Questionable ambition from BFC

Posted on September 8, 2011

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*To appear in next month’s edition of When The Ball Moves

It must have been Friday 11th August when Eddie Howe realised that his mobile phone ringing was something he, and any other Burnley manager, should dread rather than welcome.

That was the day he discovered that the board had sold left-back Danny Fox to Southampton for a fee they “could not refuse”. This prompted Howe, for the first time, to express a disappointment with the club’s transfer policy that many supporters had been expressing for several weeks.

“To lose another player at this stage of the season is a big blow to us,” he said, “but the board received an offer they felt they could not turn down.

“So we have to accept that, although it’s far from ideal.”

“Far from ideal” must be seen as a bit of an understatement in this case. It is fair to say that most Burnley fans, myself included, were not huge fans of Fox, but to let him go for the fee we are meant to have received when he still had a full two years left on his contract struck many as nonsensical. The offer that the board “could not refuse” was in fact £1.8m, a mere £300,000 more than we paid Celtic for the player eighteen months ago. Though by no means brilliant, Fox was our regular left-back and his departure has left us with a lack of strength in that position in exchange for what seems to be very minimal financial gain.

The concern shared by many fans was that we were letting players go here, there and everywhere without having adequate replacements lined up. The departure of Tyrone Mears and Chris Eagles to Bolton, though not a pleasant thing to swallow, had to be expected given that both had refused new deals. To move them on now made good financial sense for Burnley Football Club as they could, and no doubt would, both walk away for free next summer. Yet in other cases we seemed to be shipping players out before we had replacements in place, and it has not been clear whether this is oversight on the manager’s part of tightfistedness on the board’s.

Clarke Carlisle was loaned out to Preston, perhaps for reasons we shall never know, even though we had not, and still have not, signed a decent replacement for him. Graham Alexander and Kevin McDonald were released with no central midfielders brought in to replace them. Wade Elliott seemed to be rushed out of the exit door at the last moment when we suddenly realised we actually had an experienced player left on our books. Releasing Stephen Thompson and selling Chris Iwelumo now looks positively daft given our severe lack of depth in the striking department.

Howe has gone on record before in saying that it was his intention to lower the average age of the squad, while the board noted in a statement following the sale of Fox that it was their strategy to implement “a more uniform wage structure within a streamlined squad”. It does seem, however, that a combination of these two policies have left Burnley bereft in terms of both numbers and experience as we enter the new season. Few would have objected to the departures of Thompson and Iwelumo as we entered this summer’s transfer window, but most would have had an issue with the failure to properly replace them by the end of it. Carlisle was unreliable and perhaps too heavily involved in activities outside of football, but to send a first team player on loan without securing an alternative makes little sense. Elliott was certainly past his best, but why get rid of a player who still had the capability to change a game for the sake of a minimal transfer fee?

So where does the fault lie for this bizarre transfer window? It is too early to say if Howe must take his share of the blame. His policy of lowering the average age of the squad is admirable, and would have sat well with a board keen to get high-earning experienced players off the wage bill. He has also been handicapped by the need to ship out expensive mistakes by his predecessors Owen Coyle and Brian Laws, most obviously Remco van der Schaaf and Leon Cort. Yet if it was always his plan to clear the decks of the likes of Alexander, Thompson, Iwelumo, Carlisle and Elliott, why did he not have replacements already in mind for all of them? Treacy, Ings, Stanislas and Hines are bold signings, but they must nonetheless be considered gambles as they have been brought to the club from either lower leagues or the reserve teams of other clubs in order to replace established players, many of whom have experience of promotion from this league. Trippier and Mee look good, but can only be considered temporary stand-ins given their loans status.

Hence questions must be asked of the board. If we have missed out on players this summer, as they have suggested, why is this? Why have players such as Jack Cork and Ryan Shotton not been tempted to the Turf given that we are apparently still in a strong financial situation following the Premiership season and the continuing parachute payments. Has this money been frittered on expensive mistakes such as the hiring and firing of Laws and the signing of Cort? Or are the board engaged in what many suspected them of doing during the Premiership season, planning for life in the league below by cutting costs and hoarding cash? Nobody is asking Kilby & Co to bet the house on a return to the Premier League. All that we, and probably Eddie Howe as well, ask is that we show a little more ambition than that currently on display in attempting to return to the top flight, rather than simply readjusting to life as a struggling Championship side. Otherwise, what was it all for anyway?

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Posted in: Sport