Burnley's strange history of fisticuffs between players and managers
Football journalist is a glamorous job, right? You may have read my recent dispatches from Chicago, Los Angeles and Barcelona. Well, try this one, which is being written sitting in a rental car outside Burnley Football Club. I have a deadline to meet, and journalists don't miss deadlines.
A persistent drizzle is obscuring the view of the hills that surround the town, the smallest in England with a Premier League team. People walk past every few minutes looking in and probably thinking that I'm an undercover policeman because they don't recognise me.
Burnley is a football town. It is not a wealthy town, so the rise to the Premier League on crowds of 14,000 is spectacular. I was tipped off about manager Sean Dyche by a former playing colleague of his. They used to carpool together and are close friends. And he spoke very well of him -- at a time when Dyche was under pressure from fans and journalists who simply failed to appreciate the good job he was doing and the team he was building. Dyche was worried about losing his job and paused on buying a house. A year later, he was the king of the town as he led Burnley into the top flight, having beaten neighbour and rival Blackburn Rovers. They had started the season as one of the relegation favourites to go down to the third level.
They're clear favourites to be relegated this season; Burnley will have their season in the drizzle and enjoy the experience and the financial windfall. But it's not like they're one-season wonders -- it's a football town with a rich history.
In recent years I've interviewed several former Burnley players and managers -- and almost all had a story of conflict. Nothing beats interviewing face-to-face, and the stories you hear.
In 2003, former Manchester United player David May was at Burnley, where he didn't see eye-to-eye with then-boss Stan Ternent. The pair had a training ground altercation, with Ternent unhappy with May's performance, especially in a reserve game. The two viewed the game differently, and Ternent wanted May out of the club. He was given two options: see the chairman and get paid off, or stay away from training. He returned to training, where matters quickly reached a head and the argument continued.
"A ball came to me and I lashed it as far as I could," May says. "The lads told me 'calm down' but I'd gone, snapped. Stan came over screaming and shouting and calling me a big-time Charlie. I told him to where to go. He said, 'You're not ruining my club.'"
"As I walked off, I said, 'I won't ruin it, you've already ruined it.'
"Stan asked me if I wanted to have a go. I said, 'Go on, then.' He bowled over, head-butted my chest and threw a haymaker. Everyone was watching."
May got in his car and rang his agent.
"I told him what had happened and he said, 'Leave it with me.' He rang Burnley and told them that I was going to press charges. The players told me to do the same. I would never have done it, but Paul rang me back and said, 'Stan's going to come to your house tonight to apologise.'"
The rain was falling hard in Rochdale when Ternent arrived at May's house.
"Stan started buzzing on the gates," smiles May. "I let him stand in the rain for a minute and a half before answering."
"'Maysie, it's the gaffer,'" a drenched Ternent said. "I let him in. He shook my hand and said, 'These things happen.' I said, "Gaffer, of all the time I've been in football I've never seen a manager attack a player. Anyway, I can't believe that you missed me." The pair laughed about it and their relationship was fine thereafter.
Players' conflicts with Burnley management is not a 21st-century phenomenon.
Willie Morgan, eventually a huge star in the 1960s and '70s, first chose Burnley over Arsenal, Leeds, Manchester United and Chelsea.
"Burnley was the first club I visited," recalls Morgan, "and I got injured there. They really looked after me and I appreciated that -- it had a big factor in me signing. Dad was distraught, he wanted me to join a bigger club, but Burnley were the league champions of England when I moved there in 1960."
Morgan flourished. He played 183 times and became a Turf Moor favourite with the men, the focus of unrequited teenage crushes from girls in Padiham to Nelson.
Convinced that he was worthy of a more substantial weekly remuneration, Morgan requested a pay rise. Burnley chairman Bob Lord didn't agree. The two fell out -- a skill Lord famously excelled at. Unhappy, Morgan trained alone. Rival clubs were alerted that he was for sale and once again, there was no shortage of interest. He moved to Manchester United for a British record fee of 117,000 pounds.
For a club of its size, Burnley has a history full of gems like this. Try Martin Buchan, one of Man United's most graceful captains. After a wonderful career, Buchan was expected to be a great manager. In 1985, he started out at Burnley, when he'd finished as a player. The club was playing in the fourth division and in heavy debt. He didn't last.
"I gave [one of the players] a bloody nose," he says. "He started it! The player was knocking on my door for a free transfer from the moment I arrived. He'd been stitched up by the previous manager, but that wasn't my fault."
Martin Buchan stood up in his office at the PFA headquarters in Manchester, where he serves as an executive and re-enacted the fight, miming imaginary punches.
"He made a nuisance of himself -- if I asked him to play the ball right in training then he'd play it left. He came in my office one day demanding a free transfer and shouting and swearing in front of the chief scout. The chief scout looked at the player and said, 'The manager has been very honest with you. I've never seen a manager be so honest.'
"The player looked back at him and said, 'What has it got to do with you?'
"I politely asked him to leave. Twice. He refused so I started steering him to the door, but he threw a punch, which caught me. I punched him straight back in the nose.
"Something in my head said, 'Don't mark him,' but I gave him a right good doing. I was hyperventilating, so I went to splash cold water on my face. I went back into my office and the chief scout was laughing. It wouldn't have hurt my reputation with the players because they wouldn't have messed with me, as I discovered when I had a meeting with another player a couple of minutes later. He was as white as a ghost. He'd seen the battered player and was worried that I'd do the same to him.
"We had a board meeting a couple of days later. The player had given the chairman a letter complaining. I explained my side of the story and they agreed to stand by me. A few days later I packed it in. I'd never fought with players when I played football so what was I doing fighting with them as a manager? I didn't need it so I took a walk after four months. The fight never got in the press."
If we'd not spoken face-to-face, I'd never have got to see Buchan's shadow boxing and probably he would not revealed one half of what he did.