The End of an Era

Last updated : 10 May 2003 By Richard Oldroyd

Instead, a season which started disastrously and which then provided the odd moment of exhilaration within a general pattern of mediocrity and inconsistency, tailed off in a whimper and ended with a spring of discontent. The last rites of the season at Wimbledon were scarcely noticed by supporters of either participant.

In fact the last few weeks of the campaign have left quite a bitter taste in the mouth. Two seven goal drubbings within a month were frankly embarrassing, and the rifts between supporters and the club became increasingly wide. Even within the club – between the football and financial management – alarming differences can be detected by reading between the lines. On top of all this, the local elections once again put Burnley in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, but I don’t intend to mention that again. Football is not the place to discuss political ideology.

It is easy, in the midst of all the gloom and uncertainty, to lose sight of the positive aspects of a campaign which still provided a few memories which will endure for years. Cup wins, against Spurs and Fulham, and a decent battle with Manchester United – now crowned champions of England - were remarkable nights.

The league form rarely threatened such heights, with victories such as that at Leicester in mid-October the best we managed, but after we gained our first point - from a nil-nil draw against Palace at the Turf - a friend and I agreed that the aim this season was to stay in the division. We have achieved that comfortably, given a few youngsters a taste of the action, and lived a little bit in the cups. Statistics about our form since Christmas might not make healthy reading, but over 46 games we finished 16th in the league.

Nevertheless, the script for the last couple of games shouldn’t have read like this. Though we didn’t know it then, a week last Saturday proved to be the final home game in Claret and Blue for a number of first team regulars. Selhurst Park was the very end of the road.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the team which won us promotion to this division three years ago, which was added to in our first months in this division, and which has served us so well, reached it’s peak eighteen months ago. It included some of the finest servants this club has had in many years, players whose performances in Stan’s team belied their cost to the club. It included a number of crowd heroes, the most popular players in a team which took us further than any of us dared hope it could. Steve Davis, Paul Cook, Andy Payton, Nik Michopoulos: the list of names goes on and on.

Thank you, Gentlemen, for your efforts, and thank you for the good times. But it is an eternal tragedy that in the last two weeks, instead of leaving on a good note, the stigma of being part of the squad which conceded seven at home twice in such a short space of time will linger. It is sad, too, that you finished off with a defeat in front of a tiny crowd, an ignominious end to your Burnley careers.

But football often deals in sad endings. It rarely deals in fairytales. And it is true, too, that sentiment can have little place in football. Showing that bit of loyalty to a good soldier can lumber a team with a liability that it cannot afford. That Burnley team was finished. It had to be broken up. To do it so suddenly, without being able to phase players out, is less than ideal – but financial necessity dictated that we had to wait till players could be released to bring players in, and this summer will see plenty of wheeling and dealing by Stan.

With the remaining squad barely able to muster a substitutes bench, a bare minimum of about seven reinforcements are fundamental. It is imperative that Stan is firstly given the budget to achieve that, and that he uses that budget to achieve the maximum possible. I suspect recent radio interviews can be read in the same light: Stan will be both attempting to squeeze every last penny out of the board, and also trying to ensure the players who he targets do not come expecting inflated wages.

So now to the interesting bit. We need players, and there will be a huge number of freebies floating around this summer. In the free transfer market, Stan comes into his element. He is a natural scrapper, and without great wages with which to attract players, his reputation within the game may well be his greatest asset.

But who? There will undoubtedly be plenty to pick from, but only a few who fit our needs. Most fans would like to see a few younger players brought in, but they bring potential at the expense of certainty, and that is a risk Stan may see as unjustifiable given the limitations of his budget.

To see how Stan might play it, it is worth looking at the pattern he adopted in building his first Burnley side: plenty of hardened campaigners to lift us into division one and to ensure we stayed there, but since the summer of 2001 (when we signed Arthur, Dimi, Mark McGregor and Alan Moore) it is difficult to think of a single player who fits the conventional image of a ‘Ternent signing’ – gnarled, solid, professionals with plenty of experience of scrapping and fighting.

I would expect there to be a few ‘safe’ signings to ensure we are a watertight unit next season, coupled with a bit of imagination on the side. The rumours of three Manchester United youngsters on a season loan makes perfect sense to me – a cheap way to bring in quality and energy, and capable of capturing the imagination of the fans. Bring in a good youngster or two to add to the promise shown by Richard Chaplow and Matty O’Neill, and two or three good pros to steady the ship, and we could be a decent force next year.

Get it wrong, of course, and the vultures will be gathering. Stan already has his critics, and the boo-boys will not give him long if next season starts badly. Hold on tight: this summer is critical. It’s going to be an interesting time.