Burnley-ing Down The House

One of my favourite TV shows ever was the late 90’s comedy drama Due South. The story of Constable Benton Fraser, a strait-laced Canadian Mountie, sent to the big city of Chicago to team up with Detective Ray Vecchio, a wise-cracking US cop. It was a quirky, sometime hilarious, sometimes incredibly moving drama show which survived four series largely due to its success in the UK and Canada rather than the US.

Constable Benton Fraser
Yeah, that show with that guy

The show actually was cancelled a couple of times before being revived for a third series. Unfortunately, David Marciano, the actor who played Ray Vecchio was unavailable to continue his role, so had to be replaced.

Faced with replacing such a crucial cog in the wheel, the writers cleverly wrote the absence into the script. Vecchio was sent undercover, with a replacement Fake Ray to cover for the day job much to the confusion of Fraser. As our heroic Mountie tried to prove that Fake Ray was actually, well, fake, he would go to the places established over the previous two series and find them removed, demolished or destroyed. Ray’s house.. gone, Rays prized car, on fire and sent to the bottom of the Chicago River. A character fused into the very fabric of the series is removed swiftly, without reference and very, very deliberately.

OK Landers, I vaguely remember this show, but what does this have to do with Burnley FC?

This time last year, the prospect of Sean Dyche not being Burnley manager seemed inconceivable. Not only was he a fixture in the dugout, his fingerprints were all over every part of the club, from the squad, the training ground to the media approach. Dyche was entwined not just on the pitch, but throughout every aspect of the club.

Yet here we are, less than a week out from a new season and Burnley FC has changed, monumentally and irrecoverably from twelve or even six months ago. What traces there were of the past – Garlick, Dyche and all – seem to have been removed by ALK, swiftly, without reference and very, very deliberately.

(See! Despite appearances to the contrary, I don’t just throw this stuff together.)

The period since Dyches sacking – and as I type this, barely three months have passed – has seen a tornado pass through the club on and off the pitch. I said on the No Nay Never podcast immediately after the sacking that the club was always heading towards a summer of reset, with or without Dyche, with an aging squad largely out of contract and new(ish) owners looking to finally put their plans into place.

I expect that the vast majority of people expected small, incremental changes. Evolution not revolution. Yet, it absolutely feels like, sometime shortly after Dyche was told to clear out his office, a safe was opened up in a building in New York, a white gloved butler pulled out a thick sheaf of papers entitled “Burnley FC: The Plan” and put it on a large oak desk. Alan Pace put down his white cat, leafed through it one final time, leaned into an intercom and said “Execute Project Aurora”.

(OK, so it was likely sitting on a server somewhere and thanks to the magic of the internet, transmitted electronically across several thousand miles, but let me enjoy the image.)

It is obvious in hindsight that the transformation ALK have been making has been the one that they were waiting to pull the trigger on from the moment they took the reins of the club. Burnley FC is to be reshaped from the small town, inward facing club into… I don’t know what, but definitely not what Burnley have been for the last 140 years.

Of course, that invites the obvious question of whether Dyche knew when he signed up in October, but we’ll leave Oliver Stone to bid for the movie rights on that one.

The failure to avoid relegation back to the Championship didn’t even seem to muddy the waters. In fact, it feels like dropping down a level has helped hasten the transformation. Since ALK took over in January 2021, the changes have mostly been off the pitch, sorting out the behind-the-scenes things like the commercial stuff (which was much needed, by the way). Perhaps the most visible transformation was the video screens, and it felt that ALK’s influence was largely restricted to off field matters.

Yet the summer has seen a new manager with a new focus, a new philosophy and a host of incoming transfers. The old guard that served the club so well for so many years – and Dale Stephens – have largely gone. Only JayRod, Jack Cork and Ashley Barnes remain to tell tales to the newcomers of the Before Times and even they had to sign new contracts in order to stay.

