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Back in the big time! Coyle leads top flight charge, but can Burnley survive?

09 Aug 2009 00:22:39

Back in the big time! Coyle leads top flight charge, but can Burnley survive?

From the top of the stands at Turf Moor, the view could be quintessentially English: a church tower, with the flag of St George fluttering in the wind, and an old chimney stack from a defunct cotton mill dominate the urban landscape above the rows of terraced houses which snake up the hill before giving way to green fields and rolling moors. Walk down the Manchester Road and the home of Burnley Football Club immediately comes into view, a relative Colossus amid the terraced streets yet still dwarfed by Pendle Hill and the southern Pennines which stand guard over the old Lancashire town. It is easy to imagine more than a century back to 1882 when the club were founded, or to the following year when they moved to Turf Moor, or to 1888 when they became one of the 12 original founders of the world's first competitive football league. Burnley won the FA Cup in 1914 and were League champions in 1921 and 1960, but it is 33 years since they were in the top division of English football. Now the long wait is over. Next Saturday Burnley, promoted as last season's Championship play-off winners, will step out for the first time in the Premier League. While they open their campaign in the richest league in world football against Stoke City - a club equally steeped in history - it will be the following Wednesday at Turf Moor when the reality of their ascent is finally grasped. Manchester United, the reigning champions and, arguably, the biggest club on the planet, will be the visitors, with Everton to come three days later, followed by trips to Chelsea and Liverpool. Burnley, a club whose very existence was threatened 22 years ago and who seemed destined for a life in the lower leagues living off past glories, are back in the big time. It is an extraordinary achievement for a town whose industrial heyday is long gone. Burnley boasts a population of 88,000. Almost all of them, as Owen Coyle, the man largely responsible for the minor miracle of Burnley's climb to the Premier League, is fond of pointing out, could fit into Old Trafford. Turf Moor, by way of contrast, holds around a quarter of that figure. Coyle, Burnley's 43-year-old manager, says: 'Everyone knows the history and tradition of this football club. It's something I've tried to embrace from day one.' The Scot is a pivotal figure in the club's story - and Burnley's future at this level will depend very much on him. Raised in a large Catholic family of Irish descent living in the shadow of Celtic Park in Glasgow, he was a journeyman striker who, but for two seasons at Bolton, spent his career in Scotland. He then made his name as a manager at St Johnstone, challenging the Old Firm before a move to Lancashire to revive a former great with a commitment to playing attractive, attacking football. Remind you of anyone? Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, will be able to compare notes at their meeting on Wednesday week, as will another Glaswegian of Coyle's era, Everton manager David Moyes. Coyle has the manner and gravitas of both his illustrious compatriots. But Burnley chairman Barry Kilby, a local boy who made good on the back of devising bingo games for national newspapers, admits he was not aware of Coyle's career when, in November 2007, his name was first mentioned by Bolton chairman Phil Gartside as a potential successor to Steve Cotterill. 'But when I met him he started to tick all the boxes and it's turned out to be a star appointment,' says Kilby. 'He has something in his manner which cried out that he was the perfect fit for us.' Fans compare the dignified and teetotal Coyle to the great Harry Potts, manager of the 1960 champions. Banners and T-shirts at the playoff final in May were adorned with the slogan 'Owen Coyle is God', a sentiment which Coyle, who attends Mass every week, appears to take without offence. He turned down the chance to manage Celtic shortly after winning the play-off final, a testament to the Premier League's power and the romantic lure of Burnley's tradition. 'It was an unwelcome distraction,' says Kilby, who has overseen the club since 1998 and played in his teens for their junior side alongside Martin Dobson, later an England international. 'If it was anyone other than Celtic there would have been no doubt of him staying. But even so it didn't take too much. We put all the arguments to him and I think he still feels he's got a job to do here.' Coyle concurs: 'I'm here because I believe I'm at a wonderful football club with really genuine people that I like working with, and a group of players who are ready to give everything they can to retain that Premier League status. 