How Burnley became the Championship's surprise package
Later today, Burnley and Leicester City meet in what amounts to a real Championship decider, the two teams having been far and away the best and most consistent the Football League has had to offer in 2013-4. To our shame, we have criminally under covered Burnley so far this season so by way of redress, we are delighted to welcome Jamie Smith, Editor of the Clarets blog nonaynever.net. Jamie can be followed on twitter at @JamieSmiff while the blog itself also has a twitter account at @NoNayNeverNet.
When the media questions Sean Dyche about the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ label Burnley fans have given him, he self-deprecatingly notes it hasn’t always been that way.
A year ago, Dyche was still getting his feet under the table at Turf Moor and the natives were getting restless after a string of insipid home performances seemed to be leading the Clarets into a relegation battle. A year is a hell of a long time in football.
Dyche had taken one look at Burnley’s leaky back line, bequeathed to him by Eddie Howe, and rightly decided it needed fixing. But the ex-Watford boss went too far the other way and stifled his team’s attacking intent, holding Kieran Trippier back from his incisive raids from right-back and cutting off Charlie Austin’s supply line as a result. Burnley suddenly became horrible to watch. Attending games was a chore and the joy was being sucked out of going to the football.
Last season’s Championship was the strangest in recent years, with anyone in the bottom half looking over their shoulder at the drop zone in the closing weeks. Burnley had to wait until a televised match with Cardiff City to seal survival – the same day the Welsh club was promoted – but the Clarets needed a scrappy late goal from David Edgar to snatch a point.
Dyche’s team finished the season well and somehow ended up in the top half, but the damage looked to have been done, with season ticket sales hurt by the dodgy period of form and fans turned off by Dyche’s pragmatic style, which was rightly or wrongly perceived to involve too much reliance on long ball from the back.
Again, the pendulum had swung too far. Howe’s Burnley played pretty and patient passing football on the floor, but often it didn’t go anywhere and possession was squandered because of a lack of tempo and incision in the final third.
Howe’s team was regularly hurt on the break and Dyche stopped all that, but with Austin seemingly destined for the exit door and no cash likely to be made available for a replacement, it looked like being a long season.
What Dyche has achieved at Burnley this season is therefore little short of a footballing miracle.
With the Clarets in their final year of parachute payments after relegation from the Premier League there was no sense of gambling on promotion as a succession of free transfers – most of them
Goalkeepers; Burnley signed four (four!) of them last summer – arrived at Turf Moor.
There was Tom Heaton, fresh from relegation to League One with Bristol City, to replace Lee Grant, who went back to Derby County. Scott Arfield, discarded by Huddersfield Town, looked like he was making up the numbers. David Jones was added to the midfield as Chris McCann went the other way, rejoining Owen Coyle at Wigan. Three other keepers, who have made two appearances between them this season, signed on as well as Sunderland reject Ryan Noble, who made two brief cameos before disappearing from view and later surfacing in non-league football with Gateshead.
Although Austin’s expected move to the Premier League didn’t materialise after the former brickie failed a medical at Hull, he did eventually leave the Turf just two days before the start of the season, signing for Harry Redknapp at QPR.
That left Dyche in a pickle and he was left little option but to put his faith squarely with his only two senior strikers, Sam Vokes and Danny Ings. They scored barely a handful of goals between them the previous season but have repaid Dyche’s confidence with 40 goals – making them officially one of the most prolific partnerships in Burnley FC history.
Outsiders might view Burnley as a one-man team – Ings won the division’s player of the year title earlier this month – but that could not be further from the truth.
Dyche’s Burnley play a phenomenally high energy pressing game that relies on every single member of the team running themselves into the ground every single game. Pundits predicted the wheels would come off as injuries and suspensions bit, but the Clarets have won their last two games without Ings and fellow star Trippier without even conceding a goal.