An old man telling a story around a campfire to kids
Let me tell you kids about the Legend of Burnley. Once upon a time, in a forest, there lived a gruff ogre called Sean…

One Good Man

I have always thought that in the event of Dyche going the club should not try to find a similar type but embrace proper change and go for someone in the mould of Daniel Farke or David Wagner, both of whom had success in the Championship. Much as I loved Dyche for achieving success precisely by using methods that hipsters considered outdated (after all, David felled Goliath with a slingshot, not a laser beam), I felt that trying to continue to plough that lonely furrow would only lead to ever more diminishing returns.

Although there were no particular names that I had in mind, Vincent Kompany fit the bill. A great player in his career, a leader on the pitch. He fits my idea of what Dyche’s successor should – perhaps needed – to be. Young, progressive, modern, knowledgeable about football outside these shores.

It’s quite a media friendly appointment too, and that feels deliberate even if we are now officially “Vincent Kompany’s Burnley”. It will also be a blessed relief to no longer be told that the team is playing an outdated, outmoded, consigned to the dustbin of history 4-4-2 formation and embracing a modern, attacking *checks notes* 4-4-2 formation.

I have some doubts – Kompany wasn’t an outstanding success at Anderlecht but there were mitigating circumstances. He had a slow start but by all accounts used that slow start to identify his mistakes and correct them. Although the Purple & White did not win silverware under him, he did steer them to a Cup final (losing on penalties) and a third-place finish, which is about par for the course in their recent history.

Whatever his qualities as a manager, it is clear that Kompany as a person has a presence that simply demands respect. Forget his glittering career, every time I see the man speak in an informal occasion, he commands attention without demanding it. A room in which he is not the smartest person must contain some absolute geniuses.

Letting Go

For the last three or four seasons, Burnley trod water at best, the survival instinct topping all. This led to the paralysis at board level and subsequent stagnation of the squad, who gave their all time after time until it simply wasn’t enough. For far too long, the club’s transfer business was so entirely predictable that you could set your watch by it – we would be linked with two, maybe three players for a protracted length of time that we inevitably didn’t land because of “a difficult market”. This happened so many times that it was clear that the transfer strategy was a mixture of show combined with penny-pinching.

Not that those links were ever to anyone exciting. As other clubs explored foreign markets, or took on loans from other PL clubs and actually gave them a chance, we Clarets had become used to welcoming a succession of solid and dependable pros who had proven that they could do it on cold, rainy Tuesday nights in Stoke because well, they had regularly been doing it on cold, rainy Tuesday nights for Stoke.

Now most of them have been shipped out, their contracts not renewed due to being too old, too injured, too rubbish, or in the case of Dale Stephens, all three. (Which reminds me, Stephens going on TalkShite to talk to Ronseal Chairman about how he wasn’t officially informed that his contract would not be renewed showed an incredible lack of self awareness. I’m all for clubs being professional and courteous in saying goodbye to players, but Stephens was lucky his training gear wasn’t left in a binbag outside a Padiham bus stop.)

Despite the best efforts of people to make out a mountain out of a molehill (“Burnley release FOURTEEN players”, anyone?) the squad overhaul wasn’t a shock to anyone. Tarks was going anyway, most of the rest were old, injured or both. The disappointment was to see Ben Mee leave. The words “club legend” are bandied about far too easily, but he is very much up there with the greatest Clarets of all time. Maybe he wanted a fresh start or one final payday, but either way, he goes with nothing but gratitude.

It’s interesting that Nathan Collins went. The fee was disappointing but illuminating. Premier League clubs are buying players for £15-£30m yet we’ve reinvested in our new back line for around half of that lower figure. The gap between the two top divisions is not just in quality or budget, but market.

ALK have reshaped the squad with dizzying speed and the team squad photo no longer looks like a mixture of plumbers and WW1 fighter pilots. Hardly a day goes by without links to some young player that, based upon an entire 45 minutes of watching YouTube highlights is absolutely going to become a future Premier League star. Each player has been bought with a clear eye on future resale value – not a bad thing if you can pull it off.

