SO WHOSE FAULT IS IT?
“You get what you pay for,” wrote Joe Lovejoy in his perceptive report of the game against Man City; and in that one telling summary is the key to understanding the sad demise that has taken place at Burnley Football Club from the minute Owen Coyle walked out, or Brian Laws was appointed; depending on your point of view. This is a team imploding and falling apart at the seams and only a handful of directors, three I’m told, witnessed the shambles against City. The stories, rumours, reports of player dissatisfaction, fallouts, walkouts, slanging matches, unrest, and trips to the 110 Club during a game, come on a daily basis. The latest story is to do with their agitation over delayed contract negotiations. Other than the 110 story, I have no idea if they are true or not but the sheer number of them makes it easy to think that some of them must be. The words ‘club in turmoil’ are not unreasonable.
I have no personal axe to grind against Brian Laws. I was one of many who were angered by his sale during the tenure of John Bond. He was a superb full-back who won his fair share of trophies, and a key member of the promotion side of 1981/82. You could say that he is one of our own, a son of Burnley, and now back to his spiritual home where he learned his trade from being a young lad.
The meltdown is not financial but for the forseeable future on the playing side there must be grave doubts about what the future holds, both immediate and longer term. What seemed a puzzling appointment when it was made has now developed into one that seems truly ruinous, and is riddled with problems.
When he arrived, the club had amassed 20 points and but for a poor linesman’s decision against Arsenal a draw might have been a win and two more points in the bag. The football at that point was still exciting, this was still very much the band of brothers that took us to Wembley and the spirit was intact, although in truth we had stopped winning games. And then Coyle left, and everything ill that has happened starts with that.
What we have seen since, is a sort of slow-motion collapse of all that was good, to the point that this is a team that against City seemed more like a bunch of ragamuffins out at Towneley Park on a Sunday morning. It has been truly heartbreaking. The club that was so admired last May, has become almost a laughing stock, or at best, pitied. This was a far different Burnley we saw recently, than the one that beat Man Utd so long ago. It was dispirited, totally uncertain of what to do, its body language poor, its attitude resigned to failure. Key players like Elliot, McDonald and Fletcher, mooching around on the field half-heartedly, typified the malaise.
Laws began so brightly with a good performance at Old Trafford and but for a glaring Fletcher miss (a phrase heard several times this season) a goal might have brought a shock result. But the Bolton game was dire. True there were two early injuries that destroyed any game plan, but the second half performance of kick and chase was maybe a foretaste of games to come when the performances would be truly awful. Reading was the first of the humiliations.
There is no question that this is a club and team that has gone backwards. The regression has been painful to watch. Blaming Coyle might make us feel better, but once he was gone there was still the opportunity to get a manager with more stature than the unfortunate Laws who surely is the fall-guy, not the culprit. The real culprit now resides at the Reebok. However, Laws’ record at Sheffield Wednesday and his win percentage were the statistics for the decision makers to look at, not the spin that came from Deloitte and Touche, presenting him as something better than he really was. To put it bluntly his appointment has been a catastrophe.
I’ve no idea what the players thought about his appointment, but surely they must have been as mystified as we were. It’s reasonable to make assumptions that a player will want a manager to be able to do certain things; to make an individual a better player, and to make them collectively into a better team, or at the very least to keep things going. Surely they needed someone to look up to, someone with a good track record, possessing standing rather than someone who had just been sacked from a team failing miserably in the Championship. As each member of staff was added, they must have muttered “who?”
I fancy too that there are some pretty outspoken guys in that dressing room, not to mention the others who have been there, seen it and got the T shirt, plus the inevitable sprinkling of awkward buggers. Dressing rooms, just like school staffrooms, are notorious in that the inhabitants can soon spot weakness or someone out of their depth. The grumbles multiply. When this happens the game is up. The words ‘lost the dressing room’ are ominous. Having said all that, another part of me wonders if it is not just lack of credibility that is the underlying problem, but also the resentment of a new brand of discipline that Laws would like to make the norm. Don’t forget, this is a man who played under Cloughie.
On his appointment we gave him a chance. Of course we wanted him to succeed. If disappointed by such a low key choice, there was still a willingness to see if he could do the job and he received a wonderfully warm reception. Maybe he could surprise us, we thought. There were raised eyebrows, but there was no immediate critical reaction from the majority; but then bit by bit, little by little, minority unrest spread to the majority. By the time of the City game, it was being said his position was untenable. Few seem to have faith in him to do a job in the Championship if that is where we are heading. The bile that emanates from the terraces and messageboards is horrendous.
