Coyle's marathon set for epic finish

Burnley's lengthy season reaches climax with play-off final against Sheffield United
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If Burnley find themselves trailing early on against Sheffield United in today's Championship play-off final at Wembley, Owen Coyle, their manager, will not panic. Why should he, when he was part of one of Wembley's most impressive comebacks, in this corresponding match 14 years ago?

Coyle was playing for Bolton Wanderers who were 2-0 down after 15 minutes to Reading, and then had conceded a penalty before the break. "Had that gone in," he later recalled, "There would have been no way back for us." However, Stuart Lovell's spot-kick was saved, Bolton manager Bruce Rioch added an extra striker at half-time, and early in the second period Coyle headed in to launch a revival. Bolton forced extra-time before winning 4-3. "I didn't score many headers, but I got a great connection," Coyle said.

Winning promotion proved to be the pinnacle of his career for Coyle who made just two starts in the Premier League, his last appearance as a substitute in a 5-2 defeat at Liverpool. Bolton went down but by then Coyle had returned to Scotland. He had come south in 1993, after playing for Dumbarton, Clydebank and Airdrie. After returning he embarked on a management career at Falkirk, then St Johnstone. That brief spell with Bolton was his only experience of English football until November 2007 when Burnley appointed him manager with the claim that he was "a young Bill Shankly".

Coyle has so far lived up to that onerous tag. Building on the solid groundwork of his predecessor, the more functionally-minded Steve Cotterill, Coyle has developed an entertaining side which has combined flair with a doughty team-spirit.

Today is Burnley's 61st match this season, following cup runs in which they won matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Fulham and West Brom. Only Manchester United have played more games but while the champions have used more than 30 players Coyle has called on just 23.

"We have shown that you can build a team and put a side out without having the finances that the bigger clubs have," he said. It is not just because of a lack of numbers, however, that the teetotal 42-year-old Coyle still turns out for the reserves. He believes that is the best way of passing on his experience to young strikers like Jay Rodriguez, and he just loves playing. "I'd still be paying a fiver for a game of five-a-side, if I wasn't in the game," he said.

Surprisingly, given their workload, Burnley have no injury problems while Sheffield United will give fitness tests to Darius Henderson (Achilles), Jamie Ward (hamstring) and John-Joe O'Toole (ankle).

While Coyle took his team to Portugal to prepare, Kevin Blackwell, a winner of four Wembley play-off finals as Neil Warnock's assistant, took Sheffield United to La Manga. He claims Burnley are favourites because of their cup experience and also criticised the choice of referee. Mike Dean controversially dismissed Matthew Kilgallon in October's Steel City derby, which United lost, and Blackwell said: "I'm very disappointed with the stupidity and insensitivity of the appointment. I'm not saying Mike Dean is not a good referee but at Hillsborough he had a poor game and my marks reflected that. Who turns up in the final? A referee we've had a major problem with. I don't understand the thinking of it."

The thinking is that this match usually goes to the referee who has scored the highest marks during the season. Dean, incidentally, was also in the middle when Leeds, managed by Blackwell, lost the Championship play-off to Watford three years ago.

Comments