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Oct 7, 2009

Clarets crowd help conquer opposition

For a succession of visitors to a foreign corner of Lancashire, it has become the Turf Moor death rattle. Seemingly rocking, the stands erupt as the bouncing Burnley fans celebrate another goal, another win and another vaunted victim. It is becoming a routine.

Ten consecutive successes on home soil have included four since promotion. It means that, along with Arsenal and Chelsea, Burnley boast the Premier League's finest home record and, as they celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their last league title, they are four points off a Champions League place.

But the paradox of Burnley's start is that they possess both the best home form in the Premier League and the worst away statistics. Home and away, it is four out of four. Few seem to relish a trip to Burnley; plenty want a visit from them. Unstoppable at home, unimpressive away: these are the two Burnleys.

So what makes the difference? The notion of the crowd as the 12th man is usually a cliché, but at Burnley it acquires a truth. Manager Owen Coyle has described Turf Moor as "conducive to a real football atmosphere," and even in the Championship, night games generated a noise that few other grounds produce. Social factors, such as the pride supporters feel in an economically troubled town, can be highlighted, but so, too, can the blend of history and novelty for a club with a distinguished past that is in the top flight for the first time in 34 seasons.

Burnley have a feelgood factor that, say, Birmingham, promoted to the Premier League for the third time in eight seasons, don't possess. Theirs is an atmosphere that has attracted envious glances, though it hasn't prevented professional Burnley fan and former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell making a slightly strange appeal for some more inventive chants and writing a rather odd ditty about Brian Jensen. The repetitive nature of the choruses of Coyle's name can serve to build pressure and rouse the team.

It feels more of a consequence than a coincidence, therefore, that individual inspiration, such as Robbie Blake's fantastic finish against Manchester United, David Nugent's terrific brace against Sunderland and Andre Bikey's uncharacteristically Lampard-esque goal against Birmingham, tends to come at Turf Moor.

It has brought comparisons with Stoke, where another set of fans, seemingly inspired by Spinal Tap, are intent on turning the volume levels up to 11. Taking 35 points at home all but ensured their safety last season, and Burnley are on course to emulate them. Yet Stoke's success derived in part from their style of play; Burnley's is a different sort of culture shock to the elite. They attempt to out-play sides, swarming forward in support of the sole striker and avoiding overuse of the long ball game.

Hence the other, and less welcome parallel: West Bromwich Albion. Eager passers who were condemned for being terminally naive, Albion were relegated immediately. Such comparisons are only raised away from home where Burnley's record - four defeats out of four, with 14 goals conceded and none scoring - makes for more depressing reading than Campbell's attempts at witty lyrics.

"We have been panned a bit as we have lost away from home. Obviously we need to tighten up," Coyle said. "We will look to continue to pass and move the ball. Nothing will deter us from how we want to play the game."

It is not a question of ripping up the game-plan, but implementing it better. Centre-back Clarke Carlisle, for instance, completed 93% of his passes at home against Birmingham and misplaced 39% of them away at Tottenham. When the latter statistic is the product of a short passing game, it gifts the opposition possession in potentially dangerous positions.

One slight amendment has been made to offer the defence more protection - pushing Bikey forward to cover for the absence of the injured Chris McCann. Giving Burnley two holding midfielders, along with Graham Alexander, may have been intended primarily for the away games, though it produced an immediate benefit in attack when Bikey scored what proved to be the winner against Birmingham.

Burnley's next journey is both their shortest and their most pressurised. One explanation for their away losses lies in the identities of their opponents thus far: Stoke, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. Next up is Blackburn and Burnley's trend of incrementally heavier defeats on the road, leading to the 5-0 reverse at White Hart Lane, bodes ill.

But Coyle said: "When I look at games away from home, we've had early chances in each and every one." Scoring the opening goal in every home match and conceding first in each away game are trends of their campaign. So is an ability to overcome wealthier opponents.

"For us to retain our Premier League status would be against all odds. We have the smallest budget in the league by a country mile," Coyle concludes. Their wage ceiling is thought to be around £15,000 per week, but much of their impact comes from men paid far less than that: the fans.

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