Brian Laws' Burnley: The Inbetweeners
Feature by Richard Oldroyd
Updated Monday, 22nd November 2010
There has been a show on TV recently, a comedy depicting the growing pains of four teenagers who do not belong amongst either the studious nerds or the popular crowd at school and who, despite their bravado, are wracked with insecurity.
It is called the Inbetweeners, and I thought of the programme the other week, as I drove away from Burnley after watching Brian Laws' team labour to victory over Watford. And the same thought struck me this week, after the same team failed to contain Aidy Boothroyd's roughhouse Coventry side.
Burnley are the Inbetweeners of the Championship. As a club, we have grown up in the last 18 months: with Premier League experience and the parachute payments, we aren't the small club punching above our weight that perhaps we once were. On the other hand, we still aren't quite the wealthy, natural member of the elite that we aspire to become.
On the pitch, we aren't a clever, slick, sharp-witted side in the mould of the West Brom teams which have won promotion in two of the last three years, or indeed Ian Holloway's Blackpool or Owen Coyle's Burnley. Yet we aren't a team of playground bullies, capable of overwhelming teams in the manner of Mick McCarthy's Wolves or Tony Pulis' Stoke. Nor are we as streetwise or as savvy as Alex McLeish's Birmingham.
This is a team summed up by its contradictions. It is capable of stringing together clean sheets, yet equally capable of capitulating defensively. It is occasionally spontaneous, fluent and expansive; at other times, cautious and regimented.
The most obvious threat is that posed by Chris Iwelumo's ability to get on the end of crosses, yet the team is not set up with wingers but with two supporting strikers playing between the lines in a 4-3-3 formation, as though looking to play through balls for an absent colleague. We always deploy a holding midfielder, yet goals are repeatedly given away to unchallenged shots from the edge of the box.
And throughout the side runs that uncertainty of an Inbetweener: the self doubt of a team which knows what is possible but is uncertain how to go about achieving it.
That lack of inner conviction and courage is revealed in the team's haphazard attempts to gain parity at the Ricoh Arena. It is revealed in the panicked attempts to close out games at Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Norwich. It is inherent in the instinctive self-preservation which saw the team retreat into a defensive mode in the last 20 minutes at QPR and was demonstrated again by the listless defeat to Reading.
This is Brian Laws' Burnley. And, in many respects, Laws himself brings to mind an Inbetweener. He is a competent, diligent, Football League manager. But he has the characteristics of a man seeking to convince himself, as well as his players, that he has the ability, experience and gravitas to inspire a team to a Premier League return.
There is a flailing quality to his recent performances in the press which suggests that, at the deepest level, he is failing. He does not project the aura of self-assuredness which is the hallmark of leaders in any walk of life. Whilst it is a very different place to the interview room, it is hard to see Laws walking into the dressing room and commanding it instantly.
This is not an easy thing to write, because Laws is a decent human being who is doing his best. He has done some good things for Burnley, and his commitment to the club as a whole - from youth team level to first team level, including all of the infrastructure in between - is unquestioned. And I must point out that this is a personal opinion, not that of Clarets Mad. My editor will have published this article with a heavy heart.
But whether or not you subscribe to the view that this team should be winning automatic promotion or not, one thing is incontrovertible: unless a billionaire emerges, this season represents the best opportunity to return to the Premier League that we will ever have.
That means that Barry Kilby and his board must act quickly, and decisively - and take the most difficult decision of their football lives.
That timescale allows time - just - both for them to identify the right man for the job and for that individual to assess his squad and target reinforcements in advance of the January transfer window. To leave it longer, and risk the mistakes of haste made 12 months ago being repeated, would be disastrous on every possible level. Even if this is our best chance of a return, with the right manager at the helm next season can offer a second opportunity - so long as that manager has had time to impose himself upon the team.
You might say that that is not a luxury which has yet been afforded to Laws. Of course, that is true. You would also be right to say that Laws has barely been given a chance by many Burnley supporters from the start. That is equally valid.
But the nature of the opportunity created by the parachute payments means that fairness is simply not relevant to this decision. In a sense, this is another grubby consequence of the Premier League: our window is too small for normal principles to apply. It goes against the grain and we may hate the beast which drives it, but on this occasion judgments must be passed far quicker than normal.
We must use our instincts, and the evidence which is provided by the season to date. We must note the way in which the manager has sought to deflect responsibility onto players after poor recent results, because he knows he does not have the standing to assume responsibility himself.
We must take account of the atmosphere around Turf Moor, the frustration, the lack of any buoyancy or belief in the current project. It isn't just players who need to be inspired if a team like Burnley is to be successful. It is the supporters as well.
I have wanted Laws to succeed. I gave his appointment the benefit of the doubt. Yet watching Burnley over the last month has been depressingly predictable. The lack of leadership and authority which pervades the team has always been present. Leads have been thrown away, games have been allowed to meander into directionless draws and defeats. Increasingly it feels like watching a car crash in slow motion.
And that is why, as a mercy to all involved, this experiment should be halted. Thanks, Brian for your efforts: you deserve to do well in your career and I'm sure you will. But it was simply never destined to be at Burnley, not now, not after Owen Coyle, not in all the circumstances under which you have worked. And, as the Inbetweeners from the telly know, persevering with a plan simply to keep up appearances rarely ends well for anyone concerned.