Entertainment, Heroes and Villains

Made a rare foray back to the homeland last weekend, so on the way back to Stockport we stopped off at Burnley FC to pick up some goodies.

It is difficult to describe what Burnley FC means to the town, or to the supporters like myself.  Every fan will tell you theirs is the best club, the one true thing they can rely on – and every fan will be right.  But the symbiotic relationship between Burnley and the town is a very rare thing indeed.  You can look on it statistically – at 73,000, it has a population of less than the capacity of Old Trafford, yet gates are somewhere between 12-18,000.  You can look at it symbolically, standing at the top of Centenary Way, the view dominated by Turf Moor.  Or historically.  Burnley is a poor town, neglected by politicians of every stripe for the best part of half a century.  Previously the centre of King Cotton, it transitioned to heavy industry with the likes of Michelin and Lucas, before losing those in the 80s.  Conservative governments didn’t give a damn as it was a Labour stronghold, and the Labour Party didn’t give a damn because it could – and often did – pin a red rosette to a donkey and see it elected.

(In a set of local government elections in the 2000s, neither Labour or Conservative fielded a candidate in every ward.  And then expressed shock when the BNP – who did campaign and did put a candidate up everywhere – won seats on the local council.)

The one constant was the football club.  Champions in 1960-61, the club had declined with the town, eventually ending up in 1987, 90 minutes from extinction in what was known as The Orient Game.  It was at this point the club and town began to understand that they needed each other.  The club clawed its way back from the brink via a trip to Wembley, a Fourth Division division championship and nights such as Derby in the FA Cup – perhaps the best piece of writing in a national newspaper about the club was written by John Sadler.  His eerily prophetic words as Clarets fans refused to leave after losing a Cup game were a portent for the then new Premier League.

Soon after goalkeeper Chris Pearce dropped his dreadful clanger they set up one of the loudest, sustained dins I’ve ever heard on a football ground anywhere in the world. “Jimmy Mullen’s claret-and-blue-army” was the chant from the terraces and double-decker stand that housed Burnley’s admiration society.
Over and over they chanted it. Clapping and stamping their feet and drumming the advertising boards in perfect rhythm. On and on for 20 minutes until the end of the match and another 15 minutes afterwards, until I urged the club’s chairman to get his manager and players to leave their dressing room, return to the pitch and wave their appreciation. The bedlam was almost deafening. It was a colourful and spectacular sight.

But it is something far more important than that. I wanted others to see and hear it. Big men, important men who are making decisions that could alienate the game from ordinary working folk. I wanted Graham Kelly to be there to prove to him that those who talk of Super Leagues should not underestimate the passion of the so-called little clubs. I wanted Sir John Quinton to be there so that the bank chairman chosen to preside over the elite could learn something of life at the other end of the scale. I wanted officials of Manchester United and Arsenal, Liverpool and the other fat cats behind the move to change the face of football to hear the voices of the people.

The bedlam of Burnley was not simply a cry of support for another of the F.A. Cup’s beaten teams. It was a roar of defiance. “Traditions,” said Arthur Cox, Derby’s manager whose time in north east football taught him all there is to know about fanaticism. “You heard the traditions of Burnley’s past out there today. A major club of 30 years ago, don’t forget.” Those who kept up that incessant, thunderous clatter were real fans. Genuine football people with a deep love of their club, no matter the result of a single game. They had nothing to do with the executive box brigade and corporate hospitality merchants to whom football is pandering in the modern era. They stood in the rain, sat in the cold and screamed their allegiance to a game which, at the highest level, continues to turn it’s back.

It took another five years and the club was, if not heading to the top, at least surviving and by 2000, back to its traditional position of punching above its weight.

And then something amazing happened.

The Last But One Next Big Thing

After knocking around the Championship for a while, manager Steve Cotterill departed via mutual consent.  Astute in the transfer market, he coped with players being sold to balance the books and cut his cloth according to his means.  However, that meant a degree of pragmatism, with some truly stodgy football turning away fans in their thousands.

Exhausted from working with the tight budgets, lack of resources and under the microscope of the town – as fierce as any large club – it was agreed he had gone as far as he could with the club.  Cotterill had been hailed as a bright hope in management and he had done a good job of staying in the Championship on comparatively tiny resources.  His replacement was Owen Coyle.

The rest is history – cup runs, then a surge to the playoffs and promotion to the promised land of the Premiership.  A home victory over Manchester United featuring a stunning goal by Robbie Blake.  Then the fall and the betrayal by Coyle.  The appointment of Brian Laws and the relegation back to the Championship.

This is all documented in Entertainment, Heroes and Villains by Dave Thomas. Using interviews with the managers, board and players, added to his own memories and masses of newspaper articles, it documents the story of Cotterill, Coyle and Laws in what was the most extraordinary three years at the club.

Two things stand out which makes this book probably the most definitive telling of the story.  First is that the archive material is presented in full, which means that quotes and comments are left in context.  Coyles betrayal (there is that word again…) of the club is there for all to see instead of being snipped out to paint him in a worse light.

