A week after proving himself to be an impeccable leader off the pitch, Ben Mee seized his moment on it to head Burnley to victory over Crystal Palace and boost their hopes of qualifying for Europe.
Burnley entered the game under a cloud of uncertainty after Sean Dyche’s latest hint that his time at Turf Moor may be nearing an end after seven-and-a-half years. After routinely doing more with less than his rivals, having all but secured a fifth season in the Premier League for the Clarets, Dyche’s patience is wearing thin as he craves more.
The 48-year-old deliberately described his predicament as a “vicious circle”, while pleading once more for the club to “stretch – not break” the budget in order to take the club to the next level.
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These are tense times in Lancashire, with the club a week removed from what was a shameful day for the Premier League following the ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’ plane that circled the Etihad before kick-off, further providing clear evidence of the arduous road ahead in English football’s fight against racism.
Mee, who beautifully articulated why the minority had “missed the point” of the Black Lives Matter movement that night, captained the Clarets on his 300th league appearance for the club, but it was Dyche’s more flamboyant players who shone early under the lights at Selhurst.
Led by the crisp passing of Ashley Westwood and Dwight McNeil perfectly knitting midfield to attack as a No 10, the Clarets took the initiative with an aggressive press.
A vicious delivery from a Westwood corner almost saw Patrick van Aanholt’s wild clearance ricochet into his own net before McNeil blasted over. And the revelation of Burnley’s season went close soon after, powerfully leading a counter attack, as Palace players bounced off him, only for a weak finish to be smothered by Vicente Guaita.
Palace had been boosted ahead of kick-off after Wilfried Zaha was passed fit, but the Ivorian appeared irritated on the periphery of the game and his only involvement in the first half saw him argue with the Burnley dugout.
But for all their positive work on the ball, Burnley almost unravelled shortly after the restart in a situation they would typically relish. A high ball fell inside the box to Jordan Ayew, who neatly laid it off to Gary Cahill, but the veteran defender, playing against the club he made his senior debut for on loan from Aston Villa back in 2004, could only tamely side-foot into the arms of Nick Pope.
McNeil then continued to wreak havoc at the heart of the Palace midfield. His trickery was too much for James McCarthy, who clumsily clattered his opponent’s shins after the 20-year-old had danced away, neatly shifting the ball from one foot to the other. A furious Dyche was somewhat appeased by the yellow but would soon see his initial snarl transformed into a wide grin from the free-kick that followed.
Westwood whipped the ball into the box with real swerve, creating just enough angle that Mee only needed to glance the ball back towards goal. His diving header, using the pace on the delivery, defeated Guaita and nestled into the bottom corner for a deserved lead.
Palace, desperately searching for inspiration, began tossing the ball into the area, with Cahill unable to connect cleanly with a header after wriggling free into space.
Zaha suddenly sprung into life late on too, guiding the ball towards the box with the outside of his foot before collecting the return ball inside the box. His powerful effort viciously spun over the crossbar and out for a corner.
A scary moment as stoppage time approached saw Pope spill the ball with the goal gaping, but Dyche’s men held on, drawing level with Spurs in seventh to further justify calls for more investment.