Wary of tempting fate to expose themselves as mere fanciful dreamers, no one is talking too loudly about promotion at Turf Moor, not least Burnley's wise and wily manager, Stan Ternent. But after Stockport succumbed to the First Division leaders' sixth consecutive win here yesterday, a return to the top flight after 25 years edged closer to becoming reality.
Struggling Stockport, with only two wins all season, put up a respectable fight for more than an hour, before two goals in six minutes put the Clarets in control, the scoreline made to look close only by a stoppage-time penalty. Burnley's advantage now stands at seven points and while wealthier rivals may still be offered at shorter odds to be in front when it counts in April, for the moment the likes of Manchester City and Wolves are being stretched to stay in touch.
In an open race for First Division honours, Burnley's form has defied the suspicion that an apparently modestly equipped squad would not be good enough to sustain a challenge. They led the table for three weeks in September only to drop to seventh place after a run of one win in seven, but have recovered so strongly over the last six weeks that their prominence can no longer be regarded as an early season freak.
However, had the home supporters expected any easy pickings in yesterday's top-versus-bottom clash, they had reason to revise that view. Indeed, after Burnley had taken an early lead, Carlton Palmer's team stunned the Turf Moor crowd by drawing level within three minutes.
Burnley, seeking to build on an eight-match unbeaten run, went ahead after their striker Gareth Taylor had been tripped inside the penalty area by the on-loan midfielder, Damien Delaney. Glen Little, the right-sided midfielder central to much of Burnley's better play, tucked the ball neatly away from the spot.
But Stockport, whose ambition had already resulted in a chance squandered by Gary McSheffrey and a crisply struck effort by Kevin Ellison that was well saved by Nik Michopoulos, were quickly back on level terms.
Ali Gibb's cross from the right was knocked down by Shefki Kuqi, the Finnish striker whose physical presence posed problems for Burnley throughout, and McSheffrey made amends with a diving header beyond Michopoulos's reach.
Parity was no more than Stockport deserved. In fact, County perhaps should have taken the lead after an hour when Kuqi's strength took him into a shooting position, only to see his strike parried by Michopoulos and then the rebound shot wide by Ellison.
For all their bright touches going forward, however, Stockport are prone to carelessness at the back, and goals conceded after 66 and 70 minutes left Palmer to ponder his side's frailties as a fifth consecutive defeat beckoned.
Each time, the influential Little was involved, crossing from the right to set up Taylor to head home his ninth of the season – putting him level with Little, as it happens – and then from the left for Taylor's co-striker, Ian Moore, on the near post, to put the outcome beyond doubt. Kuqi's late penalty was no more than a consolation.
Little pen 9, Taylor 66, Moore 70
Stockport County 2
McSheffrey 11, Kuqi pen 90
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