Should Burnley Stick or Twist after promotion?
Late last year, in an appearance on the We Are Going Up! podcast, I predicted that Wycombe Wanderers might be in a position to make a late surge for an automatic promotion place the following May.
Despite escaping relegation due to Bristol Rovers’ quite frankly unfathomable failure to defeat Mansfield Town, the Chairboys singularly failed to live up to my billing — but elsewhere on the ‘cast, I was at least proved right when I stood alone in suggesting that Burnley might last the pace in securing a Premier League berth this Spring.
At the time, most observers were expecting the Clarets to slip away but at no point did the Lancashire club look like doing so.
It has been a triumph of organisation and commitment for the Turf Moor team. Sean Dyche is winning a national popularity contest thanks to his measured good sense while the comparative lack of spending has contrasted sharply with the crass profligacy of QPR and other challengers. This has been a heart-warming narrative all round.
I finally took the opportunity to finally see Burnley in action myself on the last day of the season — in a 2-2 draw against Reading at the Madejski Stadium. I witnessed a tenacious and astute display — a sharp contrast to the campaign-long headless chicken imitation I have become used to witnessing on the part of that match’s opponents.
Particularly impressive was Danny Ings — turning adroitly to place the ball perfectly in the bottom corner after a sumptuous move, keeper Tom Heaton who belied a recent spell of peregrinations following his release by Manchester United and, as expected, Kieran Trippier — every inch the modern full back and a candidate perhaps for Roy Hodgson’s first post-World Cup squad.
But of course it’s the whole that is so impressive about this Burnley team rather than the sum of its individual parts — as well as the stewardship of Dyche. From David Jones harrying in midfield to Scott Arfield arriving late to thump a first goal into the net; from an evergreen Jason Shackell nodding balls away imperiously to Ashley Barnes chasing down lost causes.
But the squad is wafer thin and a few days having passed, how will Burnley tackle what is sure to be a challenging close season?
Of the current crop, Ings is crucial of course. Still only 21, he has put an injury hit start to his Clarets career behind him and will need to match the exploits of Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert in spearheading a promoted team to a successful first top echelon season. As a much younger man than both, perhaps a likening of Ings to Sunderland-era Kevin Phillips would be a fairer comparison but Burnley will still feel they need to strengthen.
Heaton and Trippier are probably the only two of Ings’ colleagues to be dead certain of a starting place in August but in reality, many more will be on the team sheet — Burnley don’t have the financial wherewithal to lay down £11 million on Andreas Cornelius or a little more than that to land equivalents of Nikica JelaviÄ‡ and Shane Long.
Yes — the riches that await are considerable but the Clarets will find themselves outbid by those around them so unless they strike lucky (and the example of Cornelius is proof of just how badly a gambling transfer policy can go wrong), the likelihood will be a scrap for points — something akin to what Tony Pulis has undergone at the Palace — only with less of the budget and while keeping the ball on the floor.
For players the club enquires after will be over priced and not worth the disruption to the squad that will result, while they also need to fight the temptation to go gung-ho — a problem when the team was last promoted in 2009 and which was exacerbated after a headache inducing win over Manchester United in the first home game.
No club deliberately pursues a calculated yo-yo policy although Charlton and West Bromwich Albion have been cited as examples of clubs that cannily banked the cash from an initial short stay in the Premier League before coming back stronger via a medium to long term strategic vision. However, such a trajectory may well be in the back of chairmen Mike Garlick’s and John Banaszkiewicz’s minds.
So do Burnley carry out the surgery to the squad that is almost certainly needed in order to stay up — or do they risk an immediate relegation in order to build for a more sustainable future?