Somehow, ridiculously, the Burnley bus trundles on, however many wheels keep falling off it. It has been a turbulent week for them: one that began with a chastening 5-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium, and has taken in an injury crisis, a brewing storm between manager Sean Dyche and chairman Mike Garlick over expiring contracts and transfer investment, and a pitched battle against the racist elements of their own fanbase.
And yet, at the end of it, they sit eighth in the Premier League: level on points with Tottenham, within touching distance of European football. Captain Ben Mee’s header just after the hour was enough to seal all three points for them against a poor Crystal Palace. Afterwards, Dyche described it as one of the biggest results of his Burnley career. Truly, this is a club continuing to defy not just gravity, not just sporting economics, but occasionally even simple logic.
It is, perhaps, a testament to the sound fundamentals of the club, however uncertain the future, however frail the squad. Dyche deserves plenty of credit for again devising an exemplary gameplan designed to neuter Palace’s multiple attacking threats. The returning Wilfried Zaha was double-teamed out of the game by Phil Bardsley and Josh Brownhill; the prolific Jordan Ayew was largely ineffective, and probably lucky to escape a red card for a forearm smash on Brownhill in the second half.
No tale of Burnley heroism, however, is complete without a nod to the team themselves, many of them playing their third game in a week. As Palace threw wave after wave at them in the closing minutes, it was Burnley’s thirst for the grapple, the desperate deflection, the must-win header, the anatomy-threatening block, that again proved to be the difference. James Tarkowski was probably the standout, but in truth they all played their part: 34 clearances, 21 blocks, the legacy of a footballing brick wall that has allowed this modest-sized club to punch well above their threadbare resources.
An ankle injury to Jack Cork will stretch them even further. Here again, Dyche was able to fill only five of his eight outfield substitute berths. Injury to Jay Rodriguez left Matej Vydra leading the line as the only fit senior forward, and from the off Burnley’s approach revolved around hitting him early, and then using their tireless midfield runners – particularly the slippery Dwight McNeil at No 10 – to forage on the second balls.
McNeil looked the likeliest player on either side to create something. Quick, eager to roam and always showing for the ball, McNeil is the sort of one-man creative hub you so rarely see at the bigger clubs these days, with their all-star casts, their strictly delineated roles, their endlessly rotated squads. Most of what Burnley did well seemed to go through him, and without the ball too he was a constant menace.
It was McNeil’s mesmerising run that provided the first half’s only real moment of grace: weaving past Luka Milivojevic, striding half the length of the field, and let down only by a weak shot. James McArthur was probably Palace’s best player, linking well with Zaha, probing Burnley’s back line for fissures. But overall the impression was of two teams pushing themselves through the pain barrier, and determined to put everyone else through a similar experience. After an inert first half, Palace were just beginning to take a grip on the game. That was when Burnley hit them.
A petty foul in a game full of them, this time on McNeil by James McCarthy, who had replaced Cheikhou Kouyaté at half-time, offered an opening. From the resulting free-kick, Mee dived in ahead of Gary Cahill and diverted the ball brilliantly past Vicente Guaita at the near post: a header with the control and guile of a Van Basten volley. Perhaps Guaita might have done a little better with it. But now Burnley, whose record defending leads has been exemplary this season, had a golden chance to lock down the game and the three points.
As Dyche added extra defensive muscle in the shape of Kevin Long, Roy Hodgson rang the changes in attack. Andros Townsend was withdrawn for Max Meyer, seconds after putting one of his trademark left-foot scunners into the stand, and the hitherto ineffective Zaha was moved into the centre. Chances came, too: Milivojevic put a simple header over the bar, Ayew failed to bring the ball down six yards out. But stoutly and saltily, Burnley held firm. Sunday’s game against Sheffield United now has the feel of an unlikely Europa League play-off.