Coyle's Season In The Sun

Last updated : 22 June 2020 By Dave Thornley

Since winning promotion in 2000, Burnley have taken up unbroken tenure in the top two divisions for twenty consecutive seasons. That may not seem such a proud boast but consider for a moment how many other clubs of a similar size are unable to say the same.

After the agonies of the division-hopping we supporters had to endure during the 80’s and 90’s; after so many new starts turned out to be nothing more than false dawns, it was re-assuring to see the Clarets take up residence in a more respectable neighbourhood.

Burnley even flirted with promotion to the Premier League in 2001-2002, holding a five point lead at the top when the season reached its half-way point. But a Boxing Day hammering at second placed Manchester City proved the beginning of a slide down the table and the signing of an unfit and largely uninterested Paul Gascoigne would not arrest the slump.

Burnley finished that season outside the play-offs on goals scored. Not, you may note, goal difference, which some bright spark at the Football League had dispensed with as a means of separating teams on the same points and which, had it remained, would have seen Stan Ternent’s Burnley in the play-offs. To add insult to injury, goal difference was re-instated shortly afterwards.

Ternent was subsequently replaced by Steve Cotterill, who came with a reputation as a progressive and forward-thinking coach, but whose time in charge seemed to be hindered by the constant need to put out fires, usually financial, caused by the withdrawal of BT/ITV broadcasting revenue, which put a dent in the club’s operating budget.

The highlight of his time in charge was a 3rd Round FA Cup win over Liverpool, which began a run up to the fifth round where we were eventually knocked out by Blackburn, then in the Premier League, who required a replay and extra time to do so.

In the League, however, Cotterill’s reign became one of mounting frustration, not least for the manager himself, who became increasingly tight-lipped and grumpy with the media as his Burnley team seemed unable to advance beyond mid-table.

A particularly listless home defeat to Hull City marked the end. On the whole he had done a reasonable job; assembling a decent squad of players, but he seemed unable to inspire them to their full potential.

Owen Coyle promptly arrived at the club; threw the windows open wide and let in the bracing winds of change.

The negativity and complacency that had crept into the club was swept away and players who had been marking time and going through the motions suddenly found new surge of belief and played with greater vigour.

Not that Coyle’s first full season in charge began all that auspiciously - heavy defeats away to Sheffield Wednesday and at home to Ipswich – but gradually momentum began to build, buoyed by some impressive performances in the League Cup, in which Burnley defeated Fulham at home and Chelsea, on penalties, away.

A superb home win over an admittedly second string Arsenal saw Burnley into the semi-final, where we would come up against Spurs over two legs.

In the first, at White Hart Lane, Martin Paterson gave Burnley an early lead, which they held onto until half time. But Spurs scored four times in the second half and – it seemed – ended the tie as a contest.

Before the second leg at Turf Moor, my son asked me what I thought would happen, I said that the best we could hope for would be to play well and maybe nick a win on the night.

It turned out that I was right, but not in the manner I had envisaged; Robbie Blake’s free kick stunner gave Burnley a first half lead and they continued to press hard against an increasingly desperate Tottenham team.

With just over quarter of an hour to go, Blake jinked his way into the Spurs penalty area and his low cross was turned in by Chris McCann. Belief began to course through the veins of Burnley’s players and supporters alike. Spurs were disorientated and when their keeper spilled a free kick at the feet of Jay Rodriguez, Burnley had levelled the tie.

Now, in just about any other cup competition, anywhere in the World which is played over two legs, the away goals rule becomes the tie-breaker at the end of normal time in the second leg. But not, for reasons which escape me, in the League Cup, which obliges the teams to play a further period of extra time before invoking the away goals rule.

Burnley had put everything into those ninety minutes and now they had to hang on for a further thirty before Paterson’s goal at White Hart Lane would send them to Wembley.

They almost made it, with less than two minutes remaining, Gareth Bale broke down the left wing and squared the ball to Roman Pavlyuchenkova, who tucked the ball past Brian Jenson.

It seemed that all the oxygen had suddenly been sucked out of Turf Moor and Jermain Defoe (who was ineligible for the first leg but was somehow allowed to play in the second!) scored again to see Spurs though to the final.

What a strange, wonderful, enthralling but ultimately bitter night of contrasting emotions; we were so close, we could smell it, touch it, feel it, but then have the final cruelly snatched from our finger tips.

Burnley, though were still in amongst the promotion chasers, despite a lurch in form which they lost five consecutive league matches. But the Clarets shrugged off that setback and the heartache of the Spurs game and would go on an extended run in which they would lose only three more matches – one of them to a full strength Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

A 4-0 hammering of Bristol City in the last league game would see Burnley finish the season in fifth place and into the play-offs, where they would meet Reading.

Graham Alexander’s penalty and Andre Bikey losing it when shown a red card were the highlights of the first leg; but in the second, at the Madejski Stadium, Burnley were superb, winning 2-0 courtesy of spectacular long-range strikes from Paterson and Steve Thompson. We would be going to Wembley after all, for the Play-off Final against Sheffield United and a place in the Premier League.

From a purely footballing point of view, the match was not a great one; Wade Elliot’s early strike from the edge of the “D” gave Burnley a lead which they held onto for the remainder of the game without undue alarm, but the aesthetics were of no consequence; Burnley were in the Premier League.

Legends were made that season; Graham Alexander, the spot kick supremo, whose ageing body saw him through every minute of all 61 matches the Clarets were involved in; Robbie Blake, the mercurial talisman and one of the most gifted players it has been my privilege to watch in a Burnley shirt; Wade Elliot and Chris McCann, dynamos in midfield and Brian “the Beast” Jenson, who had the season of his life between the posts.

As for Owen Coyle, we all know what happened, he would leave Burnley for Bolton half way through the following season, a season in which Burnley would end up relegated and with a hopelessly out of his depth Brian Laws in charge.

In the final analysis Coyle was regarded by the vast majority of Burnley fans as a snake-oil salesman par excellence, a man with no substance, for whom this season represented the peak of a managerial career which declined rapidly after he deserted the Clarets. It hurt at the time and still remains a sore point; but equally, it cannot be denied that he gave us an incredible season, one that continues to glow warmly in the memory.

Dave Thornley wraps up his meanderings through his Claret and Blue tinted memory box and looks set to end his furlough and return to the world of commerce. Thanks for sharing these past fourteen weeks Dave, it has been a pleasure! (TEC).