A leaden sky frowns over the former mill town of Burnley. It’s a curiously small yet sprawling conurbation, its buildings clustered tightly together around the confluence of the rivers Calder and Brun – the latter of which lends the place its name – though the grey carpet of housing estates and former factories soon gives way to the rising, coppice-clad slopes of the moorland that surround the town.
Astride Harry Potts Way sits Turf Moor, a 22,000-seater stadium that has been the home of Burnley Football Club since 1883. Much like the town around it, though it has been redeveloped several times in the past century, it is a relic of an era now forgotten, with its wooden seats, fading paintwork and squat stands like corrugated allotment sheds. It is the antithesis of the stifling, soulless caverns that have plagued Europe. Turf Moor is insular, whimsical, archaic.
For nearly 150 years, the town’s famous Clarets have trod this storied patch of turf on a meandering journey that has seen them crowned champions of all four of England’s professional divisions – one of only five clubs in history to do so.
For the most part, though, Burnley FC huddles in the looming shadows thrown by the vast metropolises with which it shares this unique corner of Britain: Manchester and Liverpool. The north-west is a harsh place to exist for a football club. Though it may be the stalwart barbican of football against which the powers of the midlands and the south have been sundered for time immemorial, the north-west’s riches have not been divided equally over the years. Of the region’s 60 league championships, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City account for 53 of them.
Indeed, the last time Burnley could lay claim to being the finest team in England was the 1959/60 season, when Harry Potts led the club to their second – and to date, last – league championship. It was a peculiar irony at the time that such progressive, enterprising football could be found in the surrounds of a decaying mill town reeling from the beginnings of Britain’s de-industrialisation. Not that anyone outside of Burnley knew it.
Burnley’s semi-legendary chairman, Bob Lord – renowned for his ruthless running of the club for 26 years – refused to allow television cameras into the ground, essentially denying the opportunity to showcase to the rest of the country how good they truly were. This was a time where, thanks to Lord’s insistence, Burnley had some of the most advanced training facilities in England and benefited from an impressive youth policy that produced the likes of Jimmy McIlroy and Willie Morgan.
Since then, Burnley have enjoyed only three fleeting jaunts in England’s top division in 41 long years. During that time, while the powers of Manchester and Liverpool waxed, Burnley waned thanks in no small part to the abolition of the maximum wage, which saw the club’s finest talent depart in droves.
Unable to compete with their more illustrious neighbours, successive relegations followed throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s until, struggling financially and with the average attendance at Turf Moor barely topping 3,000, the club reached its nadir in 1987.
On the final day of the Fourth Division season, a 2-1 victory over Leyton Orient was just enough to see the club finish above the relegation zone by a single point. It truly was a case of do or die. In the hollowed-out carcass of post-industrial Burnley where jobs were scarce and unemployment was high, football constituted a route to escapism. With the club already losing tens of thousands of pounds each week, demotion into non-league was considered a death knell.
Eventually, the club would escape the dank cellar of English football courtesy of a marvellous run to the final of the then-named Sherpa Van trophy in 1988. The revenue raised from the appearance at Wembley, where 81,000 people turned up to see Wolves win the fixture 2-0, was enough to sustain the club through its most barren period.
Short-term future secure, Burnley spent most of the 1990s oscillating between Divisions One and Two, but though the spectre of 1987 had been banished by the time the millennium arrived, it would rise again, albeit in different garb, in 2003 following the collapse of ITV’s ill-fated attempts to wrestle football away from the BBC and Sky. Heavily reliant on this television revenue, Burnley nearly succumbed to football’s other terrible harbinger: administration.
Amidst the race riots that wracked the town at the turn of the century and with the football club ailing once more, there was a grim air of finality about Burnley. Relegation from the second tier was only staved off by the miraculous talents of Stan Ternant, who called Burnley’s 19th-place finish in 2003/04 “the eighth wonder of the world”.
If that was the eighth wonder, then Burnley’s ascension to, and sustained membership of, the Premier League is surely the ninth wonder of modern times. This town of fewer than 75,000 people – one of the smallest to ever host a top-flight club – can now boast one of the most financially secure, pragmatic and stalwart sides in the division.
