Twenty years of change

Last updated : 03 May 2011 By Richard Oldroyd
That same day, as you are unlikely to have avoided hearing last week, Sky Sports was born - and became the catalyst for two decades of change in which the dynamics of English football have been irrevocably transformed.

Not all of those changes have been positive; indeed, there are strong arguments, made in this column before now, that the game as a whole is worse for the aggressive influence of self-interest and distorted finances.

But those arguments are motivated in part by self-interest. Burnley play at a higher level now than in 1991 - but those changes to the football landscape mean that the club's standing within the game is probably lower.

That game against Peterborough was, coincidentally, my first at Turf Moor. Sat in the Bob Lord Stand, facing the great banking of the Longside - with its vast roof bearing adverts for Skipper of Burnley - which swept round onto the Bee Hole End, Turf Moor seemed to be the ground of a big club.

And Burnley felt like a major club: there were expectations, an optimistic belief that Burnley belonged at a higher level, that top flight football would surely return in time. When you read about Burnley in the national press during the early 1990s, you read about a sleeping giant fallen on hard times, a traditional powerhouse in temporary exile.

Perhaps, in part, my own perception was distorted by the sunny assumptions of childhood; perhaps the seasoned supporter always took a more cynical view. But I don't believe that is the whole story. Over 10,000 watched that game against Peterborough; the same day, barely a thousand more watched the top-flight clash between Luton and Sunderland.

One of the extraordinary features of the last two decades has been the way in football, helped by the exposure provided by Sky Sports, has become fashionable. Top flight gates twenty years ago seem paltry now. Of the 8 Division One games that Saturday, only four attracted gates in excess of 20,000. Aside from that at Luton, the gates at Southampton (15, 461), Aston Villa (17,001) and Crystal Palace (16,439) would be modest in the Championship today, let alone in the Premier League - and all are less than the 18,000 who crammed into Turf Moor to see Burnley take on Blackpool three days later.

A year later, Burnley's average gate was 10,582. Admittedly, this figure partly reflects Jimmy Mullen's success winning the fourth division championship. But it still stands out, even in comparison to top flight averages of that season. Both Luton and Wimbledon averaged lower gates, whilst QPR, Norwich, Oldham and Coventry all averaged less than 14,000. Palace, Southampton and Chelsea all managed fewer than 20,000.

In that context, it is easy to see why Burnley, re-emerging from the fallow years of division four, might have been considered a potential coming force. Perhaps this was exaggerated by the fact that in 1991, the club had won the league championship within a generation, and followed it up by competing for further titles, appearing in cup finals and embarking on lengthy European campaigns. Indeed, a long, almost unbroken spell of top flight football had ended only 15 years earlier.

Whilst they were always disproportionate to the club's size, those successes still created the illusion of a club with genuine top-flight credentials in the minds of the national media. And that seemed to me to be reflected around Turf Moor in a belief and a certainty of Burnley's place in the game - despite the club's modest status.

Yet over the last twenty years, that lustre has faded. Successes half a century ago are worth little now, particularly in a national consciousness consumed by the instant hype of the modern game. And although Burnley's gates are now higher now than 20 years ago, even in 1991 Burnley would have expected second tier football to add three or four thousand supporters to the average home gate.

Yet clubs like Derby and Leicester now attract gates almost double those of the early 1990s despite little change in their fortunes. The likes of Norwich, Southampton and Ipswich have also managed to transform their attendances despite playing at the same or even a lower level now than 20 years ago. Reading and Cardiff, opponents of Burnley in the early 1990s, have managed to attract huge armies of new supporters on the back of modest successes.

The common thread, of course, is that these are all metropolitan clubs, and perhaps this is a portent for the next 20 years. As a proportion of its population, Burnley's gates remain remarkable in comparison to most of its rivals - but other, larger population centres have closed the gap.

I do not mean to paint a bleak picture of the future for Burnley. Over the last 20 years Burnley - and the other Lancashire town clubs - have adapted remarkably well to the changing dynamics of the game: indeed, the last few years have been Burnley's most successful since the early 1970s. And town clubs like Burnley will always draw strength from the inextricable link between general civic pride and passion for the local football team. Few of the nouveau riche will ever emulate that connection.

But that natural conclusion of the trends of the last 20 years is that it will become more difficult for the likes of Burnley to continue to compete. And I suspect that, even without looking at the figures, supporters around Turf Moor are conscious of it.

It seems to me that at times this season there has been not only a tangible frustration that the Clarets have failed to make the most of an enormous opportunity to return to the Premier League, but a real sense of fear that that the game is fast accelerating away from clubs like Burnley, and that therefore this might be the only opportunity to make that return.

And, as the understandings of status and potential instilled in many of us when we became Burnley supporters cease to hold true, that has led to an uncomfortable, debilitating atmosphere around Turf Moor this season.

Those concerns for the future would be less acute if there were fewer question marks surrounding the club's plans. No-one knows whether the board plan on maintaining or cutting the club's wage bill for next season, or whether the club will be seeking to cash in on its more saleable assets. And because the instinct of almost any football supporter is to assume the worst, that fear of missing the boat has become all the more urgent and unhelpful.

Even if this instinct is wrong, and the board have set a budget for next season which makes a promotion challenge realistic - and having made a long-term managerial appointment in January, it seems logical that Howe will now be given some backing - then human nature being what it is, the same doubts and the same atmosphere will swiftly return next season should the team ever stutter. No team can flourish when they play in an environment of perpetual tension.

And so, if it is at all realistic, the board of directors should seriously consider relieving the pressure on Eddie Howe and his team by budgeting for a two year window to challenge for promotion, and making this two-year plan public. This does represent Burnley's best opportunity to consolidate its position within the top two divisions by attracting the new wave of supporters who are so badly needed, and the board must do everything possible to make it happen. And ironically, by giving themselves two years to do so, they might create an atmosphere around the club which is conducive to achieving success more immediately.

None of this will guarantee that Burnley will be able to compete successfully, of course. And promotion would only give Burnley an opportunity to prosper at the top level in the short term. If the Sky Sports-fuelled revolution lasts another 20 years, clubs like Burnley will have to accept that it is all but impossible for them to compete in the Premier League. In the meantime, next season, supporters might wish to consider reclaiming the underdog mentality which served the club so well two years ago - because irrespective of the opportunities which parachute payments provide, the evidence suggests that an underdog is precisely what Burnley Football Club has now become.