Premier League focus

Unfounded frustration at Burnley

April 1, 2010
By Chris Peterson
(Archive)

Turf Moor can be a lively place at the best of times. They say it's a throwback to how football used to be, and that's not always meant as a compliment. The scenes that followed Sunday's volatile East Lancashire derby against Blackburn Rovers were certainly nothing to be proud of. To be there was to glimpse back to the dark days of the 80s, and we're not necessarily talking about the 1980s either.

Martin Olsson wins a penalty in the derby
GettyImagesMartin Olsson wins a penalty in the derby

It was the usual stuff. Fans trying to get at other fans, police and stewards battling to keep them apart, away fans ripping up seats, missiles thrown. It would have happened if Burnley were playing Blackburn in League One or taking on their hated rivals at tiddlywinks.

But the anger vented on Sunday was more than that of supporters coming to terms with defeat in a local derby. More than simple frustration at their team's limp performance or the penalty - played for by Martin Olsson and wrongly awarded by referee Mike Dean - that allowed Blackburn to head back along the M65 with the three points and bragging rights. As the majority of supporters not intent on causing trouble left the ground, they did so in the realisation that they are going down.

It has been on the cards pretty much since day one. Since Burnley refused to break the bank to try to extend their stay in the top-flight beyond one season and bookmakers made them hot favourites for the drop before a ball had been kicked. Even when they stunned champions Manchester United and the old main stand shook in celebration of Robbie Blake's famous strike. That was the first of four home wins in a row, but surely the most ardent Clarets fan could not have kidded himself into thinking it would continue that way.

That was always going to be the problem for Burnley. Supporters who 12 months ago would have given their right arm for just one season in the Premier League now want more. Give them a taste of how the other half live, put them up on Millionaires' Row for a season, and then try taking them back to that two-bedroom terrace - you'll find some people have very short memories.

But have their team really got it so badly wrong?

Burnley Football Club were one of the founding members of the Football League. They have been around for 122 years, not all of them happy, and have known hard times when the issue of staying in business constituted a crisis, not a home defeat to Blackburn. You don't have to support Burnley to remember the final day of the season in 1987 when victory over Leyton Orient saved this famous old club from slipping into non-league.

Did supporters really want their team to gamble all that history, its future, on another season in the Premier League? Did they want Burnley to become another Portsmouth rather than do the sensible thing and follow the example set by teams like Watford and West Brom? Take the fall and take the parachute payments, safe in the knowledge that at least you will land on the other side with your immediate future secure and a chance to try again next year.

That isn't to say fans should accept relegation lightly or smile through a defeat to their local rivals. Football is all about emotion, and the frustration among the Burnley faithful is understandable. But the truth is their club have been working with one eye on going down from the moment they beat Sheffield United in last season's play-off final at Wembley.

It is why they refuse to pay any of their players more than £15,000 a week, fork out more than £3 million for their biggest summer signing, and why so many first-team players are being allowed to drift towards the end of their contracts this summer as the club awaits confirmation of which division they will be playing in.

Brian Laws
GettyImagesBrian Laws: A poor season in the Premier League

The clearest indication Burnley were planning for life outside the top-flight came when they had to find a replacement for manager Owen Coyle following his unexpected departure in mid-season. In turning to Brian Laws, it was no surprise to hear major investor Brendan Flood admit they had chosen someone with an extensive working knowledge of the Championship, even though his candour surprised many observers more accustomed to management speak from our football executives.

Why, asked Flood, give the job to a fancy foreign name or out-of-work Premier League boss who would scarper the moment the battle was lost? Why indeed. If you think you're going to end up in the Championship, it makes sense to have a manager who knows what he's doing once you get there.

The problem with appointing Laws was that Burnley were not only perceived to be hoisting the white flag as early as January - they were putting their faith in someone whose record in the Championship was not actually that good. The club may claim to have commissioned a report by accountants Deloitte before deciding that he would be the best man to achieve success on a budget in the second tier, but the fact was he had been sacked by Sheffield Wednesday less than a month earlier with his team in relegation trouble after three unremarkable years at Hillsborough. That was never going to impress supporters.

Burnley should also heed the lesson of Derby, who turned to Paul Jewell in 2007 with relegation already a strong possibility because they believed he could take them back up again based on his impressive track record at Bradford and Wigan. But the rot had already set in, and with Jewell tainted by relegation failure and unable to reverse the downward momentum, he was gone little more than a year later with Derby 18th in the Championship table. It does not follow that Laws would suffer the same fate, but success based on previous experience is far from guaranteed either.

They are not down yet, of course. He has targeted four wins from the last six games, but that is a massively tall order from a manager with one win from 12 since taking over. And having lost to Portsmouth, Wolves and now Blackburn at Turf Moor, what chance Burnley faring any better in their remaining home games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham? Beating Hull, Sunderland and Birmingham in their other fixtures seems an equally unlikely prospect for a team still waiting for its first away win in the Premier League.

Burnley supporters had better make the most of what is left because the chances are they will soon be swapping Old Trafford and the Emirates for a return to Scunthorpe and Barnsley. But like their club, who will this week unveil a new home kit for next season, they need to look to the future. They need to take what is happening to them on the chin and hope that the good times come again. It could be far worse.