FA Cup Countdown: 'We are big underdogs and they are probably the best team in Europe...'

Arsenal visit Turf Moor on Sunday, but as the Burnley manager, Owen Coyle, reminds Ian Herbert, he has shot down the Gunners before
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The Independent Online

A real winter's day in a real footballing place. A feathering of snow lies on the chimneys and slate roofs visible over Burnley's Bob Lord stand, shifting occasionally on an icy wind, and if that is not enough to chill the hearts of an Arsenal side due here on Sunday, then perhaps the dressing rooms might. Lost at the end of a labyrinth of narrow corridors beneath the old Cricket Field Stand at one end of Turf Moor, they are perishing at the best of times and sub zero on this occasion.

Burnley's top scorer Andy Gray believes the visitors might not be too keen on the changing rooms. "You can smell the tradition down there," he says. But his manager Owen Coyle, who has just walked down a wood-panelled corridor where the images of Burnley's FA Cup-winning legends Tommy Boyle and Bert Freeman are framed, says not and you have to believe that he is a man who knows.

Not just because the Scot delivered his former St Johnstone side to the Scottish League Challenge Cup final before he took the Turf Moor job in November; or even because he knows what it means to get the better of Arsenal in the Cup he scored the equaliser which earned Bolton the fourth-round replay they won 3-1 at Highbury 14 winters ago. But because he exudes, in the way he talks and conducts himself, the air of a manager who is going places.

Coyle might have taken some severe ribbing since Burnley's operations director and major benefactor Brendan Flood described him as "a young Bill Shankly" when he unveiled him as manager in November but he has found, in his new adoptive home, an honest place to start his English managerial career; a passionate footballing town where it is said that a greater percentage of citizens watch the local club than anywhere else in the land.

"It's a conducive working environment," says Coyle, 41, whose upbringing was amid a family of nine in Glasgow's Gorbals and who is talked of by many here as another David Moyes in the making. "You walk through the doors and you know it's a place you want to be."

Results have been mixed for Coyle so far. A promising start with two away wins has been overshadowed by the side's stubborn inability to perform at home (two wins there all season) and the 3-0 defeat at Blackpool on New Year's Day was as miserable for Coyle as the scoreline suggests. But there are grounds for optimism. Gray, restored to the side after injury, has 13 goals to his credit already. He scored in Sheffield United's penalty shoot-out defeat to Arsenal three years ago and team-mate Ade Akinbiyi went one better scoring in a 2-1 giant-killing against the Gunners while at Stoke.

Coyle had not sat down properly to talk his new charges through the task ahead yesterday, but there is little doubt that his part in Bolton's 1994 cup run will come into it at some stage. Coyle's side controlled the first half of the game at Burnden Park and Jason McAteer scored a first-half goal. "But Arsenal were FA Cup holders and just as we were thinking '1-0 up, it's going well' we were 2-1 down within minutes of the second half," Coyle recalls.

Above all, he will never forget manager Bruce Rioch's decision to threw caution to the wind and play 4-2-4, which earned a draw. "It shows you need to be positive and we're going to be positive in this game because it would be folly to be negative," Coyle says. "You'll just find they've beaten you 1-0 or 2-0 and you've not even contributed."

Bolton won 3-2 at Goodison that year and eventually lost to much poorer opposition, Oldham, in the quarter-finals. But Coyle's experience bank also includes the lesser known near elimination that year at Gretna, then of the Unibond league. "We were 1-0 down with five minutes left," Coyle recalls. "So yes, we've all played at times when we've gone in as favourites and lost out, too."

Coyle has plenty of self-deprecating talk about whether he will be drawing on his 1994 success "I'm not one for talking about myself and I won't mention it but I've a couple of videos of the Arsenal game," he quips. But just listening to him talking and laughing about those days, and describing his goal against Everton "I'm surprised Neville Southall dived. I thought he would have stopped and applauded" it is hard to see how his infectious spirit will not rub off on his players. "I never had the greatest power in the world because of my physique but I could pass the ball into the corner of the net," he recalls. "You're always a better player when you've finished playing."

There has been some contorted deliberation in Burnley about which Arsenal side might "show up" on Sunday afternoon and Arsne Wenger's apparent suggestion, earlier this week, that he will be "resting" his second string side for the midweek Carling Cup semi-final has given rise to some hopes. The theory runs that the second string showed in the sparkling Carling Cup defeat of Sheffield United, that they are better equipped for awkward Sunday afternoons in the North than the "firsts". Gray is not fooled, though. "The side they field makes no difference. But I saw the young ones play against Sheffield United and they were unbelievable really," he says. "It just goes to show how good they're going to be in two or three years' time. Frightening."

Coyle will tell his side they have nothing to fear with a rich Cup history which has included, in recent years, the comical own goal from Djimi Traor which saw Burnley defeat an inexperienced Liverpool only three years ago. "We are big, big underdogs and they, for me, are probably the best team in Europe at the moment," he says. "But as a player I always wanted to play the best players and the best teams. Sunday gives our players the chance to go out and think, 'I can play a little bit as well'."

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