Mark Godfrey

Burnley: Just a small town in Europe

Mark Godfrey
Burnley: Just a small town in Europe

To celebrate our nomination for 2018 Fanzine of the Year at the Football Supporters Federation awards, we’re publishing an article from each of our three issues from this year. The third, issue 21, was themed ‘Brexit, Britain and Europe’. It is from that this third article is taken.

Over the years,  Burnley FC and the town itself have experienced lurches in fortune. And as MARGARET BRECKNELL explains, outside perceptions of both have sometimes been wildly skewed. Photos by DANYELLE ROLLA.

On 18th April 1967 Burnley lost 2-1 at home to Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals of the Fairs Cup.  Sadly, most of the 25,000 fans who returned home afterwards disappointed were destined never to see the Clarets play in European competition again.  It is largely a new generation of Burnley fans who cheered on the team when they kicked off their campaign in the Europa League in late July 2018.  In many ways this represents the end of a remarkable cycle since that Fairs Cup defeat, during which the club’s fortunes reached rock bottom before a long slow climb back to the top of the English game.

It is a compelling story which has captured the imagination of many. As the 2017-18 Premier League season unfolded, Burnley’s success generated a lot of comment in the media.  Probably the most interesting piece, in my view, came from The Independent’s Jonathan Liew.  Never a journalist afraid to hold back in expressing a trenchant opinion, he nonetheless excelled himself when writing his piece on Burnley in December 2017 entitled “Burnley, Brexit and Britishness”.

At this point I must nail my claret and blue colours to the mast.  I have been a Burnley fan all my life, so feel as qualified as anyone to respond to some of the points raised in Liew’s article.  However, before I do so, let me take you on the rollercoaster ride that has been the lot of a Burnley fan over the last half century.

Too young to remember the glory days of the 1960s, in truth the club’s fortunes were already in decline when I attended my first Burnley game in the late 1970s.    Burnley’s Chairman at the time was the outspoken and often controversial Bob Lord.  Today, some of his more colourful pronouncements on topics such as “the Jews that run television” appear politically incorrect and old-fashioned.  Even in the long gone days of the 1970s they were rightly condemned as offensive.  Yet, in other ways, Bob Lord was ahead of his time and progressive in his views.

In his early days as Chairman in the 1950s, Lord  had supported the creation of training facilities at nearby Gawthorpe, with the club becoming the first in the country to have a purpose-built training ground.  The club’s youth policy during the 1950s and 1960s was the envy of many and helped Burnley to continue to compete with its bigger rivals following the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961.  At least one top player was sold per season, the theory being that the next prodigy could then be brought in from the youth team to replace him.  In hindsight this strategy was only ever going to work for so long.  As the supply of top quality young recruits began to dry up, so the club’s fortunes began to wane.  By the time Lord stepped down as Chairman in 1981, the Clarets had been relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.  

Bob Lord had long pursued a policy of only appointing former players to management and coaching roles.  Although restrictive, this had provided the club with stability and a sense of continuity over many years.   However, as the club’s fortunes continued to decline, new Chairman John Jackson looked to appoint a manager from outside the club for the first time in years. In 1983 the flamboyant John Bond became the new Burnley manager.  The move was not greeted with universal approval by fans at the time, but the season started well.  The Clarets played flowing attractive football, particularly at home, helped by players such as Tommy Hutchison and Kevin Reeves whom Bond had brought in from his previous club, Manchester City.  However, ultimately the promotion push petered out and the season ended in disappointing fashion. 

By the beginning of the following season Bond was on his way, although not before he had brought in a number of further players on wages that a club in the third tier had no hope of sustaining.  The experiment failed and that was to have serious repercussions for the club.   The legacy of Bob Lord’s prudent financial husbandry had been destroyed within a few years.  The club was now haemorrhaging £10,000 a week and the fans were voting with their feet, as relegation to the Fourth Division swiftly followed.   I remember this time well.   Home attendances averaged no more than 2,000 or 3,000 and on a bad day (there were plenty of those) most of those had exited the ground long before the end of the game.

