Two years ago, Burnley were flying high in the Premier League. Jamie Smith points the finger at the board.
It’s hard to believe that two years ago we were in the top half of the Premier League, isn’t it? We currently sit just a few points and a handful of places outside the drop zone in the Championship, just two years after being the tenth best team of the country. I can scarcely get my head around how badly it has gone wrong for Burnley FC in the last two years.
The warning signs had been there. Under Owen Coyle, we lit up the Premier League with some scintillating football and home wins over Manchester United and Everton – both with clean sheets – to announce our return to the top flight. We kept up the impressive home form, losing just once at Turf Moor under the Scot, when Brian Jensen’s comedy slip provided Wigan with an unlikely victory. But on the road things were a different story. We were naive and found we couldn’t keep our shape without possession of the football. The defence was a liability. We got trounced regularly, although the story could have been different but for misses such as the gaping goal Martin Paterson somehow squirted the ball wide of in the early stages at Stamford Bridge. We lost that one 3-0.
But two years ago we had just picked up a point at Manchester City, probably this year’s Premier League winners. Kevin McDonald – blimey, remember him? – popped up with a late leveller after we had thrown away a two-goal lead, complete with some bad luck and deflections going against us. But we were tenth. Tenth in the Premier League. Just think about that for a second.
It didn’t get any better. Wins dried up, though points at home to Aston Villa, Fulham and Arsenal were all creditable results and showed we could hold our own. But then Bolton Wanderers pulled the trigger on Gary Megson’s reign and all hell broke loose. It quickly became clear that Phil Gartside, the man who recommended Coyle to Burnley in the first place, wanted to take his man to the Reebok Stadium. Burnley appeared to do little to persuade the Scot to stay – Flood reportedly giving him permission to speak with Gartside – and he walked after the FA Cup win at Milton Keynes, taking half of the backroom staff with him and arguably the heart and soul of the club as well. Compensation for Coyle was a pittance given what he meant to the club and Burnley handled the situation desperately badly.
What Owen Coyle did to Burnley FC will mean some fans will never be able to forgive him. Personally, I prefer to look back at the good he achieved. He took my club to the Premier League, a sight I never thought I’d see. Nights like Chelsea away and Manchester United will stay with me forever. We won at Wembley. We came within seconds of a Carling Cup final after a wonderful 3-0 win at home to Spurs when we looked dead and buried, only to have it snatched away from us by two late, late, unjust goals. He may have walked out, but he left us 14th in the table with half of the season gone. In my opinion, we could have been saved. We can argue about that until the cows come home, it can’t be proved either way.
The board didn’t agree. The appointment of Brian Laws stank of accepting relegation, despite there being plenty of teams worse than us below us in the league. All we had to do was stay above them. Laws was a panic appointment and he quickly made a panic signing as if to justify the bafflement of the fans who wondered how a man fired by Sheffield Wednesday for leading them towards relegation possibly deserved the chance to manage in the Premier League. The talk was that Laws went into his interview with a document proving, with formulas, how good a manager he was without money to spend. It must have been a hell of a document.
Leon Cort was that man. Laws had obviously looked at our record and decided we needed a defender. That might have been the case, but we certainly did not need Leon Cort, we certainly did not need to pay £1.5 million for him and we certainly did not need to give him a three-and-a-half year deal. God knows what whoever on the board who brokered that transfer was thinking. Danny Fox came in as well and to be fair, we made a profit on him, although I’d question whether we needed a left-back at the time and his Premier League displays were really very poor.
Laws ignored the gaping chasm that was our midfield and went on to form a midfield two from Andre Bikey (as he was at the time), Graham Alexander and Kevin McDonald, despite none of those players being any good at all in a two.
We won once under Laws before the season was effectively over, a 2-1 win over West Ham in which Fox made his debut and scored the winner from a set piece after a Rob Green made a howler for David Nugent to score. The away form had been bad under Coyle – but we were destroyed 5-2 at Villa Park and it could have been double figures. Performances at home to Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers were as spineless as I have ever seen from a Burnley team. The players evidently had no belief in their own abilities any more. Laws was powerless to turn it around. Defeat at Wigan effectively sealed our fate, a humiliating 6-1 thrashing at home to City confirming we were heading out of the league. A win at Hull thanks to some kamikaze defending offered brief hope, but a 4-0 hammering doled out by Liverpool at Turf Moor was the end of our Premier League dream.
From 14th in the league when Coyle walked out, we ended up relegated with two games to go. We went out with barely a whimper.
Somehow, we were able to keep the vast majority of the squad together, although Steven Fletcher was sold to Wolves for £7 million. It was a damning indictment on our players that nobody else got offers, though Chris Eagles turned down a move to Rangers. Chris Iwelumo came in, we were told not as a replacement for Fletcher. No replacement arrived. Dean Marney, Lee Grant and Ross Wallace arrived – competent Championship players, but were they of the required quality to take us back up?
Having led us to relegation, some wondered how Laws survived that summer. Local newspapers reported he was gone but he clung on, perhaps the meaningless win over Spurs on the last day convinced the board to stick with their man. Personally, I would have fired him multiple times. A moment after he signed on to become Coyle’s replacement. After the Portsmouth defeat. After the Rovers defeat. After the City defeat. Certainly at the end of the season. But he survived and Clarets fans had to try and back him, clear though it was he lacked the managerial skills to take us back to the Premier League.
