Burnley’s ticking time bomb explodes after years spent defying gravity

The fixture list seemed to contain a cruelty to Burnley when Newcastle activated Chris Wood’s release clause in January. Some four months later, however, Wood did not relegate his old club, despite an 18-minute cameo at Turf Moor. Perhaps Burnley’s past did, though. It caught up with them.

They had long felt an anachronistic presence in the Premier League. That sense was exacerbated when moneyed larger clubs like Newcastle altered the equation. But it was past mistakes, past passiveness in the transfer market, past complacency and the reality too many of their players are not the forces they were in recent years.

Burnley had sleepwalked into this. The warning signs had been there all season for those watching closely enough; too few were, though, possessing an outdated image of Burnley, assuming their experience and battle-hardened qualities would be enough and ignoring mediocre displays. Slow starts were not actually a blueprint for survival but something they had overcome in the past: this year, it became a reason for relegation and extended into a run of one win in 21.

Then an assumption that everything would somehow, almost inexplicably, be okay was replaced by panic as Sean Dyche was sacked. And, illogically, the caretaker manager Mike Jackson almost rescued them. Manager of the month in April, he was relegated in May, but even his appointment seemed inspired more by desperation than inspiration. Owners ALK Capital almost got lucky. Now, given the context, it feels as though Burnley got unlucky with their takeover.

Their leveraged buyout should have come with the understanding that they had acquired a team in decline. Some of it felt obvious. Burnley were on a downward slide. They had the 17th best team last season and the 18th best this year. The squad was too thin – their substitutes got just three goals this season – but even the starting 11 looked the third worst, especially after Brentford brought in a world-class player in Christian Eriksen.

Burnley’s names were the same, but the performances were lesser. Ben Mee, Ashley Barnes, Ashley Westwood, Matt Lowton and Jay Rodriguez are at least two years past their best, Jack Cork and Johann Berg Gudmundsson nearer four years past theirs. Aaron Lennon’s peak came nearer 2010, though he rolled back the years at times this season; Phil Bardsley’s might have occurred in the 1920s but it wasn’t in the 2020s.

A failure to regenerate, to build a new side, left Burnley with the oldest team in the league. It is still harder to play a physically intense style of football with around 40 percent of possession when older than everyone else. Dyche’s 4-4-2 mantra, which Jackson abandoned, necessitated goals from centre-forwards. Burnley’s five specialists got a mere 10 between them, and Wout Weghorst’s miserable return of two in 20 games felt decisive in the final reckoning.

In contrast, Maxwel Cornet was an entertaining overachiever. It reflected a wider theme: Burnley bought well last summer but the ageing nature of their group meant they had needed still more signings. Connor Roberts has showed promise. Nathan Collins looks an outstanding recruit and proof Dyche is a fine judge of a centre-back. But in 2020, Burnley only bought Dale Stephens, an abject back-up midfielder. There were qualified successes the previous season, in Rodriguez, Erik Pieters and Josh Brownhill, but 2018’s three arrivals, in Joe Hart, Ben Gibson and Matej Vydra, all failed. Burnley were still fielding the team of 2018 in 2022. Football moved on and they did not. As others spent and improved, Burnley had less margin for error.

Ashley Barnes reacts to Burnley’s relegation

They were left over-reliant on a brilliant goalkeeper, in Nick Pope, and the valiant but departing James Tarkowski, forever needing to cling on in matches. Their defensive record remained decent but they were a bottom-three side for shots, shots on target, passes, pass completion, touches in the penalty area and virtually every attacking marker.

They had been the ultimate pragmatists but got lost on the pragmatic path to safety: they stopped winning at Turf Moor. They depart the division with five victories in their last 29 at home. Stalemates in Lancashire with Norwich and Watford were signs they had stopped winning the winnable games. Perhaps it summed it up that they ended with two defeats to bottom-half teams at Turf Moor.

It seemed a strategy for staying up was hoping there were three worse teams and, if they could not find them, to look for other explanations. They have complained to the Premier League about Everton’s financial losses. Chairman Alan Pace apparently objected to the takeover of Newcastle, though his motives were based on self-interest, not morality. Barnes said on Friday that some referees wanted Burnley to be relegated which, as the self-same Barnes should have been sent off for elbowing Tyrone Mings the night before, showed either amnesia or a spectacular lack of self-awareness.

But, really, ALK should have seen relegation was an ever greater possibility. They came in, cleared out experienced people who understood the club and the town and initially assumed Dyche’s alchemy was enough in itself to keep them up. It went stale under him, the bond with his players fractured; Dwight McNeil was liberated by his sacking and his renaissance threatened to save Burnley.

But in the broader reckoning, Dyche defied footballing gravity; he probably should have quit after somehow steering them to 10th in 2020, which might have been a still greater feat than finishing seventh two years earlier. His defining team was unfashionable, unglamorous and unpleasant to play against, so Pace embarked on a nonsensical attempt to rebrand Burnley as the world’s favourite underdogs. It showed a lack of understanding of the team, the town and the wider footballing landscape.

Now the Championship beckons as Pace’s £65 million gamble has failed. Except it isn’t Pace’s gamble at all. ALK Capital took over a club with £42 million in the bank. Now they have one £102 million in debt, with a £65 million loan to be repaid because of relegation, without a manager, with a host of out-of-contract players and Tarkowski set to lead the exodus. And if demotion felt bound to happen one day, if the last six years have been Burnley’s best spell since the Sixties, it is harder to celebrate that when a cloud hangs over their future. Since 2016, Burnley have been the unlikely constants in the Premier League. But for the last four, they have been a ticking time bomb. It has now exploded.


Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.