Burnley’s promotion into the Premier League – their first season in the top division of English football since 1976 – was supposed to be one for the romantics. They were automatically installed as the favourites for relegation, as if people are incapable of even hoping to dream that anything other than exactly what we expect could happen. Then, however, something happened. Burnley, playing attacking, attractive football and wearing a sumptuous kit based on their 1960 First Division championship winning team, started to win matches – and not just any matches. They beat Manchester United and Everton at Turf Moor and, while they have endured some torrid awaydays (most notably at Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool), they have held their own.
Owen Coyle has been receiving plaudits all season. He has refused to break the bank at Burnley, kept his faith in many of the journeymen that got the club into the Premier League and kept his team playing football when the obvious thing to do would have been to forget about the football and start scrapping and fighting to keep that place at the top table. Then, though, he went and blew it. Bolton Wanderers’ Phil Gartside (from whom we should never reasonably expect to hear anything about poaching from other clubs again) batted his eyelashes, and Coyle swallowed it. The promise of a bigger budget, a more modern facility and returning to a club that he played for proved too much to resist. Bolton got their man.
What, then, have we learnt about Owen Coyle? Well, we have learnt that his weasel words count for very little. As recently as the end of last year, he said at a pre-match conference that, “I enjoy being at the football club, I enjoy my work and coming through the door every morning”. Not much more than a week later, he has gone. Will Bolton be able to trust him should a further job offer come up in a few months, or in a year or so? There is very little in his behaviour over the last couple of weeks or so to suggest that they should. Talk of loyalty is cheap and Coyle has offered enough of that to Burnley supporters over the last few weeks or months. It’s worth little to them now.
It is well worth asking the question of how this has come about. Some are pointing the finger in the direction of Daily Mirror writer Alan Nixon, who, in the recently released book “Big Club, Small Town And Me”, was said to have recommended Coyle for the Burnley job and has had an uncanny knack of providing his employers with Burnley exclusives this season. The biggest exclusive of the lot came when the back page of his newspaper screamed that Coyle had already accepted the job well before any public statement had been made. Why, though, could he not even wait for the summer? Why couldn’t he sign a pre-nup with Bolton to go to The Reebok Stadium during the summer? Why is it Burnley that have to start their next match, in the middle of the season, with an untried caretaker-manager rather than Bolton? The correct answer to this may be “because life’s not fair”, but being correct and being right aren’t always the same thing.
One aspect of this story that has been striking, though – and it has been striking to the point of being startling – has been the degree of magnanimity displayed by so many people at Burnley Football Club over the move. Their seems to have been an air of resignation about the whole sorry incident, especially considering the fact that Bolton count amongst their local rivals. The silver lining for them is that they are likely to receive a significant compensation package as a result of his desertion, but even the specifics of this are unlikely to be made public in the near future – and figures thrown around in the press will be conjecture, to say the least. They won’t know the true cost of this defection until after the last match of the season.
The move is also, of course, a big gamble for Coyle himself. At Burnley, the world was his oyster. Hopes and expectations at Turf Moor still don’t amount to a great deal more than staying in the Premier League after the end of this season, but it seems unlikely that he would have become much of a pariah had they not managed to avoid the icy chill of relegation. At Bolton, however, the stakes are much higher. There is considerable talk that relegation would be a financial calamity for a club that may have been sheltered from the realities of balancing the books by Premier League television and prize money. Coyle may consider himself to be a “Bolton legend”, but that seems to be a little overstated and it seems unlikely that, should Bolton fall through the trapdoor, he will be given the same amount of leeway at The Reebok Stadium.
The sadness of the story of this managerial poaching, however, is in the death of another small chink of the romance of the game. The accession of Burnley into the Premier League was one for the romantics. The small-town club that arguably punched above its weight and became one of the great names in English football had been in the doldrums for years. Their promotion was unexpected as it was refreshing. We all know that players, managers, everybody associated with the game is involved in it for altogether more prosaic reasons than romance. We like – some might even say that we need – to maintain the illusion that there is more to it than this, though, and when one aspect of one fairy tale falls apart, yet another small piece of our love affair with the game dies a little on the inside. The bigger question now is whether Burnley can complete their mission and stay in the Premier League at the end of this season. It’s less likely than it was a week ago but Burnley at least still can stay up this season, and those of us that love a happy ending will be hoping that our disbelief can continue to be suspended for a few more months yet.