Burnley FC Squad Photo 2021
Front Row L-R: plumber, WW1 fighter pilot, WW1 fighter pilot, plumber, plumber, plumber, WW1 fighter pilot, WW1 fighter pilot

After all, that is what we used to do. That successful little production line that we had going in the early-mid 2010s, selling Charlie Austin, Michael Keane, Kieren Trippier, Danny Ings and Andre Gray had ground to a complete halt. Somewhere along the line, the club stopped doing the thing that made it successful, and we began shopping for reclamation projects. It worked for a while, mind you, but still, not much in the way of long-term planning. Restarting the conveyor belt is an absolute requirement, presumably central to the ALK business plan and, quite frankly, the only way that the club is going to prosper.

The squad is a definite curate’s egg. A very young back line, with not a lot of experience, the exact opposite up front. In between looks like it has bags of promise, with Cork, Brownhill, Bastien and Cullen providing options even before Ashley Westwood gets to return. On the wing, Gudmundsson and McNeil seems like they could really do a job assuming fitness (and in the case of JBG, that’s a big if.)

And no, I haven’t included Maxwell Cornet because he’s bound to leave by the close of the transfer window and I just don’t want to think about that.

An Invitation to Romance

Let’s face it, since the Europa League run, when we didn’t have the enforced Covid break, we’ve had sludge. For four seasons, on and off the pitch, there was little to get the pulses racing.

Now I completely understand why the club had to approach things in the way that they did and I am not criticising the players or staff for doing what they had to do. It was fun to be the spoiler, the monkey in the wrench, to punch the big boys on the nose. I never minded this, because I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to annoy those who are above their station.

But even fixture release day was a cause for concern rather than anticipation.  Instead of eagerly scanning for matches to look forward to, often the first Premier League to be mentioned was the one where we were going to lose 5-0 away to Man City. Brows would be furrowed as we tried to work out the best chances of getting an unbeaten run long enough to ensure 17th place. The Premier League is a tilted table, designed to maximise predictability and certainty for the Big Rich Clubs. This is the league that saw the wonderful Leicester story of 2014 and decided, quietly, that that sort of thing cannot be allowed to happen again.

When the final whistle blew at home to Newcastle, the emotions surprised me. Disappointment, yes. Sadness, certainly. But the overwhelming feeling was one of relief. It was over. “It” being the seemingly endless pushing of water uphill, trying to continually beat the odds week in, week out.

So a trip back to the Championship feels a chance to step back from the endless hype machine that is the top flight and actually get back to what football really is about. I hated the performative anger and outrage and trolling that is fandom at the very top level. The mind-numbing crassness of Chelsea fans singing Roman Abramovich’s name as his mate rolled tanks into Ukraine, the cynical money-making of Arsenal and Man Utd fan channels on YouTube, the corporate soulessness that is Manchester City. The aggressively superior sentimentality of Liverpool and the delusion of Spurs.

After seven years of being in a division where we were constantly made to feel like we didn’t matter, now everything matters. On the pitch, off the pitch, there are real stakes.

Seeing is Believing

I was trying to work out why everyone was actually excited and looking forward to the season.  And I realised that the sheer amount and speed of change was the driving force behind that excitement.

We’re not supposed to be feeling this way right now. We’re supposed to be depressed at relegation, worried for the financial future of the club, afraid that we won’t bounce back at the first time of asking. But that feels like an outsider’s perspective, for Claret fandom seems almost giddy with excitement. Even the known naysayers, who after a 5-0 away win will moan about the quality of the half-time pie have decided to shut up for at least a few weeks.

What is very odd is that if you said to most fans that their relegated team would be going into a new season with a manager with no experience in the division, an almost entirely new squad that has taken players who were in, around or should have been near major international teams with and replaced them with League One or loan players barely old enough to be involved in a nightclub drinking incident then the reaction would likely be somewhere between concern and sheer abject terror.

It’s easy for other fans to read the comments under an article or skim a hashtag and see stuff that they can use as fuel. Stuff about walking the League and going 69 unbeaten (nice!). It could be taken for arrogance and cockiness but in truth, it’s giddiness and self-deprecation. What people don’t understand is that opening day of this season feels like the Christmas Day that we have missed for years. When was the last time you felt this excited about the first game of the season? I’m willing to bet that it was Aberdeen, and that was four years ago.

