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burnley 2 – 1 leeds united: player of the year

burnley 2 – 1 leeds united: player of the year

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What’s the difference between Burnley and Leeds United?

After Saturday’s result it’s twelve league places and 29 points, but another result on Sunday night highlighted the differences even more.

Captain of a beaten side at Turf Moor on Saturday, Ross McCormack watched another Burnley player celebrating at the Football League awards, where Danny Ings was named Championship Player of the Year ahead of Ross and Danny Drinkwater of Leicester.

Ings has scored 20 goals this season, compared to McCormack’s 24; they’re even on assists, with five each. Ings had one key advantage over Ross, though; he plays for a team that are second in the table and heading for promotion. Ross plays for a team that are fourteenth.

In a way, that should count in Ross’s favour. Scoring 20 goals in a good team going for promotion is about standard; scoring 24 in a team that have failed to seize an outside chance of the play-offs is remarkable. If there was an award for success in adversity, McCormack would win it easily.

Awards go to winners, though, and Ross hasn’t been playing in a winning team; there’s a bit of a catch–22 here, but surely if McCormack really was player of the year, the team would be doing better than it is? It’s an award that celebrates individual achievement, but in a team game an individual achievement only counts if the team benefits – otherwise it’s all for nothing.

That might have been demonstrated more clearly if Ross had won. Standing on the stage with the award in his hands, Danny Ings was able to pay tribute to the Burnley team mates that have helped him to his 20 goals; in the same position, what could Ross McCormack have said? He’s more diplomatic these days than he once was, but it might have been difficult for him to find kind words for the players that he has been carrying for much of the season.

That’s not to say that Leeds United don’t have good players, but what Burnley have shown this season – and showed at Turf Moor on Saturday – is that the gaps in our side are too great to be overcome by one player of the year. McCormack has shown he doesn’t need help to achieve his best form; but Ings has shown what you can do when you have more McCormacks on your side.

The difference between Leeds and Burnley isn’t down to Brian McDermott vs Sean Dyche, speculation vs stability, that our club is bigger than their club, or that the Kop Cat could scratch the eyes out of Bertie Bee.

The difference is that the average age of the Burnley side that played on Saturday was 27; the average age of Leeds was 24. And while we’re a young and inexperienced 24, a browse through the Burnley side turns up a core collection of footballers who are at their peak age, signed when they were established players, and able to fit seamlessly together and support their younger team mates.

Ross Wallace is the perfect example. Aged 28, he’d already won three league titles when he moved from Celtic to Sunderland and won another with promotion to the Premier League; from there he moved to Preston and was almost ever present for two season before moving to Burnley for nearly a million more than Sunderland had paid to Celtic for him.

Wallace typifies Burnley’s approach to team building. He proved himself at other clubs and Burnley bought him when his price was already high. They did it with Dean Marney, paying Hull twice what Hull had paid to sign him from Spurs; Wolves doubled their money when they sold on Sam Vokes; Jason Shackell’s value increased with each transfer from Barnsley to Derby to Burnley; Brighton could name their price for Ashley Barnes, a player they picked up from Plymouth.

Of the Leeds side, only Ross McCormack can be said to have established himself at this level before moving to Leeds; only Ross McCormack was an in demand player when he signed, moving from club to club in the same division. And it was no coincidence that only Ross McCormack could score on Saturday, adding a great long range headed finish to a long throw-in by Wickham that was flicked on by Smith – McCormack’s two inexperienced partners in attack.

Wickham is 20, with a big transfer under his belt but only two full seasons of regular football; Smith is four years older, but was still a business student when he was Wickham’s age. If we were Burnley, we’d wait until they’d both had a couple of twenty goals seasons before making a move for them; but we’re not, and so here they are, trying to get those establishing seasons on their CVs.

Luke Murphy came from League One, Rudy Austin from Norway, Alex Mowatt from a youth team he’s barely old enough to have left; Sam Byram is only playing his second season at this level, Tom Lees and Jason Pearce each only playing their third. All over the pitch, Leeds are a team characterised by youth and inexperience; while if a Burnley player is still green – like Ings, for example – he’s never far away from a team mate who has seen and done it all before.

Jack Butland is another case in point. It would be unfair to Butland to blame him for the twelve goals conceded in the past five games, but while he might be a better keeper than Paddy Kenny, Paddy Kenny has been there and done it all, and might have been better equipped at dealing with our own defenders. Jason Pearce could rival McCormack for our own player of the season award, but his new-found dependability this season has reduced since Kenny went out of the side.

Against Reading Pearce was played into trouble by Zaliukas and misjudged a situation that Kenny might have dealt with for him; against Burnley the ball he put into his own net was one a Kenny yell might have ordered clear. In the build up to Burnley’s second goal, McCormack could be seen signalling to the defenders in vain that Ben Mee should be picked up, but Ross can’t run the defence as well as everything else.

In a way, this is all good news for Leeds. Byram, Mowatt, Murphy, Lees and Smith could become very, very good players if they keep improving – imagine an even better Byram than the one we have now. If Jason Pearce’s good form continues, he could be a rock in the defence into his thirties – he’s still only 26, almost at the stage where Burnley might be interested. Brian McDermott can only deal with the players he has now as they are now, but those same players could all be much, much better in three seasons’ time.

But for all the optimism, it also shows up the failures. It’s not that Leeds don’t have experienced players – we just don’t have experienced players like Ross Wallace. He have Stephen Warnock, an England international who can’t keep his place and seems to be coached through games by Pearce when he does play, rather than the other way around; and we have Danny Pugh, who disappeared for Burnley’s goal as he so often does when he turns out at left back.

We also have Brown, Tonge, Diouf and Kebe, players with top flight experience who are either past their best, too irresponsible to be handed responsibility, or just not up to the task of playing in The Championship anymore. Kebe should be in the team helping Byram and Murphy, with Mowatt being introduced when possible; instead Alex Mowatt is back in the side in part to bail Jimmy Kebe out.

Leeds were closer to Burnley on Saturday than even Leeds fans expected; and when you consider that Burnley haven’t lost at home for a year or lost anywhere in the league for fourteen games, you have to accept a 2–1 defeat as not too bad, in the circumstances. And if not being booed off can be considered an objective, then Leeds United at least achieved that on Saturday.

But the time to judge the difference between the two teams will be in August, when Burnley start the new season in the Premier League, and Leeds begin again in The Championship. At the moment all McDermott can do is change the formation and try different tactics, but by August Leeds United need more players alongside Byram, Mowatt and Murphy that are like Ross McCormack, and we need to have a team then with players like Burnley have now. Ross McCormack can’t win player of the year – or get Leeds promoted – on his own.

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