The second masterstroke is not to simply tell the story of Coyle, but to bookend it with his predecessor and the man appointed to fix the mess.  It helps to highlight the extraordinary heights scaled by Coyle (it is an oft forgotten fact that he achieved promotion with a team largely signed by Cotterill) and to put into context the effect he had on the club, the players, the directors and the town.

The whole town had come along for the ride.  Suddenly the people of Burnley had something to believe in.  Coyle played on that, using the vibrancy and energy around the town to feed the crowd and the players.

I remember how utterly surreal it was to see my club the focus of all this attention.  I remember sitting in the White Lion pub in Manchester, watching the playoff final with another 100 Clarets.  It was an odd experience and at the final whistle, there wasn’t singing or dancing.  Just a very odd feeling of shared disbelief.  People just finished their pints, got up and left.  This wasn’t really happening. Not in money obsessed modern football.  Not now.  Not to us.

What Coyle perhaps didn’t realise was just how much he was leading the fans and the club on.  Perhaps from his point of view, it was just football, just business.  I’m the first to say that football is a business foremost, trading cleverly on emotional ties to make money. Players, coaches, directors, media and fans all play the emotional card to some degree, with a large (and completely unhealthy!) reliance on the irrational need for wins, losses and draws.   In a place so desperate, so needing something to live for, Coyle was building the emotional bonfire that would blow back in his face so spectacularly.

In fact, it wasn’t just in the town.  After leaving, many articles appeared decrying the loss of romance in the game.  The clock had struck midnight, and the world woke up to find Cinderella hadn’t married the Prince but hitched up with the first Flash Harry in a pencil ‘tache to wave his wad and Jag E-Type at her skirts.  My favourite was in the excellent Two Hundred Percent blog, saying

The sadness of the story of this managerial poaching, however, is in the death of another small chink of the romance of the game. The accession of Burnley into the Premier League was one for the romantics. The small-town club that arguably punched above its weight and became one of the great names in English football had been in the doldrums for years. Their promotion was unexpected as it was refreshing. We all know that players, managers, everybody associated with the game is involved in it for altogether more prosaic reasons than romance. We like – some might even say that we need – to maintain the illusion that there is more to it than this, though, and when one aspect of one fairy tale falls apart, yet another small piece of our love affair with the game dies a little on the inside.

Which makes the effect of his leaving on the supporters and the community understandable.  They had been taken on a magic carpet ride beyond their wildest dreams.  No-one was getting carried away with delusions of European glory, or that Coyle would have stayed forever.  Hell, it was widely accepted that at the end of the Premiership season he would be off to better things.  Had he seen the season out, then a queue of Burnley fans would have happily given his a lift to his new job with their very best wishes.  But walking out ripped the heart out of the town and the club, almost literally, as he completely decimated the backroom staff, taking coaches, physios and even approaching the Media Director with an offer.

A rare smile

It was into this mess that Laws had to step – never winning over the fans who understandably, if unfairly – took their frustration and anger out on the next incumbent of the dugout.  The players were devastated, morale was underground and Laws, not much more than an average manager, was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  What makes it all the most tragic is that Laws was a product of Burnley FC and saw the managers role at Turf Moor as his dream job.  Laws did an average job under incredibly trying circumstances, perhaps better than one could have expected, but he was sacrificed in order to let the club, the fans and the people move on.

Time will heal the feelings towards Laws – in one of those supreme ironies that football is so very good at, Laws’s Burnley was drawn against Coyles’ Bolton in the Carling Cup.  On hearing the draw, Laws texted Coyle – “Ouch!”.  The meeting of the two clubs was more than a game of football, it was a night of catharsis.  A night to scream and shout and for most to move on.  Of course, Burnley winning 1-0 helped to put some kind of closure, though the wounds still run incredibly deep.

There is a bitter irony that Cotterill and Laws will always be welcomed at Turf Moor by the fans.  One, despite his terrible football and presiding over the longest winless streak in club history.  The other, despite his mediocre time at the club.  But the guy who brought memorable victories, the Premiership and financial stability to the club will be reviled, probably forever.  He is certainly up there with the likes of John Bond in club infamy.

Even as a supporter from distance, you’ll notice there is no picture of Coyle to accompany this post.  Nowadays, I delight in hurling abuse at his face when he does his post-match interview on Match of the Day.  I’m loving the fact that the move to Bolton appears not to be working out. It is fun and cathartic.  I don’t wish him ill, just failure.  It is childish and stupid, but then that is what football is.

Entertainment, Heroes and Villains is not only a superb read, but also part of the catharsis. It is a perhaps the most honest record we are going to get of that extraordinary time – certainly in a game where players, managers, directors and media to collude to spin, lie and cheat.  It might not be much outside of Burnley FC, unless you read football books for a hobby, but as a document of the thrill ride is it thoroughly recommended.

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