x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Clarets eye the jackpot

Owen Coyle, grafting off the pitch as much as he did on it, hopes to lead Burnley to the Premier League after a 33-year absence.

As the striker's lob looped over the goalkeeper and dropped in at the far post, the No. 9's expression, initially one of disbelief, quickly became one of pure pleasure. The flecks of grey in the hair revealed the forward's identity. This was no young hopeful, but the Burnley manager Owen Coyle. Volunteering for an injury-hit reserve team's game at Accrington Stanley provided proof of his enduring enthusiasm for the game. So, too, has Burnley's entire season. It concludes today in the Championship play-off final when the Clarets could return to top-flight football after a 33-year absence. Sheffield United are the opponents, but the venue is fitting. The Lancastrian side's Carling Cup run resulted in the 'capital punishment' sobriquet being applied as they defeated Fulham, Chelsea and Arsenal. The extra-time exit to Tottenham in the semi-finals left Burnley's senior citizen in tears. Now, however, Graham Alexander has made it to Wembley. His is a unique tale. Now 37, Alexander has completed 900 games for club and country without figuring in the Premier League. He has started each of Burnley's 60 matches this season and no player in the entire country has had a heavier workload. Ice baths has sustained him and ice-cool penalty taking has aided Burnley. "It comes from within," said the veteran midfielder. He is an anomaly in a youthful squad. Coyle invested in his budget in players a decade and a half Alexander's junior and lacked the funds to add strength in depth. "We've only used 23 players in the Championship but in some ways that's been a blessing," said the manager. His commitment to passing is established, with Burnley playing a progressive game as a phalanx of attacking midfielders support the sole, but very sharp, striker Martin Paterson. It represents a clash of styles with the abrasive, aggressive Sheffield United side. "We're a strong bunch," said their manager, Kevin Blackwell. "You don't get anywhere these days if you're not." Burnley may be the sentimental choice, but the Blades believe they merit elevation. Their relegation from the Premier League two years ago was mired in controversy and a legal case with West Ham, whose survival was largely attributable to Carlos Tevez, has only recently been concluded. Bitterness has, understandably, lingered at Bramall Lane. At Turf Moor, despite a gruelling campaign, an eagerness for the game persists. "If I didn't I'd still be paying a fiver for a game of five-a-side," said Coyle, reflecting on his reserve-team outing. He could earn Burnley promotion, and around £60 million, today. rjolly@thenational.ae