It has been a long, circuitous and at times treacherous route for Burnley Football Club, but their inclusion at the highest step of England’s football pyramid could not be more merited. From the brink of extinction to their longest uninterrupted stay in the top flight for half a century, they have established themselves as a difficult team to beat – and they’ve done it their own way.
In an era of bloated wage bills and exorbitant transfer fees, Sean Dyche has carved a niche for Burnley without the raiment of opulence thanks to the long-term vision provided by a chairman and board who have the interests of the football club firmly at the forefront of their operations.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, Burnley are managing to turn a handsome profit (£45m as of 2018) and have no outstanding bank or director loans. In fact, the entire board of directors hail from the town itself, including chairman Mike Garlick, and take home precisely £0 in salaries.
Unambitious, some might argue, but since they returned to the Premier League in 2016, the club has broken its transfer record on several occasions with the likes of Chris Wood, Jeff Hendrick, Jack Cork and Charlie Taylor all becoming mainstays in a resolute Burnley side. It just so happens in that time that Burnley have also managed to cash in on players while still remaining competitive. The sales of Michael Keane to Everton and André Gray to Watford were barely noticed thanks to the astute replacements that had been earmarked well in advance.
That is where Burnley’s success in not only surviving but, some might say, thriving in the Premier League has derived from, and lest anyone forget, they qualified for Europe in 2018/19 – all thanks to the club’s adherence to a carefully planned, long-term vision. In a world of short-term gains, especially at the sharp end of the division, Mike Garlick and the board avowed persistence with sticking to their beliefs is beginning to reap dividends.
Not that this approach has been entirely without friction. When Burnley were relegated after one season in the top flight in 2014/15, disgruntled fans directed their ire towards the board who they felt had underinvested at a crucial point. The signings of Marvin Sordell, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Steven Reid all underwhelmed in a campaign that saw the club finish 19th. A torrid opening run, which saw them collect just four points and score a mere five goals in their opening ten fixtures compounded the notion that Burnley were simply not financed well enough to succeed in the Premier League.
Yet, during Garlick’s tenure, Burnley have maintained a healthy balance sheet, and though money was not being spent in the right areas when it came to the transfer market, it was being spent elsewhere. Because Burnley didn’t possess the financial might of many of the established clubs in the top flight, the board recognised the need to begin developing the players they had and the players of the future. Therefore, funding was directed towards the academy and training facilities, while there was a complete overhaul of the transfer strategy.
Rather than procuring players that could slot immediately into the first team, Burnley embarked on a strategy of acquiring footballers specifically intended to serve the club in the long run. The likes of James Tarkowski, Charlie Taylor and Nick Pope endured limited football at first, but have since grown into mature, dependable footballers who command regular first-team places and, in the case of Tarkowski and Pope, have even been considered and selected for the England national team. Both Josh Brownhill and Bailea Peacock-Farrell have been signed for the same purpose.
To the casual observer, it might look as though Dyche is signing players only to bench them for long periods of time, but their overall development at the club is paramount.
That is to say there have not been the odd anomaly; Ben Gibson, seen by many as the long-term replacement for Ben Mee, has been unable to budge the evergreen captain from his starting XI berth and has made but a single appearance since his £17m move from Middlesbrough. Similarly, Matěj Vydra, who has to date enjoyed only three goals for the Clarets, was signed for £11m in a move that was seen by many as Dyche attempting to implement a different style of attack.
This refusal to deviate from a long-term plan might frustrate some at Turf Moor, but Burnley have produced one of their most exciting academy graduates in recent years in the form of svelte winger Dwight McNeil. The prodigious 20-year-old already commands a starting position on the left flank and is the club’s first unequivocally successful graduate since Jay Rodriguez, who, incidentally, returned to the club in 2019 following a career with Southampton and West Brom.
This measured investment in the club’s youth has also seen a dramatic rise in the number of on-loan academy players plying their trade much higher in the football pyramid than ever before. Six of the current under-23 squad are enjoying regular game time at clubs in the Football League.
