So, after an international break that’s felt interminably long and as dull as ditchwater, it’s time to gear ourselves up for the final eight matches of the Championship season, starting with a trip to Turf Moor for another televised game this Friday night.
It was certainly encouraging to see Edouard Michut and Abdoullah Ba making notable contributions for the France U20 side last week, as well as Anthony Patterson being involved in the England U21 camp, but the break was also tempered by Dan Ballard suffering an injury scare for Northern Ireland, which hopefully isn’t too serious.
On a side note, the number of games rescheduled for the benefit of Sky Sports might’ve annoyed some fans this season, but the fact that we’re being showcased to a wider audience is a welcome relief having barely been seen during the League One years, as well as injecting some decent money into the club.
So, it’s onwards to Burnley.
League leaders, pacesetters for the majority of the campaign and by common consensus, one of the finest Championship teams in recent history, although our class of 1998/1999 might want a word on that.
With a deep and high quality squad in which the likes of Anass Zaroury, the exceptional Nathan Tella and Manuel Benson have shone, they’ve also got some wily veterans in their ranks who’ve ensured that promotion back to the Premier League has essentially been a formality for weeks.
In the dugout, Vincent Kompany might’ve been a left-field choice to take over following the Clarets’ relegation after an inauspicious spell at Anderlecht, but the Manchester City icon has done a superb job and how he fares in the top flight will be fascinating.
Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to talk about the trip to Lancashire without looking back to the home fixture, from which we walked away with nothing having had the visitors firmly on the ropes and staring at a 2-0 deficit at half time.
During the first half, we were exceptional and the Stadium of Light was electrified, but in the second half, we lost control and allowed Burnley to gain a foothold, and then a death grip on proceedings as we eventually went down 2-4.
That encounter was one of quite a few that we should’ve taken more points from this season, but it was also a crucial early lesson for our lads: manage a game poorly against quality opposition and you’re asking for trouble.
So, how to view this fixture?
A daunting and futile assignment or just like the visit of Sheffield United, a trial run for games of this nature next season?
If we’re to make the top six or even better during 2023/2024, these are the kinds of occasions when we’ll be expected to perform and deliver a result. Tough ground, fervent atmosphere, high class opponent. Can we respond and show that we’re maturing as a group, and that we’re mentally ready to take the next step?
Against the Blades, we acquitted ourselves well but the gap in class and nous eventually told. It could easily be a similar scenario against Kompany’s side, but that’s not to say we can’t go there and embrace the challenge.
Friday’s game also marks the start of what could well be an extended audition for some of the players who haven’t yet banked many minutes.
For the likes of Isaac Lihadji, Jewison Bennette and Pierre Ekwah, it’s a great chance to show Mowbray exactly what they can bring to the side, albeit with the understanding that they won’t be fully up to speed as yet and will still need to get fully attuned to how we play.
If they can handle what’ll doubtless be a white hot atmosphere at Turf Moor, even in defeat, it’ll certainly give the head coach something to think about.
Yes, it’ll be a challenge and yes, Burnley will be fired up following their FA Cup exit at the hands of Manchester City, but we’ve steadied the ship after a bad run of results in early March and hopefully some time off will have re-energised the squad as well as Mowbray himself.
Let’s go there with no fear, a willingness to play our natural style of football, and see what we can achieve as a result.