A Time To Be Brave
Becoming a Burnley fan wasn't a choice, exactly. Few of us actually woke up one morning and decided to support the Clarets. Generally, it was decided by higher forces: by our fathers, our place of birth, or a chance happening across Turf Moor.
But we did follow that path. One way or another, we set ourselves against spending our time watching the aristocrats of the game, Manchester United or Arsenal, and the artists who don those shirts. Those of us who came to Burnley after progress came to football, circa 1970, were never likely to enjoy that level of excellence, and don't expect to. Do we regret it? Spuriously, frequently. But truly and deeply, never.
That is so for a multitude of complex reasons. For all those reasons of identity and loyalty which are embedded in every lower-league football fan. But also, for the oft-overlooked fact that watching football at this level, and below, can be enjoyable.
Whilst Premiership football is unarguably more sophisticated, there can be more excitement, more pulse-racing entertainment, in the leagues below the top echelon. That is, ultimately, the point of football: pleasure and excitement.
Yet this lays bare the fallacy in the perennial refrain which tells us that, after six years in this league, we have rarely had it this good. Perhaps we watch better players these days, but do we watch better games? At the same time, whilst watching Burnley grimly set their stall out for a nil-nil away draw, do we get the same pleasure from the afternoon that we might once have got from watching a flurry of goals and swashbuckling football, even if it ended with the gut-wrenching feeling of a defeat?
Whether it is because our tactical instructions suffocate games, no-one outside the inner sanctum knows. To be fair, if it is, then these instructions must have changed since the pre-Christmas time when goals flowed freely. More likely, it is a result of personnel, and a lack of confidence. The point is unchanged: to be enjoyable, football must be exciting, tense, or intoxicatingly successful – and watching Burnley, certainly since about Boxing Day, has been none of the above in either this season or last.
The nub of the issue is this: it is not sufficient, whilst trying to sell season tickets and encourage people to watch the team, to tell them that this is Championship standard football and that they will forever be Burnley fans. As supporters, they can, and many will, look at the papers and the statistics, talk to their friends, and conclude that that particular line of argument doesn't travel very far – just as an earlier generation did in the years of decline before Orient.
Nor can we just appeal to the past. The last great spell in our undoubtedly glorious history is now almost half a century ago. It is almost as long now since Orient as it was then since we played Europe for the final time.
Of the generation of fans who returned to Burnley in 1987, the last who remember those times, most are now fifty. The next generation – their kids, Burnley's baby-boom of fans whose memories begin around Orient - are now in the real world. The class of the late eighties and early nineties have grown up to hold jobs, mortgages, get married or live distant from Turf Moor with other responsibilities, other calls upon their time and money, which prevent Burnley being an automatic priority.
You can't simply appeal to this generation – or the next - with a heritage which, although important, is not a lived in dream. And they are already secure in the knowledge that they are real Burnley fans, regardless of whether they can be tempted to overrule logic and spend their money on the club.
What is more, the insipid football currently on offer does nothing to engender temptation. To be fair to Dave Edmundson and Barry Kilby, it means that they must square a difficult circle. It also means that they carry an unenviable burden, for Burnley stand at a crossroads. Our future status stands to be defined.
That large tract of supporters are close to becoming occasional walk-ons, detached if interested observers. Perhaps they become football fans first, and Burnley fans second: happy to watch any good game without the emotional involvement they still retain when, rarely, they get to Turf Moor. And inevitably, as time passes, their kids will fail to attach to this club: so begins a dangerous spiral which becomes ever more difficult to break.
Those who break the habit now will cease to go regularly - unless and until some cathartic event arrives to re-awaken the passion, just as Orient did last time. But even then, dealing as we are with a football club and a town where the dynamic has changed since 1987, can we be sure that the resurrection effect would be repeated?
That is why the club must now, more than ever, be bold, honest and imaginative - and that is why a repeat of the pragmatism that has marked recent campaigns would be so disastrous.
If Burnley cannot achieve their goal by appealing to the past, or to the present, then they must do so by appealing to the future. I have said before that it is imperative to make a statement of an intention to develop a young vibrant team which will grow, around dependable signings like Gray and Mahon. At the very least, mark a departure from a hand-to-mouth approach towards a consistent and determined strategy to build success. Fans want to believe, but that only stretches so far. It is for the club, this summer and next season, to stoke the fires once again.
It is close to sink or swim time for Burnley Football Club. If Burnley wants to earn a future in which it has a right to consider itself a club of size and aspiration, this is the time. Fail to grasp the nettle, and Burnley Football Club, sleeping giant of tradition, size and disproportionately loyal support, may become a figment of distant memories of a very different yesteryear.