While the foundations are in place for Burnley to maintain their status in the Premier League for years to come, that’s not to say there aren’t elements of both fear and frustration that permeate the fans of a club that has for so many years struggled to find a welcome home in the Football League pyramid.
With Dyche now the longest-serving manager in the top flight, there is a dependability that many rival clubs cannot lay claim to, and there is a clear vision with which to take the club into the next decade. Yet, this vision is, understandably, somewhat risk-averse, given the huge financial implications a relegation can have on a club the size of Burnley.
Similarly, Dyche’s transfer strategy has seen a distinct lack of flair delivered to the club. Burnley tend to buy British, homegrown talent to an exacting criteria. Marquee signings are rare – Steven Defour, widely adored at Turf Moor, was a notable deviation to this strategy – given the fact the club’s transfer strategy is constructed around buying players who fit Burnley’s well-drilled system.
It is with an enviable eye that some sections of these proud fans have looked upon their contemporaries, but this envy should be tempered with a strict dose of reality. Though the likes of Fulham, Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Watford, West Brom, Newcastle and Aston Villa have sought reinforcements from outside the British Isles, often at a far greater cost, none can claim to possess the longevity and consistency of this small, provincial club from the north-west.
Criticism from armchair fans, the Twitter masses and the Fantasy Premier League devotees has grown in recent years towards Burnley, thanks largely to Dyche’s insistence on playing a rugged and pragmatic brand of football not in keeping with the more glamorous trends propagated by the Man Cities and Liverpools of this world.
In fact, such is the common garden Burnley fan’s familiarity with sneering post-match comments following victory over almost any Premier League club, that Clarets statistician Dave Roberts has created Cry Arse Bingo, allowing Burnley fans to track oft-used gems such as, “I’m glad I don’t have to watch that every week”, “Small town/shit club” and “I like football, but Burnley – Burnley can fuck off.”
But to dismiss Burnley as old-fashioned and thus worthy of constant lampooning would be a folly. Often accused of being a long-ball side as if it is some sort of scathing insult, Dyche’s men rank second only to Sheffield United in that regard – a team who have been lauded during the 2019/20 season for playing attractive football but who curiously escape the brunt of the criticism aimed at the Clarets. Not that Dyche has any quibbles about playing to his side’s strengths.
With the exception of the 2018/19 campaign, which saw Burnley’s small squad stretched almost to breaking by their Europa League commitments, Dyche has ensured that his sides are defensively resolute. Twice now, Burnley have conceded the fewest goals out of any team outside the top six, a testament to a somewhat unorthodox defensive strategy that almost welcomes shots being taken at goal.
Such is Burnley’s defensive organisation, they rarely allow inroads into their box, instead forcing teams into making an inordinate amount of ranged attacks. Since their promotion three years ago, Tarkowski and Mee both rank highest in the league for average number of blocks.
That is not to say Burnley are an inherently negative side; Dyche often plays with two physical strikers in Wood and Barnes or Rodriguez, all of whom are players that either thrive off aerial duels or running the channels, but who also possess the nous and clever movement required to find space in an opponents’ penalty area where Burnley score the vast majority of their goals.
Burnley’s four-year stay is sprinkled sparingly with notable victories over the Premier League big boys; Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Leicester have all been vanquished, but not with any real regularity. Rather, Burnley have developed a reputation for being extremely efficient at beating the teams around them – and when your goal is to remain in the division, that’s an excellent starting point. Dyche’s “plucky” side have dismantled the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford, Brighton, Bournemouth and Southampton home and away over the previous few campaigns.
As much as Turf Moor has become a proverbial fortress, especially for visiting teams from the lower reaches of the table, they have become equally ruthless away from home. To quote the oft-used phrase, Burnley are quite happy “to turn up and spoil the day”.
As such, by deflecting some of the unjust criticism and sticking firmly to their beliefs, they have made the Premier League their home for four of the last five seasons, and it is their incongruity that has become the defining characteristic of this rugged, unorthodox side that Dyche has curated, nurtured and organised.
Like the ground in which they play, a wistful, charming relic in a world of insincere pretences, Burnley have no desire to exist in this modern footballing world in any other way than their own way. The Burnley way.
By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90