Matters came to a head at the end of the 1986/87 season.  In the first season of automatic relegation for the Fourth Division’s bottom placed team, the Clarets found themselves in serious danger of the drop.  It seemed almost inevitable that the inexorable decline in the club’s fortunes over the years would end with exile from the league of which it had been a founding member.  Such was its perilous financial state, many believed that the club would not survive the drop.  Fortunately, this pessimism proved unfounded.  The final game of that season, in which Burnley had to beat Orient to maintain its place in the Football League, has become part of club folklore.  The Clarets won a nail biting encounter 2-1 and with results elsewhere going their way survival was guaranteed. 

The Orient game served as a wake-up call to all connected with Burnley FC, not least the fans.  You don’t know what you have until it’s almost gone.  The positive publicity that the game generated enabled the club to obtain further credit from the bank.  The rebuilding process had begun.  It was hoped that a vital lesson in financial management had been learnt and a similar situation never be allowed to occur again.  However, in reality the club has come close to the brink of administration on several other occasions.   Indeed, the timing of Burnley’s first promotion to the Premier League through the play-offs in 2009 was opportune in that regard.  The club may have been relegated straight back to the Championship the following season, but the financial security which that promotion brought helped to lay the foundations for the success Burnley has enjoyed since.

The club’s current Chairman, Mike Garlick, took on the role in 2012 (initially as co-Chairman).  I hope he will forgive me for saying that he is made more in the Bob Lord mould than some of our more profligate Chairmen.  Ludicrous though it sounds, plenty of Chairmen would have ditched Sean Dyche in 2015 following Burnley’s relegation from the Premier League after one season.  Instead the eminently sensible Garlick gave the manager the opportunity to continue what he had started.  In the same way that Lord sought success through stability, so Garlick’s approach has ultimately paid dividends for the club.  

In another move that echoes the Bob Lord era, much of the cash that the club received from its first Premier League season under Dyche was earmarked to upgrade the facilities at Gawthorpe.  This in truth was long overdue, but it still takes guts to curb spending in the transfer market and use the Premier League windfall to improve the club’s infrastructure.  Burnley’s renowned youth policy had been long since been abandoned during its more difficult days.  Now the new Barnfield Training Centre offers facilities worthy of the Premier League.  The club is already reaping the benefits.  Burnley have recently been upgraded to Category Two Academy status, with the possibility of achieving Category One in the not too distant future.

This investment in the future is to my mind one of the most positive things to come out of the club’s recent success.  It is exciting to think that in a few years from now Burnley fans may once again see homegrown talent turning out for the first team as happened in the glory days of the 1960s.  Or does this view make me appear insular and out of step with the modern age in football?   Having read the Jonathan Liew piece to which I referred at the beginning of this article, it appears that I may be. 

Liew describes the club as “an enclave of footballing Britishness in a sport where national borders can seem largely fluid”.  Undeniably the make-up of Burnley’s current squad is in stark contrast to nearly all of its Premier League rivals.  Much has been made of Dyche’s heavy reliance on British players.  He is far from being the first manager to stick with what he knows.  When David Wagner arrived at Huddersfield, he brought in a core of German players who have served him well.  It’s interesting to compare Huddersfield’s approach to life in the Premier League with that of the Clarets.  Not dissimilar in size to Burnley in terms of ground capacity and average attendance, the Terriers have not only splashed more cash in the transfer market, but also took the decision last year to downgrade their Youth Academy from Category Two to Category Four status.

Of the 21 players who started a game in the Premier League for Burnley last season, thirteen were British born, six came from other EU countries and one from each of Iceland and New Zealand.   Hardly the most diverse squad in the Premier League, it is true, but for that matter neither is Bournemouth’s.  A similar look at the Cherries’ squad for last season shows that of 23 players, sixteen were British, three from EU countries and one from each of Bosnia, Norway, Australia and USA.   Yet this seems to have attracted little of the press comment on the topic that has come Burnley’s way.

Could there be other reasons, not directly related to football, to explain why the make-up of Burnley’s squad is the subject of so much media interest?   The title of Jonathan Liew’s article, “Burnley, Brexit and Britishness” offers a big clue.  In some way what goes on at Burnley Football Club has become inextricably linked with Burnley the town.  In Burnley two-thirds of those who voted in the EU Referendum opted to leave.  It has to be said that this was not an entirely surprising result in the context of the town’s recent political history.  The town has had its fair share of bad press in recent times, its reputation seemingly forever tainted by the widely reported race riots of 2001 and the subsequent election of three BNP candidates onto the council. 

