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 M