Effective leadership is something that is hard to analyse, something with no formula to determine how it comes about. But the one thing that is acknowledged is that it occurs when some people have more knowledge in their particular field than the others in the group and they are skilled in imparting that knowledge. People turn to, and respect, those that have greater knowledge and can then use it for the common good. Then: along come words like authority, control, vision and inspiration. Sometimes it is just sheer force of personality. Brian Laws may well have managed over 800 games, but all bar Burnley, have been with lower League teams or those that are struggling – hardly the knowledge to equip him to lead a team in the Premiership with any degree of authority. This is not a grumble about him, but simply a question that asks did those who appointed him not realise this, or that his overall career win record was only around 37%?
“I feel like a kid with a new toy,” he announced on his appointment, and then film footage showed him racing round the pitch like a dervish in his tracksuit on the first day, indeed like a kid in the playground, hardly the behaviour best suited to impressing a bunch of hardened pros. It was wild and undignified. The seeds of scepticism in the squad may well date back to that very first day.
No matter how much we try to sympathise with him - that he was dealt a bad hand; that he took over at the worst possible time, that Coyle had stripped the backroom staff bare or that the heart had been ripped out of the club; unfortunately much sympathy has slowly ebbed away as poor performance has followed poor performance. The City game was the absolute nadir. It was truly embarrassing. The suspicion now is that players are turning on him, can’t wait to get away, or at the very least for the season to end. They must dread coming out to face 20,000 fans at Turf Moor.
The remaining sympathisers might point in Brian Laws’ defence that in several games there really have been instances of genuine bad luck, poor referees’ decisions and individual player gaffes over which no manager has any control. There were certainly two home games when even hardened Pressmen described the results as “cruel.”
But, maybe a glimmer of hope emerged. “I want to see some tackles flying in for goodness sake,” he said in another post-City interview. Burnley have put in the least number of tackles of any team in the Premiership, statistics revealed on the day of the game, pointing to something that we have all known since Coyle’s time; that we lack aggressive, ball-winning midfielders. It was a dignified interview that perhaps revealed there was more to the man than we had seen so far. He showed a sort of steely resolve, that he was determined to sort out the “issues”, (his word), that were troubling the place.
Behind the scenes was he sorting out those players whose resolve had vanished, and those who weren’t earning their money, those who had walked out? Was he making a mental list of players to get rid of in the summer? Was he shrewder than we thought, identifying what needed to be done and recognising that for the moment some things were beyond his control but at the season’s end could be rectified. Are there lax discipline issues that we don’t know about? This is a man who played for Brian Clough for a number of seasons. Perhaps there might just be a touch of the Cloughie about him. But then at Leeds United Clough suffered the full blast of player power and intransigence and not even he could sort out the players who held the reins there.
What fans have most volubly complained about week after week, however, has been the disappearance of fighting spirit in the team. Passion, commitment, even interest seem to have gone in some of them. It’s the psychology of defeat and hopelessness, with a dash of helplessness thrown in for good measure. When Coyle left they had two choices. They could wallow in disappointment and feelings of being let down. Or they could display a stronger mindset that showed anger and resentment and a collective ‘let’s back the new man and show that bastard what we can do without him’. They seem to have chosen the former. Except, ironically, as the rains teemed down in the City game, they actually did get stuck in during the second half, fought back and gave more effort than we had seen in all three previous home games put together. Play like that at Hull, and who knows what might happen.
‘The buck stops here’ says the sign on the top man’s desk. But those players too need to take a long hard look at themselves; a little more deeply than Clarke Carlisle’s blog, half a page of bland platitudes and don’t blame us; a blog that seems to irritate more and more people by the day.
In my other life I was head of a small village school. If I want to try and understand the predicament that Brian Laws was put in, I ask myself would I have coped had I been offered the job of a huge Comprehensive School with 2,000+ pupils and a staff of over 100. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. But who would have been to blame, me for taking the job, or the Governors for offering it. A mixture of both I suppose, but surely the Governors take the lion’s share. It is for this reason that I still sympathise with Brian Laws. Some of the personal abuse hurled at him on matchdays and in cyberspace has been nothing short of downright contemptible.
With all this in mind, the precarious position in the bottom three, the imminent departure of another Prem season and all the associated income; the Hull game really is the proverbial six-pointer. If Hull win, it will put Burnley six points behind. With spirits so low it isn’t hard to imagine which of the two teams will be the most pumped up. Sadly, with the memories of glorious Wembley, May 2009, less than a year old; one can’t imagine it being Burnley; by April 2010, a shattered, dispirited and utterly traumatized team.
The Hull game remains from which to salvage some credibility. Win the game and amazingly all is still not lost although the point that West Ham gained at Everton was a big surprise and may be our undoing. Nothing less than a win will do; an unlikely event that might just transform the place and kickstart the miracle that is needed. But, defeat must surely be the final nail in the coffin, and the end result of this ill-fated managerial experiment.
Dave Thomas April 5th 2010