He got decent backing from the board, although not all of the Fletcher money was made available he spent almost all of it if you factor in the Cort and Fox deals. The squad was definitely stronger on paper than the one Coyle had taken up, though some of the key men were two years older. The wage bill was high, despite the board’s claims promotion would set us up for the next ten years. It suddenly looked a bit like a shit or bust situation.
We started okay. Form at home was excellent, but performances were middling. Away results remained terrible and we did not win on the road until Boxing Day at bogey club Barnsley of all places. At no point in his year in charge did Laws lead us to consecutive wins. Home form dipped, as it did for Coyle, in the autumn. We lost 4-0 at home to Reading, Laws’ marquee signing Leon Cort turning in a display as bad as anything ever managed by Graham Branch or Arthur Gnohere at the same level under Stan Ternent. That was the last we saw of Leon Cort. Thank goodness.
We led 2-0 at home to Leeds and conspired to be beaten 3-2 and that was the final straw for many fans. Somehow, Laws continue to cling on, although the club remained outside the top six and never looked like climbing into it. A fortnight later he was gone. Another awful display at home – a 2-0 defeat to Scunthorpe – saw the end of Brian Laws. He had been Burnley manager for almost a year and will go down as one of the worst we’ve ever had. Appointing him was one of the worst decisions a Premier League club has ever made. There are no words to describe how bad he was.
Having panicked into appointing Laws, Barry Kilby and Brendan Flood took their time. Eddie Howe of Bournemouth, a young man with a stupendous record, was the chosen one. His brief time in management had echoes of Owen Coyle’s time at St Johnstone before making the big move to the Championship. A goalless draw at Scunthorpe immediately showed an improvement, although the game was poor, and we followed that with a victory away to Portsmouth and an FA Cup win over Burton. This was almost as good as it got in the last two years.
There was a frustrating inconsistency and the signings made by Howe looked odd. Charlie Austin, a former brickie with a dodgy shoulder and a staggering goalscoring record in the lower leagues, did his shoulder immediately and was out for the season. Marvin Bartley, brought from Bournemouth with Howe, made little positive impact. Both have looked good this season but were perhaps not right for last January.
But we won three on the spin in the league, lifting us to seventh in the Championship, and it looked as though Howe had somehow rescued the season from mid-table nothingness. Then we collapsed. No wins in the next six saw us drop, although another trio of victories restored hope before a dreadful performance at Elland Road wrote off our chances for good. It had been an interesting ride, but we ended up eighth, only one place above where Laws had left us.
Howe had surely earned the right to be backed in the transfer market after some positive signs, it was clear there was something missing in the squad preventing us from kicking on into the top six. Chris McCann was back and there was positivity. Howe cleared out some of the high-earning deadwood and there were murmurs about the state of the club’s finances. Tyrone Mears and Chris Eagles got the call from the Reebok and decided they wanted out. With both only having a year to go on their deals, the £3 million fee was decent business by the club. Then Kilby and Flood flogged Fox to Southampton against Howe’s wishes and we wondered exactly what was going on. Howe had surely not signed up for this just a few months previously.
He was given basically nothing to rebuild the squad. Danny Ings, another lower league hotshot, came in but got seriously injured in training. Howe has had little luck with injuries. No funds were provided to replace Fox, who had an excellent season in the Championship. None of the money was made available to bring in players for Mears and Eagles. Three of our best players went out, with lots of money coming into the club. Howe saw tuppence of it. We relied on loans from Manchester City to fill up the back line, Kieran Trippier and Ben Mee arriving. Junior Stanislas and Zavon Hines arrived from West Ham and Howe raided relegated Preston North End for Keith Treacy. All three have struggled to make an impact. But if you pay peanuts, you get middling players.
This season has been bad. A young squad has led to inconsistency, our form currently reads LLWWLL and that just about sums it up. Austin, Trippier and Bartley have been bright spots, showing Howe can pick a player, but there’s no depth. If we go behind, you look to the bench and there’s nobody there to come on and make a difference. The squad is desperately light of quality.
Today, the culmination of two years of steady decline came in the form of a £4 million pre-tax loss announced by the board. Recently, chief executive Paul Fletcher told a fans’ forum we have “no money”. We have gone from a position of being set up for ten years to having no money in the space of two years. We have dropped a full division in the space of two years. How on earth has this been allowed to happen to our football club? Why are the people responsible still in charge of our football club? It is an outrage.
It’s hard to get excited about Burnley these days. It seems a long time ago when we played thrilling football under Owen Coyle and beat some of the best teams in the land.
For me, the board have to take the vast majority of the blame. They did not see Coyle’s departure coming, although it was always likely he would jump ship and he gave them a warning in the summer when he came close to leaving for Celtic. They gave away the chance to stay up by appointing Brian Laws. They left it far too long to sack him. And then, this summer, they have recklessly asset-stripped the first team squad, leaving Eddie Howe, a young manager who is still learning the ropes at this level and is sure to make mistakes, with a massive job to do with both hands tied behind his back.
The board ought to be ashamed of themselves. I am sickened by their actions of the last two years and I fear unless there is a change, things will only get worse.
Barry Kilby has done a lot of good for Burnley FC. Arguably, without him there would be no Burnley FC today. But him and the other directors have served their purpose, happy to take their loans out of club complete with massive interest, leaving us a middling and penniless Championship club once more.
I say this with a heavy heart and the words do not come easily.
Barry, it’s time to go.