When the Ball Moves...Revisited
Today we launch a new service from When the Ball Moves...Online reviewing past articles from the magazine that are topical today giving a snapshot of where we were,what we were thinking and what happened after.
Our first offering is from Couch Potato from about a year ago, called 'An Admiration of Owen'.
CP sets the scene for the article today by saying:
Possibly what's interesting about it, is that it shows how wrong we fan-writers can be! Which in turn perhaps raises questions about how right any of us may or may not be currently about Brian Laws!
An Admiration of Owen
Club commentator Phil Bird, during the recent Wolves win, reminded us that many Burnley teams have faded in the second half of recent seasons… He also proudly declared that this one won`t. With the traditional post-Christmas slump now over, and recent performances arguably even better than the results, there`s reason for all of us to agree with Bird`s optimism. What`s the difference?
Is it all about Owen?
Across his decade in the Chair, Barry Kilby has employed just 3 managers. Can any English clubs except Arsenal and Manchester United claim to have employed so few during this time? Everton perhaps? Given this exalted company you have to at least ask who is behind the current success: club or manager?
Across the first Kilby decade (and let`s hope there`s another one) Burnley Football Club have shown commendable continuity and great sense of purpose in developments both on and off the pitch. This has continued through the years of Stan, Steve and now Owen.
Certainly there have been mistakes and setbacks in squad development, some self-imposed, some down to things like the collapse of ITV Digital. But the overall sense of direction has been there. The same sense of direction becomes even clearer when you look at the youth set-up, the facilities, the commercial side, the team-building off the pitch and the community programme.
Look as well as at the gathering together of so many former players, each bringing in something unique, but also something quintessentially Burnley Football Club, and quintessentially Burnley. Can you imagine any manger coming in and being given permission to change all of that? Short of meltdown, I can`t. So any current assessment of a Burnley manager has to begin by asking whether they 'fit in`.
There are reasons to admire not only the club`s record of standing by its managers, but also its appointment of Owen Coyle… and the way he both fits into, and adds to, a consistently well-directed organisation.
The eternal optimist
From the first time I saw him and heard him speak (at the 125th Anniversary Dinner on the night before his first game) Owen Coyle has come across as a never-say-die fighter against the odds, and as a champion of those who have to fight for success or survival. He understands the realities and aspirations of small towns. For folk who get up every day and face a struggle, he talks about each and every next game as being the toughest yet. Folk know what he means. There are times when you watch him, or look at the photos posted on the club site when things have not gone so well, that you know he feels the pain too. But what he adds to all of that is what Bird calls his eternal optimism.
Yes, every game is the hardest yet, but every game is there to be won. There`s no talk of Cup games being less important than League. There`s no excuse offered when a small club`s small squad is depleted by injury and suspension. He puts out his best team, expresses faith in them, and sends them out believing they can succeed. These are rare qualities.
One of the few gains from the 5-game losing streak is that we have seen that Coyle can carry on being Mr Motivator when refs and results conspire a bit against him.
What are the questions marks against him?
Thus far we have not seen many weaknesses in his make-up. One perhaps is that he sometimes seems to forget that not everyone in his squad has his same super-human mental strength. Another is perhaps the failure thus far to improve the red card count.
The latter could usefully be debated in an article at least as long as this one. Have all our reds in recent years been deserved? Might they be an outcome of over-motivation? Has Burnley been reaping the punishment that has previously been meted out on attack-minded Arsenal when players fight back after not being protected by refs? Is there an unconscious or even conscious communication between refs that Burnley is one of those places where you need to stamp your authority? There`s not space here to explore all these, and other, possible causes.
But a factor that could be causing lapses, both in discipline and in mental strength, is one that has been simmering as an area of fan disquiet all season long. Simply put, we don`t have a big enough defensive squad.
What`s more, extra pressure has been put on defenders: by the enormous number of games played; by the commitment to attack from first minute to last; and by what has presumably been encouragement to play out of tight spots at the back, rather than sometimes being willing to 'hoof it out`, as Bird called for when Wolves were on the Turf (soon after the Birmingham away defensive slip-up).
