The Premier League said goodbye to Burnley this weekend as the Clarets returned to the Championship with a 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Liverpool. Brian Laws’ men were always fighting an uphill battle to stay in the top flight, working with a relatively tiny budget and despite the bright start they made under Owen Coyle, relegation was always a real possibility for the Lancastrians. The third spot in the drop zone is all-but-confirmed to be Hull City’s, as the Tigers trail 17th place West Ham by six points with two games remaining – with a massive disparity in goal difference condemning the Yorkshire outfit.
Both Burnley and Hull changed their manager through the course of the season – the latter by choice, placing Phil Brown on gardening leave and parachuting Iain Dowie in to try and save the day, the former by necessity after Coyle absconded to Bolton Wanderers. The decision to appoint Brian Laws as successor to the popular Coyle was not motivated by the Burnley Chairman Barry Kilby spotting a previously-hidden trait in the former Sheffield Wednesday boss that would save the newly-promoted side from relegation. Rather, Laws was handed the reins at Turf Moor because he used to play for Burnley and, even more so, he came cheap. It was a gamble and it failed – but a year of Premier League TV money and the forthcoming parachute payments Burnley will be entitled to, could set the Clarets up financially for a very long time and provide the backdrop for future pushes into the top division – perhaps under Laws, perhaps not. Whoever leads Burnley into the Championship next season will be managing a team amongst the favourites for promotion, and from having the smallest budget in the division, as an ex-Premier League side the Clarets can reasonably expect to be able to call upon more funds than their Championship competitors next season, a measure of the good budgeting from the club’s hierarchy – and appointing Laws at little expense is part of that. Relegation may sting now, but if promotion is achieved next May the current sorrow will be long forgotten.
For inspiration, Burnley need look no further than the team Coyle left them for in January. Bolton’s safety was assured over the weekend after Burnley’s defeat left Wanderers eight points clear of danger with just six points left to play for. Next season – 2010/11 will be the Whites’ tenth consecutive campaign in the Premier League – after twice being promoted and immeadiatly relegated. Now, however, Bolton are an established Premier League side and, ironically, the appointment of Coyle contributed greatly to the team from the Reebok Stadium pipping both Burnley and Hull to safety. As much as any tactical changes the Scot made or signings completed in the transfer window, Coyle brought a fresh optimism to Bolton which neither Laws nor Dowie brought to their respective new homes. The dour Laws, with his unsuccessful spell at Wednesday so fresh in the mind, gave Burnley fans little to cheer and Dowie’s patchy track record since leaving Crystal Palace – combined with Brown still retaining some popularity amongst a significant percentage of the Tigers’ support – led to unrest surrounding the KC Stadium. Brown’s uncertain position – with weekend reports hinting he could return to the manager’s office – and the club’s apparent forthcoming financial calamity just heighten the morose atmosphere on the east coast – an atmosphere that, according to George Boateng, began to develop in December 2008, for that was when Brown committed his most infamous act – the on-the-pitch half-time team talk at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Speaking after Hull’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Sunderland, the Dutchman, told by Brown he would never play for Hull again, laid the blame for the club’s demise firmly at the feet of the former Derby County boss. Boateng said: “That’s when all the problems started. The team felt disrespected. We were sixth and we had lost two consecutive games. It did affect the team. We covered up the cracks but from that moment on we never seemed to recover. We didn’t feel like we deserved that.” There can little doubt that very public rollicking greatly affected the rest of that season – Hull dropped from sixth to 17th over the next five months – and was a grave error of judgment by Brown, generating a tidal wave of ill-feeling that has now submerged the entire club. A summer clear-the-air meeting, led by Boateng – one of Hull’s most experienced players – could have, if not saved the club then at least given it a fighting chance but evidently, it never happened. For the four months between August 2008 and December 2008, Brown got a great deal out of a limited group of players – after that, he was no longer able to motivate the squad and performances sank. Hull’s team is one that, on paper, would always be struggling to survive in the Premier League and once the close bond between player and manager had been broken – and allowed to go so long without so much as an attempt at repair – the players’ true level was revealed. The instalment of Dowie provided a brief fillip but once that initial effect had worn off, Hull were struggling again. Perhaps the die had already been cast under Brown but Dowie was unable to coax adequate performances out of the Hull players either, which leads one to believe it is a combination of poor management and equally-poor players that has doomed the Tigers to the Championship.
The relegation scrap is settled then, with Hull and Burnley joining Portsmouth in next year’s Championship. Of the three, only the Clarets look like having any hope of bouncing back at the first attempt and the Lancashire side will be richer for their Premier League experience – not just financially, but the experience gained since August will stand them in good stead next time they sit at the top table. As for the other two, it has been a traumatic season that, sadly, only looks like getting worse as the months roll on.