However, in the same way that the club moved on from the drama of near extinction in the 1980s, so the town has made huge progress since the dark days of the early 2000s.  It’s worth noting that an official inquiry concluded the 2001 riots were, in fact, initiated by a turf war between rival drug gangs.  Having said that, a lack of racial integration remains a problem, an issue that is, alas, far from unique to Burnley.   On the positive side, the town was named most enterprising place in Britain in 2013 in recognition of its commitment to local business and its success in “reframing perceptions of Burnley” (although this is clearly yet to have an impact on Mr. Liew). 

Of course, the football club has had a big part to play in this rebranding of the town’s image too.  With a population of under 80,000 Burnley is the smallest town ever to boast a Premier League side, so it is unsurprising to find close links between the club and the locals.  The Burnley FC in the Community scheme has won several awards for its work in health and social welfare as well as its primary role of providing sports facilities.  That link is far from being a modern phenomenon.   As a Burnley fan you are aware that the close association between town and club goes back generations.  I was brought up with tales of how my maternal grandmother joined the throng to celebrate the FA Cup Final victory of 1914.  In the same way younger supporters today have bought into the whole legacy attached to the Orient game of 1987.

The club’s promotion to the Premier League has been worth millions of pounds to the local economy.  More than that, though, it has redefined how the world at large sees this Lancashire mill town.  Mention “Burnley” to anyone from outside the area and the first topic of conversation will now more often than not be about football, rather than industrial decline or racial tension.  Burnley’s re-entry into European competition after 51 years will only further hasten this process.

So, it is not unreasonable to associate the club with the town, as Jonathan Liew does in his article.  However, his argument comes unstuck when he attempts to link a club’s transfer policy with the profile of its fans, especially with regard to those fans’ political beliefs.  In 2017 the Daily Telegraph carried out an interesting survey of 4,680 Premier League club fans on the subject of Brexit.   Participants were simply asked, “Did you vote to leave or remain in the EU on 23rd June 2016?”.  Admittedly the outcome of any such poll should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but it did produce some interesting results.  For the record Chelsea fans were most likely to have voted “leave” and Brighton fans the least likely.  Not that surprising really,  but the Burnley figures are more striking.  In nearly an exact reversal of the actual EU referendum result, 63% of fans replied that they had been “remain” voters and 37% “leave”.

What are the reasons behind this apparently anomalous result?   It could, of course, be a simple case of the age demographic that was questioned for the Daily Telegraph poll, with many more young people voting to stay in the EU than older voters.  Or, as I believe to be the reason, it could be more to do with the geographic demographic of the poll’s participants.  Yes, Burnley’s fanbase is heavily centred around the town itself, but for what is perceived as a small town club, most outsiders would probably be surprised by how many fans, including season ticket holders, come from outside the immediate Burnley area.  Historically this is probably another legacy of that famous 1960s team which was the last to appear in European competition. 

In truth, the make-up of Burnley’s first team squad, undeniably dominated by British players, has much more to do with the fact that the club’s overseas scouting network  is light years behind the resources available to nearly all of its Premier League rivals.  The South American goalkeeper, Diego Penny, to whom Liew alludes in his article, was signed a decade ago on the strength of watching a YouTube video.   Unsurprisingly he proved to be a disastrous signing.  Having invested heavily in the club’s training facilities and youth academy, the club’s hierarchy has hinted that the next big drive will be to improve recruitment and expand the scouting network.   If the club can retain its Premier League status, in the longer term the squad may become more diverse which will presumably be more to Liew’s liking.

Having said all that, there is undoubtedly a certain irony in a town that voted so heavily in favour of Brexit now singing about getting back into Europe.  Chants of “We’re just a small town in Europe” were regularly heard at Turf Moor towards the end of last season as European football qualification was guaranteed.  As the Big Six clubs’ stranglehold on the Premier League top spots becomes ever tighter, there could be a long wait for another European campaign after this one.  All the more reason, therefore, that Burnley fans dig out their EU passports one last time and go on a European tour.

MARGARET BRECKNELL - @mabrecknell

margaretbrecknell@hotmail.co.uk

DANYELLE ROLLA – Twitter @danyellerolla | Instagram @Rollaphotography | www.rolla.gallery

 Cover art by Phil Galloway

Cover art by Phil Galloway