Owen Coyle’s absence from Saturday’s post-match press conference following Burnley’s FA Cup third round win over MK Dons was an ominous development for Clarets fans. Having previously distanced himself from the vacant managerial position at Lancashire neighbours Bolton Wanderers, Coyle’s sudden coyness suggests the Burnley boss is interested in the job after all. Bolton chairman Phil Gartside has now made a formal approach to Burnley for permission to speak to the Scotsman. Bolton
Coyle has a sentimental connection with the Trotters, having spent a couple of very happy seasons at Bolton as a player during the Bruce Rioch era. Coyle netted 23 goals in his time at Burnden Park, including one in the 1995 Play-off Final victory over Reading which saw Bolton promoted to the Premier League. He is fondly remembered by Bolton fans and his appointment would be almost universally popular amongst the Reebok faithful – in stark contrast to the arrival of Megson just over two years ago, which was met with hostility from the outset. The Scottish-born former Republic of Ireland international also has an excellent relationship with Gartside and his name was on the Bolton chairman’s shortlist when Megson was appointed in October 2007. Indeed, Gartside provided Coyle with a reference when he successfully applied for the Burnley job just a month later.
It could be argued that Coyle has taken Burnley as far as he can. He has worked miracles in steering them to promotion on a shoestring budget, and then in engineering an excellent start to the club’s first ever Premier League campaign. Burnley have made Turf Moor a fearsome place for top flight teams to visit, and Manchester United, Everton and Sunderland are just some of the teams to leave empty handed this season. However, the Clarets, with a rumoured total of just £14m available to spend on new players this season, have far and away the lowest transfer budget of any Premier League team. In spite of their strong start to life in the Premier League, they are without a league win in nine games and even their fabled home form seems to be withering. With little money for reinforcements (Coyle has been told that the club cannot even afford to sign on-loan David Nugent permanently from financially imperilled Portsmouth), the Burnley manager might be fighting a long battle against the drop if the Clarets’ finances tie his hands behind his back in the transfer market.
Bolton, on the other hand, are a much more established Premier League club. Now in their ninth consecutive season in the top flight, the Trotters are consequently likely to prove more attractive to potential transfer targets than their Lancashire rivals at Turf Moor. Moreover, The Lancashire Telegraph’s Suzanne Geldard claims that the Scotsman could be given a transfer kitty of up to £40m should he take the reigns at the Reebok. Given this financial gulf, Coyle may well feel that Bolton offer a better chance for him to remain a Premier League manager next season than his current employers.
Although there are clear positives to the short move south, the timing for jumping ship to Bolton could be better. Indeed, the words “frying pan” and “fire” spring to mind. The transfer window is open and the clock is ticking, so even if Gartside appoints Coyle this week, the former Wanderers favourite has just over four weeks to familiarise himself with his new squad, decide who he wants to keep and who needs to go, and make the momentous decisions that will shape Bolton’s season. It would be asking a lot of any manager starting at any Premier League side at this stage of the season to make the snap decisions Coyle would have to make. However, his job is made even more difficult by Bolton’s current position in the relegation zone. In a strange way it would almost be easier to take over once the transfer window is closed, because at least then a manager is not distracted from team affairs by the need to wheel and deal and knows exactly what playing resources he has at his disposal.
Burnley, during Coyle’s tenure as manager, have developed a reputation for playing attractive, entertaining football. Indeed, that is almost certainly a factor in Gartside identifying the Scotsman as his latest top target – Coyle’s aesthetically pleasing brand of football might appease Bolton fans turned off by the turgid, long ball fare served up by Megson. However, while a slick passing game might be what Bolton fans want, is it what Bolton Wanderers need? The Trotters are in serious relegation trouble. How many teams have passed their way to safety in recent years? One also has to consider the dramatic change of style involved. Can Wanderers really be converted overnight from route one to a passing game? Do they have the time to adapt their system? Over the weekend both Robbie Earle and The Mail on Sunday’s Rob Draper alluded to Sammy Lee’s time in charge. Each noted that Lee tried to move away from the successful direct football played by his predecessor Sam Allardyce into a more fluid style, and in trying to implement such a drastic change, results plummeted. Stability was only restored when Megson brought back the route one tactics. While it would be overly simplistic to claim that Lee’s changing the system was the only factor in his plight, it was certainly a significant one. It takes time to evolve a team’s style of play, and time is one thing that Coyle will not have a lot of if he is to keep Bolton up.
So, is Coyle right to move on to pastures new? While a big job surely awaits such a promising young manager as Owen Coyle in the future, the timing of Gartside’s offer is wrong for the popular Scotsman. To jump now could well consign both Lancashire clubs to the drop. Coyle is still a relatively inexperienced manager, having been involved as a boss in English football for just two years, and he has a job to finish at Turf Moor. He would be better off re-assessing his options in May, and seeing which jobs are available then, when he’ll have a full pre-season to make the big decisions, as opposed to barely a month. However, it looks very much as if Coyle has made his mind up. It seems increasingly likely the Clarets boss will be in the home dugout rather than the away one when Burnley visit the Reebok later this month.