To Europe & Beyond: Burnley’s Brave New World

by | Apr 12, 2018

The post-war years were kind to Burnley. Founder members of the Football League in 1888 and champions in 1921, the club had been relegated nine years later and had spent much of the 1930s in the middle of the Second Division. Upon the resumption of league football in the summer of 1946, however, the club was rejuvenated, winning the Second Division title at the end of the 1946/47 season and then embarking on a spell in the top flight which saw the club finish outside the top ten only twice over the course of the next seventeen years.

The apex of the club’s achievements during this period came at the end of the 1959/60 season when, despite considerable pressure from both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, they nicked the First Division title by a single point with a game in hand win at Manchester City on the Monday after the final Saturday of the season. The team was young and largely made up of home-grown players so comparisons with the Busby Babes, so many of whom had perished in the snow and ice of a Munich airport runway just two years earlier, were inevitable, and the club’s run in the following year’s European Cup was followed with considerable interest.

The club’s run the following year ended at the quarter-final stage. After beating Stade de Reims – who themselves had been beaten finalists in the competition in 1956 and 1959 – they were drawn to play Hamburg in the quarter-finals, but after winning the first leg by three goals to one they were beaten by four goals to one in the second leg in West Germany to be knocked out on aggregate. Since then, they’ve only made one appearance in European football, in the 1966/67 Inter Cities Fairs Cup, when they defeated Stuttgart, Lausanne and Napoli before losing – again at the quarter-final stage – to Eintracht Frankfurt.

The decline of Burnley from the mid-1960s on probably reflected the changing of the times. With the introduction of regular televised football from the beginning the of the decade, clubs such as Burnley found themselves in a somewhat different environment. There were peaks and troughs, of course – the team that won the Second Division championship at the end of the 1972/73 season and followed that up by finishing in sixth place in the First Division – and reached its nadir on the last day of the 1986/87 season, when a win against Turf Moor against Leyton Orient was required to keep the club in the Football League at the end of the first season of automatic promotion and relegation between the Fourth Division and the Football Conference.

It took a while, but the club’s fortunes have now been revived and, despite the predictable tide of apocalyptic pre-season predictions that appear concerning them each August, the club has now spent three of the last four years in the Premier League, with last season seeing them finishing in sixteenth place in the table. This year, however, has been different. At the time of writing, Burnley sit in seventh place in the Premier League with six games remaining, six points above eighth-placed Leicester and eight ahead of Everton, who have played an extra game, and all of this means that the prize of European football next season is with in reach at Turf Moor, for the first time in a little over half a century.

With a sixth of the season still to play, though, there is still a chance that seventh place in the table won’t be enough, though it looks likely that it will. The Premier League is allocated three qualifying spots for the Europa League which nominally go to the team finishing fifth in the league, along with a place each for the winners of the FA Cup and the League Cup. Manchester City’s win in the League Cup final, however, nudged these spots down a place each, and only a win for Southampton in the FA Cup final – and they’d have to get past Chelsea and then either Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United to do so – would prevent it from being pushed down a further place, meaning that only this, with the best will in the world, unlikely set of circumstances would prevent the team finishing in seventh place in the table from snatching a Europa League place for next season as well.

It might turn out to be hard work, should they get there. Earning a place would mean that Burnley would have would start their season in July, and would need to win three rounds merely to reach the group stage of the competition. And this may be setting alarm bells ringing at Turf Moor. Burnley have taken a considerable amount of care to get to the position in which they now find themselves. Would a potential fixture backlog brought about by a relentless slog of European matches impact upon the club’s all-important place in the Premier League? After all, even seventh place in the final table is considerably closer, in terms of points, to the bottom of the table than it is to the top, and the congestion that now seems to be a perpetual part of Premier League life below the gilded top six could see anybody dragged into a relegation dogfight that they might not have been expecting at the start of the season.

In many respects, Burnley is a club of limited resources. The town itself has a population of just 73,000 and is surrounded on all sides by other clubs in what is one of English football’s traditional hotbeds. In some respects, it’s an achievement that the club can attract just over 20,000 supporters to each home league match. However, to say that the club simply cannot afford to boost its squad to accommodate European football doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This is a well run club, with a total debt of just £20m and a television income for next season of more than £100m. Indeed, this year’s Soccerex Football Finance 100 (pdf) ranked Burnley as the seventy-third wealthiest football club on the planet, above such well-known names as Feyenoord, Boca Juniors and Fenerbahce. The money, we might well consider, is there, should the club want to invest it.

Manager Sean Dyche appears lukewarm on the subject. Interviewed by the Lancashire Telegraph earlier this week, he stated that, “It’s satisfying in the fact that what we send out through you guys (in the media) is the truth. This is what we’re looking to do, the chairman speaks openly and says this is a club that has to be secure year on year, that doesn’t want to go ‘ta da, let’s just have a real go.'” Financial caution is admirable in an era during which clubs are almost encouraged to throw the kitchen sink in the pursuit of “success”, a little parsimony shouldn’t go amiss, should it?

Well, the answer to this question is that this isn’t a matter of money. This is a matter of attitude. Supporters have started to grow a little weary of clubs sacrificing the chance of actually winning trophies – which we, somewhat naively, assume to be the point of playing the game professionally in the first place – in pursuit of mid-table mediocrity. The extreme likelihood is that a glass ceiling is about to smack Burnley Football Club square in the face, so why not… live a little? Why not invest emotion in a desire to travel to Europe next season and try their absolute damnedest to try and bring this trophy back to Lancashire? Making the Europa League in the first place would be Burnley’s biggest achievement since their last European expedition, and that was more than half a century ago.

It might be argued that it would be appropriate for Burnley to consider qualification for this tournament as a marker, a celebration of how far the club has come over the last six years under Dyche’s tutelage. But there’s another, perhaps more fundamental, point to be made here, too. It is commonly now understood that it helps to have a degree in accountancy to be a football supporter, these days. We all know about net spend, player amortisation, CVAs and Creditors’ Meetings. We have to. At all levels of the game, money doesn’t so much talk as drown out all other sounds with its incessant screaming.

But perhaps even the most pragmatically minded could be swayed by the fact that the prize for winning the Europa League is an opportunity that Burnley are unlikely to get by any other means in the foreseeable future. There’s a hegemonic top six in English football that don’t look like going anywhere soon. Considering that, whilst they might well be the seventy-third wealthiest football club on the planet, the six clubs that will end the season above them in the Premier League occupy positions one, two, five, seven, nine and sixteen on the same list, will Burnley ever have a better chance of getting into the Champions League than through winning the Europa League? It would be an extremely tall order, of course, but Leicester City winning the Premier League two years ago was the extraordinary seismic event that it was precisely because it was so unprecedented. Breaking into that group of clubs remains a formidable challenge for any club. Perhaps winning te Europa League would be Burnley’s best chance of sharing a stage with the continent’s elite, as they did that one and only time, fifty-seven seasons ago.

The onward march of the professional game towards a future in which the pursuit of mammon is a means to an end in itself has made this pretty much a necessity. But football remains a game and a pastime, for supporters, at least. The experience of travelling across the continent to previously unknown towns or cities are the sort of experiences that only Burnley supporters approaching retirement age can remember. Younger supporters deserve that experience, and they deserve the knowledge that the club, the players and the manager share a desire to seize this competition by the scruff of the neck and try to win it. For a club with such a storied history, what better way could there be for Burnley to mark the one hundred and thirtieth anniversary of taking their place as one of the twelve clubs who set in motion the outward global march of league football in the first place?