Critics – typically bitter opposition fans and managers – regularly label Dyche’s team “physical” as if it’s an insult, when really it is a compliment. Take a look at the teams who go up to the Premier League. They’re almost always the fittest, the ones who run the hardest and the longest, the ones who bully the opposition with their extreme physicality. It’s not about fouling them, it’s about giving them no time to play by getting in their faces, being the first to every second ball, making sure no lost causes are ever given up on. It’s about fighting. Fighting, but without throwing punches.
Burnley started the season solidly, but there was little sign of what was to come. A defeat at Brighton when Heaton was oddly sent off for two bookings was an early hiccup, but the Clarets soon got going and after being denied a derby day win over Blackburn Rovers by a lucky Jordan Rhodes equaliser, went on to win eight in a row, including a comfortable 2-0 victory over pre-season title favourites QPR.
The Clarets were playing an appealing, if not quite stylish, brand of high-tempo controlling football. Jones and Dean Marney had formed a rock-solid partnership in the middle of the park, Trippier was back to his buccaneering best, Jason Shackell was started to look like the £1 million defender we bought and Ings and Vokes – quickly dubbed Vings by fans – were on fire.
Vokes and Ings have often seem to have a telepathic understanding, with that 2-0 victory over QPR arguably the best example of their blossoming partnership. Both goals came from them combining and the second, a gloriously rapid move after Marney snapped up possession in midfield, was perhaps Burnley’s best goal of the season so far.
All teams have a wobble at some stage and ours was November. After hitting top spot we went six without a win, drawing three in a row, going out of the Capital One Cup and losing meekly at Huddersfield Town.
Burnley traditionally have a dodgy festive period so promotion hopes and dreams faded, but December was better, the Clarets creditably drawing at Leicester and beating Barnsley and Blackpool at home to stay in the mix. Christmas, as usual, was a write-off with a 1-0 Boxing Day defeat followed by a 0-0 bore draw at Wigan.
But since the turn of the year the Clarets have only dropped ten points, winning ten of their last 15 league fixtures to consolidate second spot in the Championship. Burnley have been smashing club records all season. It’s now over a year unbeaten at home for Dyche’s team, who have made the club’s best ever start to a calendar year.
An injury to Ings threatened to derail the promotion charge, but the 22-year-old had been out of form anyway and Dyche’s side has absorbed his loss with little problem. Ings’ winner at Ewood Park, consigning 34 years of pain against local rivals to Blackburn Rovers to the dustbin of history, is his only goal for six weeks.
Vokes has taken on the mantle as Burnley’s main goal threat, scoring 12 times since the turn of the year, and the Wales international has been a revelation. Vokes played in every single league game last season, but was usually restricted to a few minutes off the bench, his height used as the least subtle type of Plan B. This season Vokes has led the line superbly, growing in confidence by the week. He’s turned into a top level target man and will give Premier League defences a real battle next year.
The signing of free agent Chris Baird on a short-term deal has made up for Trippier’s absence and with Marney now facing two games out suspended, it’s likely former Fulham utility man Baird will move into midfield with Trippier back to fitness. Baird, despite coming in cold after no action for months, has been superb in his first two matches.
Today’s televised encounter with Leicester now looks like a title decider. The Foxes have drawn their last two matches 1-1 to see their lead reined in and a 2-0 win or better will see the Clarets return to the top of the table. It promises to be a carnival atmosphere at Turf Moor despite the early start, with both sets of fans already looking ahead to next season with promotion virtually a certainty.
Ings and Vokes may have taken the headlines all season, but the Clarets’ success has been built on the relentlessly honest graft of players like Ben Mee, Michael Duff and Michael Kightly, while Arfield, written off before he’d kicked a ball, has been a vital part of the team, contributing six goals, all of which have come in Burnley victories, and running his socks off every week.
Only Burnley could mess up a ten-point cushion with eight games to go, but Dyche is drilling the ‘one game at a time’ message into his players hard. They will take nothing for granted until promotion is sealed, which may happen on Good Friday at Blackpool.
What a party that would be.