Paying the "pelanty": Waddle's nightmare year at Burnley
When we think of Chris Waddle, writes Rob Doolan, we tend to think of sausage factories, mullets, Diamond Lights, and a man so traumatised by the events of Italia ’90 that he can no longer even pronounce the word “penalty”. We also remember one of the most spellbinding wingers of recent times, a player whose talent was somehow languid and dazzling at the same time, a master of jinking runs and scorer of spectacular goals. Considerably less celebrated, however, is his brief foray into management with Burnley in the late nineties. There is a reason for this.
It was well known that the man affectionately known as ‘the Waddler’ was looking to get into management as his playing career began to wind down. After being linked to some surprisingly high profile jobs, given his lack of experience, including the vacancies at Sheffield Utd and West Brom, Burnley – then in the third tier – came calling in the summer of 1997, and Waddle accepted the challenge. There was considerable excitement at the appointment, despite Chairman Frank Teasdale somewhat ominously introducing him as “Chris Hoddle”. Optimism was further heightened when Waddle brought in a cavalcade of respected ex-internationals as his backroom staff, including Chris Woods, Gordon Cowans and Glenn Roeder, who was still involved with the England set up at the time. The pedigree of player the new manager attracted also seemed encouraging, on paper at least. Young holding midfielder Mark Ford arrived from Leeds for a cool £275,000, boasting England under-21 caps and an appearance in the League Cup Final at Wembley. Central defender Lee Howey, meanwhile, a capture from Sunderland (older brother of Newcastle’s Steve), also had top-flight experience to his name.
Waddle and his backroom team were saying the right things as well. He promised to uphold the club’s traditions of playing attractive passing football, vowing in an interview with The Independent that he would “rather walk away” than resort to direct football. Terms like “sleeping giant” and “false division” were also bandied around, and promotion was the stated as the sole aim. “Chris hasn’t come here to find his feet,” Roeder declared. “He is here to get promotion.”
However, while Waddle talked the talk alright, he had problems walking the walk. Burnley endured a thoroughly rotten start to the season, failing to score in their opening six league games and not winning until their twelfth. Indeed, they would taste victory just four times before Christmas. Although, true to his word, the football Waddle’s team played was neat and tidy, it was utterly toothless, and he was not prepared to compromise his principles, refusing to “mix it” against the division’s more physical sides.
The new manager was also getting a first taste of boardroom wrangling. Star goalkeeper Marlon Beresford was sold to Middlesbrough on the morning of a matchday. Loanee striker Gerry Creaney, meanwhile, had single-handedly ended Burnley’s goalscoring problems with eight in nine starts, but when he was recalled by Manchester City, the board refused to cough up the money to sign him permanently on the grounds, Waddle later claimed, that they had heard that the Scottish hitman “liked a drink”.
At first, fans were patient with Waddle. Slowly but surely however, every last drop of goodwill towards him drained away. His signings were, for the most part, failing to set the world alight, yet he preferred them to players who had helped Burnley to within spitting distance of the play offs the previous season. Goalscorers like Andy Cooke found themselves on the bench as Waddle bizarrely selected centre back Howey up front. Promising youngsters were similarly ignored.
One such example was 22-year-old winger Glen Little, who had arrived the previous season, the latest in a long line of Glentoran players to make their mark at Turf Moor. Yet despite a number of exciting cameos under Heath, Little found himself out in the cold under the new man at the helm. The youngster’s trickery and delivery were reminiscent of a young Chris Waddle. The problem was that his position was occupied by a very old Chris Waddle. On taking the reins, the former Marseille star had expressed a desire to combine managing with playing as often as possible, but despite the odd flash of genius, like one 25 yard curler against Bournemouth, the 37-year-old had become a liability. His pace was all but non-existent, and his failure to track back (never his strongest suit even in his pomp) was decidedly at odds with the rallying cries and ‘in it together’ spirit required in a relegation battle.
As the pressure on them grew, Waddle and his backroom staff scored PR own goal after own goal. As detailed in Burnley fanzine Bob Lord’s Sausage’s account of the campaign in When Saturday Comes’ season review that year, Waddle went on Radio Lancashire after a rare win in November to lambast supporters critical of the his selection policy. His tune had changed considerably from the summer’s “sleeping giant” platitudes as he declared that Burnley “isn’t a big club anymore” and professed not to “give a shit” about the fans’ criticisms. Roeder, meanwhile, had become even more unpopular. Earning the name “the sinister one” among supporters, his crowning moment of man-management came in responding to a clamour for Little’s inclusion by declaring that the youngster “wasn’t fit to lace Waddle’s boots”. That may have been the case in 1991, but it was nearly 1998, and Waddle could barely lace his own.
At the turn of the year, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Burnley would be doomed to life in the basement, having been stuck in the relegation zone virtually all season with little resistance. Then the unexpected happened. Things began to improve, and Burnley found themselves back in the hunt for survival rather than being cut adrift. This was partly down to Waddle righting his previous wrongs. Cooke came back into the team. Another outcast, the unflashy but dependable enforcer Gerry Harrison, returned to shore up the midfield. Little was finally given his chance in Waddle’s place on the wing and grabbed it with both hands, turning in a number of show-stealing displays and creating a hatful of chances.
Perhaps most importantly of all, however, was the return of the prodigal son. A lifelong Burnley fan, Andy Payton had been heartbroken to be released by his boyhood club at the age of 15, but had forged a respectable career as a goal poacher at sides such as Hull and Middlesbrough. Waddle brought the “Padiham predator” home from Huddersfield, and Payton wasted little time. Between January and the end of the season he bagged nine priceless league goals in 19 games, including winners against four sides who would go on to finish in the top six – Fulham, Grimsby, Bristol City and Northampton. Results continued to improve. Cooke bagged a hat trick in a 7-2
demolition of York, en route to a 20-goal season. Preston were beaten at Deepdale, always a memorable victory for Clarets fans.
It all came down to what was, in essence, a survival shoot out with Plymouth on the final day. Whoever lost would be relegated. In what was a nerve-shredding finale to the season, Cooke gave Burnley the lead, but Argyle equalised shortly afterwards. The tension levels ratcheted up even further, especially in one heart-stopping instant when Clarets defender Mark Winstanley miskicked right in front of his own goal. Then Cooke headed in a winner at the other end, Turf Moor went wild, and the men in Claret held on. Results elsewhere went their way as well. Plymouth were down, Burnley, improbably, were safe, and Waddle, somehow, had done it.
Yet, just as he’d seemed to be starting to get it right, Waddle walked away. He would later blame the board for not backing him and selling key players, and claim there was an unfair level of expectation on the shoulders of a rookie manager. Then again, he had spent around a million pounds on assorted flops and rode into town promising a promotion push. Waddle has not managed since, deeming it “highly unlikely” that he will return to the profession after his souring experiences in a Lancashire hotseat. Years later, an interview with the Daily Mirror about why great players don’t always make great managers was somewhat revealing, as Waddle talked of the frustration that comes with watching limited players struggle to do things that are second nature to top stars: “the lesser players who go into management can relate to less talented players better.”
Chris Waddle drifted back into the life of the journeyman footballer at Torquay, and then played at non-league level for a few seasons before eventually retiring to take up his media commitments full time. By his own admission, his management career is a stark reminder that some players are more at home in the studio discussing “pelanties” than shouting themselves hoarse in the dugout.