Should Owen have made defence a higher priority when the summer transfer window was open? He says he tried. How big a difference did losing Russell Anderson then make? How big a difference has Rhys Williams already suggested he can make? What kind of pressure have we the fans put on Coyle, post-Cotterball, to attack, attack, attack?
Let`s hope across this summer that we can retain our current attacking and midfield players. But let`s also find a few future Gary Cahills, so that our current, largely commendable, but sometimes severely stretched defensive players can be given an occasional break from living on the edge of their nerves, and rebuild their mental strength.
It is a mark of Coyle`s accomplishment that such criticisms, offered constructively, are worth making. So…
What makes him special?
If occasionally members of his squad have to take a rest, what`s more remarkable is that more don`t! Coyle`s coaching and physio team clearly know how to get players fit.
They also seem to be able to inspire youthful zest. In part this been done by bringing in younger players, some of whom (McDonald, Eagles, Williams, Paterson, together with McCann, MacDonald and Rodriguez whom they joined) are going to have bright to very bright futures. But it has also been done by breathing new life into old(er) warhorses such as Blake and Alexander.
Youthful zest has been combined with experience to foster versatility. Blake has changed from being a forward who could play midfield, to a real - and not infrequently amazing - midfielder. (I`ll never forget his tracking back and stretched clearance from the edge of the 6-yard box some 5 minutes before the end of the second Spurs leg. Caldwell gave him the highest praise for it from the SKY box.) Elliott has changed from being a right winger who very occasionally dropped to right back, to looking just as good in central midfield, whether attacking or holding. Alexander has been reinvented in front of the back four. Jensen has become… well, a completely new beast.
We worry about van der Schaaf, Penny and Berisha. But the record of Coyle and his coaches suggest that we should perhaps think of them as next year`s Jordans, waiting their turn to be reborn.
Versatility has also been a trademark of the on-field tactics. That versatility does not extend to shutting up shop. But we seem able to slip swiftly and effectively between different formations in both midfield and attack.
That players can do all of this is based firmly on hard work. But underpinning it seems to be an acute sense of motivational psychology. At its most overt this involves youth matches being written up on the club site by the team psychologist. It also comes out in consistent references to the squad being 'honest to a fault`, 'all good lads`. They work together, they play together. They even buy each other fancy underwear!!!
Combine all this with dash and daring, on the pitch and in the transfer market (Did anyone really think we`d sign a player from Man U with lime green boots and a hairband? Has anyone been upset that we did?) and we the fans love it. Of course, more than a good few of us still have some way to go before we master the same skills and mindsets of eternal optimism and inspirational behaviour. But, even we are showing some promising signs!
The finished article?
Having worked out of my system the disappointment of the mid-winter slump and of the away goals victory over Spurs being negated by unnecessary extra time, I can`t wait to see what Owen Coyle`s Burnley do across the rest of the 2008/9 season; and, regardless, I am almost more excited about seeing what happens between then and August.
The Eternal Optimist has said, more than once recently, that he feels we should already have done better this year so far. He has said that the team he has been managing now for just 15 months is not yet the finished article.
But Owen Coyle has fit straight into the organisation of Kilby, Flood and their lower profile directors (Don`t take them for granted when thinking about the rebirth of Bfc.). Coyle has built on the legacies of both Ternent and Cotterill, on the field and off the field. He has already left an indelible mark.
But The Eternal Optimist is not happy yet. Mr Motivator wants better. Kilby has said recently (Was in Claret and You at Christmas?) that managers do reach points when they need to move on. Even 'eternal` optimists burn out eventually, or accept new challenges. Already we are hearing Coyle`s name - which few of us recognised before he was appointed - being linked with vacancies at richer clubs.
But regardless of when or how he does move on, this club has already left an indelible mark on him. Coyle will always be a Claret. Long may we chant his name… and thank the Board for bringing him to Burnley.