2011: A critical year with a pivotal beginning
Feature by Richard Oldroyd
Updated Wednesday, 29th December 2010
When Barry Kilby looks back on 2010, he is unlikely to do so with fondness.
[THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BEFORE BRIAN LAWS DEPARTURE FROM TURF MOOR]
The ultimate consequence has been the first signs of a fracture in the relationship between Kilby and the ordinary supporters of the club.
The idea that, if Kilby will not sack Brian Laws, he should be replaced as Chairman is histrionic nonsense of the worst kind. Kilby has been a marvellous chairman of the club, balancing his own passion for the club with necessary pragmatism and piloting a steady course throughout his varied 12 years in charge.
But equally, for his own sake (which probably won't concern him unduly) and for that of the club (which will), it would be foolish for Kilby and his board to entirely ignore the increasingly malevolent atmosphere amongst supporters.
There have been plenty of calls for a change, including from this column. It seems fair to conclude that the overwhelming sentiment amongst supporters is that Brian Laws should no longer be managing Burnley Football Club.
Those calls for change have thus far been resisted, as is the board's right. But whilst a board of directors must be careful to take a long-term view which is not influenced solely by the will of the masses, so they must also be careful not to adopt entrenched positions which are diametrically opposed to the will of supporters. It is a mistake for the board to think that such an overwhelming consensus is necessarily wrong - or indeed to believe that, even if they disagree with that majority view, they can override it without alienating an enormous number of the supporters upon whom the club's constitution is based.
If a football club is intent on making unpopular decisions, therefore, it must do so in a manner which gives supporters positive reasons to accept them.
This means that if he is keeping faith with his man, Kilby must ensure that his backing is unequivocal and is demonstrated in the January transfer window. Inevitable concerns that Laws' tenure is shaky - and that any purchases will simply bequeath a successor unwanted bodies in return for a lesser budget - must be set aside. We have been repeatedly led to understand a modest pot of money is available for transfers. If he is staying, Laws must be trusted to spend it.
Otherwise, the perception of a club drifting towards dispiriting mediocrity, with a paralysed board of directors unwilling or unable to take the big decisions necessary to sustain ambitions of a return to the Premier League, will become firmly established.
That, in turn, will result in sharp reductions in attendances before May and in next season's season ticket sales and will have huge implications for the long-term viability of the club at Championship level, let alone as a potential participant in the Premier League.
Laws, for his part, must take advantage of his reprieve and be decisive in confronting the flaws in his squad. Judgements on Laws himself should be made on the basis of the whole of his tenure without placing undue emphasis on any single match. His squad must be analysed on the same basis. Any run of form over Christmas (before which this article is written) should not be allowed to alter existing conclusions. That analysis could result in as many as four players coming in and out of the squad.
It may well be one of Laws' greatest regrets that he was not more ruthless in re-constructing his squad in the summer. The decisions to re-sign Thompson and Alexander were both understandable: they offered reliability and continuity at a time when the futures of key players were uncertain. But in truth both positions within the squad - and particularly that of Alexander, the warrior of two years ago - could have been allocated to players capable of contributing more to the first team.
The inability of Alexander to operate without the assistance of two orthodox midfielders in front of him - and his consequential marginalisation - has resulted in the two failings that Laws must address first and foremost. These are the lack of leaders and organisers on the pitch, and the absence of a midfielder with the composure and presence to manage a game from within a basic midfield two once the Clarets have been forced onto the back foot.
Similarly, he may reflect that re-signing Clarke Carlisle as first-choice foil for Andre Bikey at centre half was a mistake. Bikey is at his best alongside a steady, unspectacular organiser. That is not Carlisle and, if such a player can be sourced in the next month, it would enhance Burnley's credentials enormously.
Further forwards, he must be prepared to allow Thompson to leave in order to create space for a forward with the ability to both provide a physical focal point capable of holding the ball up and also running in behind opponents and into the channels. It is unfortunate for Laws that Jay Rodriguez, one of the brightest sparks of the season to date, is not quite ready to assume that focal role. Nor is the 18 year old loanee John Guidetti.
But above all else, Laws must decide upon the formation and pattern of play which he wishes to adopt. One of the primary criticisms of Laws' existing squad is that it is a squad full of varied options, but which does not reveal a clear strategy. The result is a team which is competent in many respects but which is masterful in none - not in the slickness of its passing and possession play, the pace of its counter-attacking, or its power from crosses or set plays.
Whether Laws decides to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, if Laws' remains committed to a fluid, passing game then he must identify someone with the touch, movement and creativity to link the midfield to the frontline, whilst also providing a credible goal threat himself.
This is a position which Wade Elliott has failed to master and, given that Kevin McDonald's appears to have fatally undermined his own Burnley career, Laws has no clear candidate for this role within his squad. If McDonald can be ushered through the door, Laws might be able to bring such a player in. But even within the squad, there are options which could liberate the team from its shackles and blur the rigid distinction between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2.
Moving Chris Eagles into this central role would be a brave departure from Laws' previous approach, which has tended to restrict players perceived as talented but defensively unreliable to the flanks. But, whilst Eagles had a good first half to the season, he has too frequently been frustrated by the ease with which he is isolated on the flank.
The lesson of QPR's outstanding start to the season is that such players - in their case, Adel Taarabt - can be better harnessed in a free, central role where they are harder to mark and deprive of the ball.
A similar lesson, albeit at a higher level, can be drawn from Tottenham's success in deploying Rafael Van Der Vaart ahead of a central midfield two and behind a striker: a creative, attacking midfielder with the technique and craft to drop deep and create opportunities for others, but also possessing the pace and willingness to dart beyond the striker on occasions, can have an enormously liberating effect on an otherwise stoic team.
The alternative may be to use Rodriguez in a withdrawn central role, showcasing his ability to link the play, with Eagles playing from the left hand side with licence to come inside and get involved. That is a big responsibility for a player as young as Rodriguez to shoulder consistently. But again, it is the short of decisive change which might address both the team's failure to retain possession when under pressure, and its inability to make incisive incursions into opponents territory between the half way line and the edge of their penalty area.
Neither change will transform Laws' Burnley into the complete team. In a perfect world, Burnley would also bring in a mercurial left winger with the sort of pace and goal threat Ross Wallace lacks, with a stronger, more mature Rodriguez the focal point of the attack and Eagles taking the position in behind him. But it is important not to expect too much of Rodriguez too early, and despite concerns that Wallace is too similar to Elliott - whose delivery and industry still make him the natural alternative to Eagles on the right - and lacks the industry to offer proper balance on the left, there are more pressing concerns down the spine of the team to which attention should be focussed this season.
In any event, the perfectly balanced team is not a requirement for getting out of the Championship. Far more important are mental strength and a clear strategy. With brave decision making and coherent leadership, Burnley Football Club can still do itself justice this season. The portents from the first half of the season are not encouraging - but we must all hope that they are misleading. 2011 may dictate whether history judges 2010 as a blip or the beginning of a more serious decline.
As a result, no-one should underestimate the significance of the next twelve months, nor the importance of starting it on the front foot. Barry Kilby and his board have made their choice: now, they must either reconsider pronto - or make it work.