Burnley reel in the years to shock United
Sir Alex Ferguson, inevitably, pointed to his watch. The time may have baffled the Manchester United manager, but the date could have been still more confusing. There was a time when Burnley were accustomed to beating United, a time when the maximum wage was £20 a week, when the Clarets stole a march on their rivals by scouring the North East and Ireland for promising players and when they entered the European Cup.
Now they are a community club, Manchester United a multinational superpower. There is something barely credible about Burnley inflicting the defending champions' first defeat of the campaign, even though they have specialised in the extraordinary during Owen Coyle's remarkable reign. And, a year after they propped up the Championship, Burnley, courtesy of Robbie Blake's majestic strike, did indeed overcome United.
"You wonder whether it's fate," admitted Ferguson. "Burnley back in the Premier League; it's been a long time. They worked hard, they worked their socks off and the fans were fantastic."
Fate or not, there was a symmetry about it. Thirty-three years ago, Manchester United won at Turf Moor to relegate Burnley. They left the top flight seemingly never to return - indeed they almost dropped out of the Football League a decade later - but what appeared a full stop was merely a comma. Now Turf Moor's first Premier League game was against the self-same opponents. Revenge was belatedly but beautifully exacted by a man who was only a few weeks old when Burnley departed the old Division One.
If great goals required a sense of occasion as well as a sheer quality, then Blake's qualifies. When Stephen Jordan's diagonal ball was headed away by Patrice Evra, it only went as far as Blake, lurking some 14 yards out. With one wonderfully clean connection, he directed his volley past Ben Foster and into the top corner, striking it with such velocity that, though it was at the near post, the goalkeeper should not be faulted. "It didn't take me by surprise," said Coyle. "I work with Robbie Blake, day in, day out and I know what he's got in his locker."
But having bade farewell to the Championship with a superlative strike - Wade Elliott's play-off final winner against Sheffield United - Burnley introduced themselves to the Premier League with one of a similar standard.
The scorer is an old-fashioned inside-forward whose lack of pace renders him a rarity in the modern game. Like Burnley, he is a welcome anachronism. Their ground is an antidote to the modern stadia where plastic is the dominant theme. Turf Moor retains a distinctly wooden feel, and entire stands can reverberate, as the James Hargreaves Stand did at the final whistle with the weight of supporters bouncing up and down, signing Coyle's name.
"The whole place was absolutely rocking," said the manager. "At times it was hard to hear the whistle." Nevertheless, he retains a sense of perspective. "Anyone outside the town would have looked at our first set of fixtures [which also include Chelsea and Liverpool] and thought Burnley would be sitting with zero points after five games. If you look at it financially, Burnley in the Premier League is a total mismatch but what we do have is belief and quality and an unbelievable work ethic."
There can seem an endearing naivety to the Glaswegian and to Burnley. Theirs is an idealism that permits them to believe they can outplay some of the most garlanded and glamorous sides in the world. Yet Manchester United, like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham did in the Carling Cup last year, discovered enthusiastic passers, united in their endeavours and formidably fit, can make for fearless opponents.
And, as they were in their Carling Cup run, Burnley benefited from brilliant goalkeeping, especially when United were awarded a penalty.
Blake and Evra, the two men involved in the goal, collided in the other area, the Burnley man upending the overlapping full-back. Penalty, and Michael Carrick, seemingly Cristiano Ronaldo's replacement as the designated taker, strolled up casually. But his was a tame effort, Brian Jensen guessed correctly and the chorus of "Beast" swiftly followed.
More followed. The Dane produced brave blocks to thwart Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov, who replaced the ineffective Michael Owen. "We should have done more with the chances we had," added Ferguson.
Yet doggedly as Burnley defended - and numerous shots were blocked - there was a sense United were reliant on Wayne Rooney for inspiration. Frustration, as it has done before, got the better of him and a rash challenge on Tyrone Mears brought a yellow card. It could have been red.
Coupled with Owen's unproductive evening, it may have made for a dispiriting evening for the watching Fabio Capello. The alternative scenario is that he is about to call up a slow-ish 33-year-old with a terrific right foot.
"You're not Robbie Blake," was the chant directed at Rooney by the home crowd. But, perhaps for the first time, he might have wished he was this evening.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Brian Jensen - Burnley's team was full of deserving candidates, but ultimately Jensen was the man who preserved their lead. Like many of his team-mates, he has waited a long time to play Premier League football; it will take still longer to forget his second appearance in the division.
BURNLEY VERDICT: They were superb and, while Jensen was kept busy, they had enough invention in attack to threaten a second goal. New signing Andre Bikey added a physical presence to the defence on an excellent debut. One outstanding result, of course, does not mean Burnley will survive, but if they reproduce this performance they stand a real chance. If Manchester United are traditional slow starters, the same could be said for Burnley. "We're three points better off than we were at this stage last season in the Championship," noted Coyle.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was a disjointed display and, in Ferguson's words, "a bad performance". If Rooney and Evra threatened to produce a breakthrough too few others did. Ferguson fielded an entirely different midfield by dropping the quartet who faced Birmingham on Sunday; that suggests he has few automatic choices amid a surfeit of options. Too few made a case to play more regularly, and Owen's undistinguished start to life at Old Trafford continued.