Even off the pitch, the right moves seem to be being made. The new kit has been received very positively and ALK have followed through on their promise to remove gambling sponsors. (Not an easy decision when there are a reported seven and a half million reasons a year to have one.) My fears about it being replaced by the scam that is cryptocurrency were also misplaced, which, of course, means I’m now going to buy one for the first time in over half a decade.

The new Burnley FC shirt
It will look awesome when it has finished downloading

The Duel

It’s not great that the final match before the break for the World Cup That Human Rights Forgot is against them. A resumption of hostilities in every sense of the phrase. For me, the derby games are matches to be endured not enjoyed. Leaving out the low quality on the pitch, the before, during and after bring out the absolute worst in both fanbases. It feels often that the game itself is irrelevant and even trying to get to the ground is to run the gauntlet of over-enthusiastic policing and tanked-up Ross Kemp lookalikes who are more interested in pretending to be as hard men than being fans of whichever team they claim to follow.

In the weeks leading up to them, I’ll find it easy to get angry at the stupidity on display, depressed at the behaviour and I’ll find it difficult to care about anything other than the result. I’d happily not play the games at all, just write the result down as a 1-1 draw and be done with the damned things.

As for the other 44 games, I’m looking forward to all of them. Places not visited for a while, a variety of clubs on the rise or the fall. The games will come thick and fast and many of them will be available for streaming. Perhaps strangely, despite the media monster that is the Premier League, I’ll feel much more connected to the Clarets via audio and video this forthcoming season.

Seeing is Believing

So, what do I expect to happen?  I always say a good season in the Championship is getting into the playoffs, it is simply too unpredictable a division to rely on anything more.  Yes, Fulham immediately bounced back up but – whisper it quietly like everyone else – they have a billionaire backing them.  Bournemouth’s owner seems to have avoided the sanctions placed on every other Russian billionaire too.

It is noticeable that ALK haven’t been breaking the bank with incoming transfers. As I type this, it is likely that they will be making a profit on the overall transfer business. The major fear has always been that the drop in revenue between the top table and the Championship is very difficult for a club like Burnley to handle, but it seems like financially at least, ALK have managed to slash the wage bill and rebuild the squad for the loss of four key players and a loanee. The business side has been smart, and one would assume that the incoming players have been subjected to ALKs much mooted analytics strategy.

However, numbers in spreadsheets and databases only take you so far. Anyone expecting a raw manager with a raw team to catch lightning in a bottle and strike promotion gold straightaway is asking for trouble.  It’s going to take time, and by that I mean a few months at least to even begin to understand where Burnley are this season. Last time we were in this division, we had clearly spent a good chunk of the previous PL term preparing for the challenge. This time around, we don’t even have a normal length pre-season to get ready for the Championship grind.

There is, of course, the very real prospect that the Clarets don’t even start the first seven games of the season with the squad that they want. The early start means that 15% of the season will have been completed before the summer transfer window closes. Thankfully the ridiculous nature of the division, where a five-game winning run can catapult you up 10 places and a similar losing streak do the opposite means that it is possible to start slowly and catch up.

Oddly, the enforced November break may actually be a blessing.  A chance to take stock, review progress and reset for the long haul to the finish line. I fully expect a slow start, winning some, losing some, hovering around 10th until then.

I don’t demand success, or even promotion this season, what I do want is to see progress. Progress and player development, a building of a more attractive style of play, a clearer pattern to understand what the club will look like under the new regime and the direction it is heading.

Burnley are changing at a dizzying speed. The club is – on and off the pitch – completely different to what it was less than even 12 months ago. Is that pace of change (pun not intended, but I’m keeping it) too fast? How long will it take before we know whether it will gel? Can the club afford for it to take two, three seasons?

The Chinese proverb “May you live in interesting times” is meant to be a curse as well as a blessing. Burnley are certainly entering interesting times, but then interesting is something that we haven’t been for a while and right now, I’m excited at the prospect.