'Everyone knows how difficult it's going to be - but it's an unbelievable challenge.' Burnley are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their proudest moment, winning the championship in 1959-60, when, as Coyle says: 'The League was a level playing field in terms of budgets.' Burnley may not be able to compete with the Premier League's biggest spenders, but Kilby has sanctioned the record £3million signing of striker Steve Fletcher from Hibernian. Ecuadorian Fernando Guerrero and more local additions in Tyrone Mears, David Edgar, Brian Easton and Richard Eckersley have been added to the squad, but it will be up to the likes of Wembley goalscoring hero Wade Elliot, the heart of the team, and former Manchester United starlet Chris Eagles to step up to the Premier League standard. Coyle gives the impression of being utterly capable of continuing the fairytale, despite the limited resources at his disposal. 'We've sensed the excitement from day one of going up,' he says. 'Everyone knows the size of the town; we live in each other's pockets. There's tremendous anticipation and excitement. We'll make sure we're ready for it. You've only got to look at the fixtures to tell you you're in the best league in the world.' Despite the town's appearance of continuity, much has changed in the 33 years since a manager of its football club could last make such a bold claim. Most dramatically, the face of Burnley has altered, reflecting a more modern, racially-diverse England. Some 7.2 per cent of the population are Asian, a transformation not universally embraced, as is evident by the four members of the British National Party who have won seats on the local council. Yet it seems the club's revival is enabling the town to envision a more optimistic future. 'Maybe it's coincidence but as the club have stepped up, so has the town. Things are starting to happen,' says Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Burnley Council. The area around the club is full of the requisite fervour. 'We've never seen anything like it,' says Lisa Merrifield, manager of the club shop. 'I've gone grey with stress. We've trebled our business and had to extend the shop.' For older fans, the past year has been an unexpected joy. 'This is a dream all Burnley fans have had for quite a few years but I'm sure many wondered whether it would ever happen,' says Barrie Oliver, chairman of the supporters' club. 'I remember the Sixties, the European Cup ties against Reims and Hamburg, the 1962 FA Cup final against Tottenham. There were terraces on all four sides here and just one small stand with long, plank seats. But in those days we'd get 55,000 in. All the kids brought a bucket or set of steps to stand on, otherwise you had no chance to see.' All changed in the economic decline of the late Seventies and Eighties. Crowds dropped to 1,600 and the likes of Hereford United came to Turf Moor and won 6-1. Fans organised whip-rounds to pay the wages and buy a striker, and every supporter remembers May 9, 1987, the day when Burnley's existence was in jeopardy. The club had sunk to the foot of the old Division Four in the very year that the Football League had voted to allow the bottom team to be relegated to the Conference. Burnley celebrate their promotion to the Premier League after Proud founder members of the league in the days when cotton was king, Burnley looked likely to be the first discards. 'I don't think there's any doubt that, had we gone down, then Burnley FC in this form would have gone out of existence,' says chairman Kilby. Alan Beercroft, another fan who grew up in the Sixties, recalls the last day of the 1987 season, when only a win against Orient and defeat for fellow strugglers Lincoln would save them. 'We were there on merit,' he says. 'We were absolutely awful. The last 15 minutes, we knew if it stayed at 2-1, we were home and dry. 'They were the longest 15 minutes of my life.' Barrie Oliver adds: 'The decline was harder for those of us who knew what it was like before. Younger fans don't know how it used to be. 'We're lucky to have seen Burnley win 6-1 at Old Trafford. But there are people here who have never been to Old Trafford, never seen us play Manchester United.' All that is about to change. And the football world will be waiting to see whether Owen Coyle's miracle can survive for more than one season. Alex McLeish has no idea how his defence will line up in Sunday's Premier League opener at Manchester United. Having lost four senior central defenders and two of three recognised full-backs, McLeish said: 'Things are a bit rocky and right now I haven't a clue what my defensive line-up will be.' Martin Taylor joins Liam Ridgewell on the injury list, with new signings Giovanny Espinoza and Scott Dann completing the quartet of crocked centre-backs. Wolves Wolves manager Mick McCarthy has warned fans against expecting his side to put style above top-flight survival. 'If anyone is naive enough to think we can go in there and play a rampaging 4-4-2, there's not a chance,' he said. 'We are not going to be the best team in the league, nor the biggest kid in the playground, so we have to be more solid. It's about making sure we can change our style, because we don't want to be a one-trick wonder.'


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