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Burnley Endured Hell For One Night In Heaven

Luca Koleosho #30 of Burnley F.C. is celebrating his goal during the Premier League match between Burnley and Sheffield United at Turf Moor in Burnley, on December 2, 2023.
Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Life in the Premier League's basement is a test of endurance. The world's richest and deepest league offers its lowliest teams a punishingly unforgiving slate of impending beatdowns week after week. Opportunities for the little guys to cobble together a few goals and points are rare. Sanity, to say nothing of survival, is found in weathering the inevitable stretches of failure, resisting the physical and emotional toll those stretches can exact, maintaining enough energy and enthusiasm to take advantage of the odd chance to win when it arises, and extracting every drop of joy, hope, and encouragement from those winning performances to make it through the next drought.

This EPL season has proven especially hostile to its cellar dwellers. Luton Town, Sheffield United, and Burnley, all new to the top flight this season, are 14 matches into what is shaping up to be the least impressive debut for a newly promoted trio in league history. Almost halfway through the season, not one of the three has reached a double-digit point total. They boast three of the four worst attacks in the league by goals scored, and three of the four worst defenses by goals conceded. If not for the points deduction artificially suppressing Everton's place in the table, it would already be a virtual certainty that all three debutants will all be right back in the second division next year.

Clearly, Luton, Sheffield, and Burnley have already spent long periods wandering the desert, praying to find something other than a loss to raise their spirits. And none of the three has had a more dispiriting start to EPL life than Burnley. Coming into last weekend, the Clarets sat rock bottom in the table, with four points and a league-worst 10 goals scored. Even worse, not a single one of those paltry points had been earned in front of the Turf Moor faithful. Wins and draws, when accompanied by the home fans' chants and cheers, can fatten up the points that come with them, which in turn can extend their lifespan as sources of sustenance in the gaps between successes. Likewise, a string of home defeats can feel especially demoralizing, as each loss is not only painful in its own right but also as a missed opportunity, since home-field advantage is one of the only "advantages" bottom teams can hope to cling to.

Saturday offered Burnley one of those rare opportunities for a morale-boosting result, with Sheffield United coming into town. The Blades have so far been Burnley's principle rival in Premier League impotence. United sat one point ahead of Burnley with five points, having scored one more goal than Burnley's 10, though having already enjoyed a big home win that would hopefully carry them through the dark days to come. (United beat Wolves in November in thrilling fashion, scoring the winning penalty in the 10th minute of stoppage time.) In light of how nightmarish their season had already been, however, the Clarets' opportunity was also a risk. Either beat United and claim the three points that could possibly kickstart to its EPL survival campaign, or fail in what on paper looked like the easiest fixture of the season and accept that the nightmare had only begun. And yet even Burnley fans' most optimistic imaginings of how the United match might go paled in comparison to how thoroughly pleasing the result wound up being.

Burnley's 5-0 win over Sheffield United tied it for the largest margin of victory ever achieved by a Premier League club that entered a match sitting in last place. Everyone involved had to have felt like something special was in the offing almost immediately. It took all of 15 seconds for the Clarets to score the opening goal from a Jay Rodriguez header almost straight after kickoff. The goal lifted the mood in Turf Moor, though the atmosphere still felt a little hesitant—understandably, since home fans hadn't been given a single reason to celebrate by the final whistle of any match all season. Winger Jacob Bruun Larsen's pretty goal in the 29th minute (what a first touch!) gave the stadium more reason to hope, but it wasn't until first-half stoppage time, when Blades striker Oliver McBurnie saw a second yellow card for a second swinging elbow, that Turf Moor really started rocking. Surely there would be no tears up two goals and a man.

Indeed, for the second half Burnley looked more like the team that ran away with the Championship a season ago. That Burnley scored goals by the bucketful, and won the title with an impressive 101 points, 10 more than the team in second, which happened to be none other than Sheffield United. But these Clarets are not the same as last year's, and quite literally: six of Saturday's starting XI joined the club over the summer. Where manager Vincent Kompany could direct his charges to play a ball-dominant, attack-heavy style against the inferior competition in the Championship, this season's strategy has necessarily changed. Burnley does still try to keep hold of the ball—its 51 percent possession average ranks 10th in the league—but does so mainly as a defensive measure. The Clarets may pass the ball a lot for a team so low in the table, but it's often side to side and in unthreatening areas. The team struggles to work the ball up the pitch into the final third, and when there has even more trouble coming up with an attempt on goal; in spite of all that possession, Burnley has taken the second-fewest shots of anyone this season, ahead of only—you guessed it—Sheffield United.

Saturday was different, though. Throughout the match, Burnley was able to cut through United's defense and get its attack-minded players into dangerous positions. This was especially true in the second half, when the team feasted on all the space 10-man United couldn't close down. In the passing moves, the quick and constant runs behind United's back line, and some silky touches, you could see remnants of last season's expressive and efficient Burnley. Two Clarets in particular stood out. One was Luca Koleosho, who is a legit demon with the ball on the run. He's incredibly active, always sprinting around trying to look for space to receive the ball, is very fast, and is a killer at beating defenders off the dribble. (Please, God, let him ditch the Italians and come back home to the USMNT where he belongs.) The other standout was Zeki Amdouni, who exudes a level of class in his deft touches and frictionless turns that you rarely see in strikers on relegation battlers.

Amdouni put the match away for good with a surgical strike in the 73rd minute to extend Burnley's lead to three, and then played setup man for Koleosho's first-ever goal with the club just two minutes later. Their combination for the fourth goal would be the two new Clarets' last kicks of the game, as they went straight from the goal celebration to the bench to be substituted off. The final hand-filling goal came five minutes after Koleosho's, this time from Burnley captain Josh Brownhill. Brownhill is one of the few Clarets who's been around for a while, first joining the club in January of 2020. The 27-year-old midfielder is also one of the holdover's from last season's Championship winners, who's kept his place in the team despite the club's heavy investment in youngsters with high potential because he has long been and still is one of the team's leading lights. It was fitting that he was the one to cap this unexpected and unforgettable goalfest in front of the fans who've long cheered for him.

You could make the case that Burnley has the raw materials to, having at last secured a galvanizing win, press on from here. The club really has bought itself an impressive amount of young talent in recent years, and Kompany proved last season that he does know how to coach a winner. Given time to gel and find its footing, it's not crazy to think Burnley could make a good run at EPL safety. However, the team's lack of established, experienced Premier League players, its downright sorry defensive corps, and the massive hole it's already dug for itself would seem to counter any notion of some imminent change of fortunes.

But if there's any virtue in a relegation battle, it's in the way it tends to focus attention onto the small pleasures of life and the game. Teams at the bottom learn to bask in a spectacular goal, even if it is scored in a losing effort; to luxuriate in a lead admirably protected, even if it is snatched away before the final whistle; to rejoice over a huge win at home, even if the three points don't ultimately stave off the drop.

Most likely, Saturday will end up being the best day to have been a Burnley player or fan this year. There's a chance the Clarets will wind up pulling off narrower victory over a more impressive opponent before the season's out, and the best possible single-match result—the one that ensures the club's place in next year's Premier League—is still alive for them. But results like that are hardly guaranteed to any relegation candidate, especially not for one as bad as Burnley has been so far this campaign. Similarly, though, not every bottom-feeder gets to celebrate a match as sparkling as the one Burnley won on Saturday.

For that reason, the club and its fans would do well to dwell on last weekend's victory, and to savor every ounce of happiness therein. Even if better times might lie ahead, there can be no doubt that more barren stretches are on the horizon. And it's by relishing the memories of the good times that you make it through the bad.

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