The Changing of the Guard

Last updated : 26 May 2010 By Richard Oldroyd
It would be wrong to say Laws was fortunate to escape the sack; it was his initial misfortune to find himself in a situation in which his position looked untenable. But he has been undoubtedly been given a surprising stay of execution, given the air of negativity which has been hanging around him like a bad smell.

Now, he must quickly setting about dispelling those negative perceptions and building a strong, positive brand for both himself, his team and his football club.

He faces a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, continuity is a vital tool in priming teams to bounce back to the Premier League and so minimising player turnover is crucial. On the other hand, Laws will want to bring in players whose relationship with him is not tainted by the scars of his succession from Owen Coyle. And he will want to allow any players who do not truly have their heart in the cause to leave.

If it is a big job, it is also a far from impossible one. There is plenty of good news: a healthy number of younger players like Paterson and McDonald who have played increasingly prominent roles in the latter stages of the Premier League season should be mainstays of any promotion bid next season. Only Tyrone Mears of a solid looking back four looks likely to leave, and even his departure looks far from likely to make it beyond the gossip pages.

And of course, if Steven Fletcher does leave, it would appear Burnley will realise a fee of around £7 million - enough for some serious squad strengthening. Other sales should yield similarly good returns. Together with the funds which must be made available regardless from the parachute fund, it will mean a substantial war chest for Brian Laws.

Paying any notice of the tabloid rumour mill is a mugs game, but reaction to early links has been noticeably lukewarm. Yet that is wrong. Many of these early signals have been extremely promising.

Brian Laws has presumably done his homework, and it will have informed him that teams who win automatic promotion are invariably experienced - particularly when they carry the burden of pre-season expectation.

Newcastle kept a sprinkling of proven winners, like Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan, at the heart of their bid, whilst West Brom achieved the trick of keeping together much of the side which had done the job two years earlier. Two years ago, Wolves built a young side around the know-how of Jody Craddock, Karl Henry and Chris Iwelumo; Birmingham built a side containing barely anything but experience. Before that, even the celebrated, exuberant West Brom team of Tony Mowbray contained the likes of Dean Kiely, Jonathan Greening and Kevin Phillips.

Novices do not win automatic promotion and should not be signed for the task. That is why targets like Rob Hulse and Gavin McCann should be applauded. They understand the stresses and strains of being everyone's favourite scalp. They know how to handle the slog of playing teams who raise their game every week. And they've experienced the pressure of the run in, when failing to win on any given week is a 'slip-up' in the eyes of the media.

Of course, there is an argument that signing a player such as Hulse for a fee which might ultimately exceed a million pounds is misguided, because the player has little resale value whereas a young striker - say, Gary Hooper of Scunthorpe - is more likely to gain in value.

But the core of that argument is that you should sign players with the intention that they should make money for you. And the easiest and most lucrative way for Burnley to do that is not to improve them and sell them, but to use them to make promotion as likely as possible at a time when the odds are stacked in our favour. Of course, there is a risk that promotion is not achieved in the next couple of years and the outlay is wasted. But equally, there is a risk that any young player will not translate his promise into reality. That too is dead money.

That isn't to say there isn't a role for young players who are still learning their trade, who have the potential to play at levels beyond the Championship. But unless they are immediately mature enough to shoulder the burden they will have to carry, they can only be cast in supporting roles.

And, given that the spine of this Burnley team does not currently look overly blessed with hardened campaigners or leaders, adding those seasoned campaigners in central roles must be the number one priority.

So where will Laws need to concentrate his efforts? His back four looks almost complete, with his only tasks recruiting a goalkeeper and persuading Tyrone Mears to stay committed to the cause. In the centre of midfield, he must address the lack of depth which hampered the Clarets this season. As well as a holding midfielder in Gavin McCann's ilk, Laws will surely act upon whispers of Jack Cork's availability and seek to make the youngster's spell in Lancashire permanent.

In the final third, he must also fill the void which will be left by the departures of Nugent and Fletcher by signing a powerful goal scorer with Championship pedigree, together with a more junior understudy. And finally, assuming Robbie Blake and Steven Thompson can be persuaded to stay and add the necessary craft and height to the cause, he must add a genuine left sided option to the squad. If those two leave, then they must both be replaced.

It is a big job, but it is not an enormous one. Yet Laws must choose wisely. He will have a substantial budget, particularly for replacing Steven Fletcher, where a substantial proportion of the fee received should be made available for obtaining the best man for the role. And he will know that, as he spends it, the fortunes of Brian Laws and Burnley Football Club are inextricably bound together.

Not only is this summer Burnley's big chance to assemble a team capable of returning to the Premier League. It is also Brian Laws' big chance to prove he is a capable of building such a team. And they both know it may be the last one they ever get.

This article was written before Burnley Football Club confirmed that Steven Thompson had signed a new deal.