the position for a matter of days at that point. Cardiff were given no hope whatsoever of survival, with a squad deemed to be Championship quality at best by most but they are well organised and can make life difficult for you under the stewardship of Neil Warnock. Hopefully however, the match will serve as a marker of how far Saints have come in such a short space of time under Ralph’s guidance, the man in the hot seat quoted as saying “It is a big opportunity to make a big step. We want to show we are one step further into our development”. Thanks for reading and hopefully by the time I’m writing next another valuable three points will have been secured. COYR! 

Cheers, 

Dan 

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