Stockport County. . .1
IN A play-off final that was full of incident but not of good humour, Burnley overcame a Stockport side who finished the game with nine men, to win the right to play First Division football next season.
County were one player down for all but 14 minutes of the game, and two short for the last half-hour - with both Michael Wallace and Chris Beaumont being dismissed for violent conduct - yet they displayed such determination in adversity that they nearly forced extra time. The Burnley fans, who formed the vast majority of a crowd of 44,806, were demanding the final whistle a full 10 minutes before David Elleray brought the proceedings to a halt.
On a similarly emotional afternoon seven years ago, the Turf Moor club needed a last-day victory over Leyton Orient to avoid the drop to the Vauxhall Conference. They deserved their success here, if only for creating far more chances and maintaining discipline.
Burnley finished the Second Division campaign 12 points behind both Stockport and their semi-final victims, Plymouth. Without the play-offs, their season would have been cold soon after Christmas. They were certainly caught cold after just two minutes yesterday when, from Wallace's left-flank free-kick, Beaumont found the net with a neat glancing header.
Playing the game, rather than the man, took a back seat for a while, though. Peter Ward, Stockport's captain, was booked - the first of seven - within a minute for a foul on Ted McMinn. John Francis, whose two goals put paid to Plymouth, was the next to see yellow, for a challenge on County's goalkeeper, John Keeley, which was his last contribution of the day.
Before Francis, who has suspected knee-ligament damage, could be replaced, Wallace and McMinn tangled on the touchline. Burnley's wily winger was booked and Wallace was shown the red card by Mr Elleray for spitting, although he also appeared to stamp on the grounded McMinn.
David Eyres, who took over as Burnley's front man, then claimed centre stage. With a cool head he could have had a hat-trick but the strike that counted, in the 28th minute, was good: a run across goal from the right wing finished off by a firm, low shot from 18 yards.
Eyres was not the only culprit as the Clarets failed to make further use of their extra man. Adrian Heath, the otherwise outstanding Warren Joyce, and John Deary all missed good chances. County lost another player before the winner arrived: Beaumont taking a walk for lashing out at Les Thompson off the ball on the hour.
Burnley's predictable second goal came five minutes later. The right-back, Gary Parkinson, collected the ball just outside the area after an attack broke down, and his shot was deflected past Keeley.
Kevin Francis, the 6ft 7in Stockport striker, was hampered by a groin strain but was still a constant nuisance to Burnley. He nearly set up a last-minute leveller for Andy Preece, but the Clarets had done just enough to earn the champagne.
'It was bizarre - sheer stupidity,' was the verdict of the Stockport manager, Danny Bergara, on the self-inflicted wounds that contributed to his side's fourth Wembley defeat in three years. He was not wrong.
Burnley (4-4-1-1): Beresford; Parkinson, Davis, Pender, Thompson; McMinn, Deary, Joyce, Eyres; Heath; J Francis (Farrell, 14). Substitutes not used: Lancashire, D Williams (gk).
Stockport County (4-4-2): Keeley; Todd, Flynn, B Williams (Preece, 59), Wallace; Gannon (Miller, 80), Ward, Connelly, Frain; Beaumont, K Francis. Substitute not used: Ironside (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).