“Hard working, rough around the edges, an acquired taste to some, but more widely, downright unpopular…” Burnley, the town and the football club, had a lot in common with the way Sean Dyche wanted football to be played.
In an era where identities are becoming increasingly heterogeneous due to globalisation, the film Gone Baby Gone has an intriguing opening sequence. Rooted in the idea of how where we come from has a bearing on what we turn out to become, the sequence suggests that it is “the things you don’t choose that make you who you are—your city, your neighbourhood, your family.”
While the narrative flows, we see images of people from working-class Boston who have been impacted by broken backgrounds, or, as Patrick Kenzie says, “fell through” the cracks after starting close by. The movie is a stark representation of the often under-privileged working class of Boston and how they struggle, presenting it in contrast with how American Psycho portrays the egocentricity of the elite in New York. In a way, both films do present a version of two sides of reality.
It is a rather valid depiction of football, especially if the gap between the so-called elites and the lesser clubs is seen through an unbiased lens. Those at the top are oblivious to the realities of those at the bottom of the leagues, and they exist in a cocoon that is afforded the privileges of modernising their club, style of play, and revenue models. Those at the bottom stick to survival. The gap is only widening, as was evident by the reaction of Everton fans, who went ballistic on relegation survival.
Burnley Football Club, who hail from the industrial town in Lancashire, have suffered from these perceptions for a long while now. Even though they endured relegation from the Premier League recently, Burnley is a club that saw everything that a Premier League club can witness—apart from winning the league. They survived close shaves with relegation, attained solid mid-table finishes, and qualified for Europe. But for a club that does not have the same allure as the towering heights of Manchester or London and never had a brand of football that was as revolutionary as that of Liverpool or Manchester City, there were times when the Clarets were looked down upon by many. Numerous times, unfairly so.
Sean Dyche’s side would always present this stiff challenge to an arena that the comforts of the Premier League would rarely see in 2022. When the likes of Brighton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, and Aston Villa evolved into much more ‘palatable’ clubs for a general football fan, Burnley would always come across as alien territory.
With the rough Lancashire winds almost smashing into players’ faces in an almost box-like Turf Moor, Dyche’s outfit resorted to a brand of football that was direct, one-dimensional, and often highly effective. It would be a toned-down throwback to the 1990s, where the 4-4-2 “put it into the mixer” approach was the norm and football hadn’t become a product for a global audience to digest with pleasure.
It was still brash and rough, reminding opponents that they will always have their hands full whenever they came to town. In many ways, a trip to Turf Moor seemed like a trip back in time where football was perhaps simpler, unfiltered and more rooted in community. After all, when football clubs first emerged in Britain, they were essentially sporting groups closely knit with the fans that resided around the towns. The supporters knew the players and could often connect with them at a personal level.
Despite their rise to the Premier League and the “giant killers” tag they slowly acquired, the club stayed true to themselves and to the history and identity of the town they come from.
Recently, the town of Burnley was named the most enterprising place in Britain for supporting small and medium-sized businesses. Within that very fact lies how even the city has retained a part of itself from what it used to be. Indeed, the town that derives the name from the River Brun that flows nearby, Burnley’s first major establishments were mills—corn and fulling mills at first, sprouting from the 13th century onwards.
Jack Nadin, who has written extensively about the situation of mills and factories in Lancashire, has suggested that Burnley was once the cotton weaving capital of the world and over 60 per cent of the town’s population was involved in such activities. Cotton weaving and spinning had been the staple industry of the place for over 200 years from the 18th century onwards. That era coincided with the Industrial Revolution, as the North West of England became a hub of technological inventions and changes in how raw material was used.
While other Lancashire towns such as Bolton, Preston, and Blackburn had valid reasons to stake claims in the modernisation of production machines, Burnley had nothing like that. Richard Arkwright, who invented the spinning frame, was born in Preston, and John Kay was born and claimed by those from Bury. The man who invented the spinning mule, Samuel Crompton, was born in Bolton. Burnley had none of those tangible credits in their bag and no global reputation to vouch for in that aspect. But to be the cotton weaving capital of the world, the town developed a work ethic that made it stand out from the other places in the North West.
That workman-like tenacity of the place became a hallmark of the North West and the North of England. Nadin has stated that there were times when even infants were carried to factories on their fathers’ backs and children were exposed to that environment from a very early age. And all of it, over time, became part of Burnley’s working-class culture.
The conclusion of the First World War had a negative impact on cotton production and brought about a decline in the industry in Burnley. Supplies dwindled, mills closed down, and employment decreased. The end of the Second World War brought in foreign imports, and any attempts to return to normalcy were rendered obsolete. The population of the town reduced as migration away from Burnley increased.
Around this time though, this small mill-town was witnessing a different sort of revolution, albeit, it was happening in football. The Clarets became one of the earliest proponents of Total Football under Harry Potts, winning the First Division in 1960 and finishing runners-up to the title in 1962, almost giving the town a new direction through the game.
It was fitting enough though, that the footballing revolution in Burnley took place right after the cotton production dipped. It was almost like a passing of the baton for a town now known for its football club across the world due to the Premier League’s global reach—more so for a definitive workman-like approach on the pitch than any gleaming successes. It is almost like the football club, at least till Sean Dyche’s departure, retained a part of its little-known historic reputation through a style of play often seen as unfashionable by football fans who have been exposed to the opposite through the game’s global reach.
Jamie Smith, an avid Burnley fan for many years now, believes that the town has suffered from a lack of investment and that has brought about a lack of opportunities for the younger generations.
“Like a lot of northern towns in the post-industrial era, Burnley has suffered from a lack of investment,” he says. “But people from Burnley remain ferociously proud of the place, even when they have moved away (like I did when I was 18). A lack of opportunities for young people has been evident in Burnley for a long time now, while the pandemic has hit the town centre particularly hard; there are a lot of pubs and shops that have closed down, leaving the centre much emptier. Premier League football helped to put Burnley on the map so losing that is another blow.”
While Jamie points out how proud people from Burnley are for where they are from, another fan, Matt Lord, shares a similar view even though a large part of the country can look down upon the town.
Matt says: “It’s a small northern town, rough around the edges but a great place to grow up. It’s got the best of both worlds, surrounded by beautiful countryside but big enough to have stuff going on and within easy travelling distance of big cities like Manchester and Liverpool. Of course, most will tell you it’s a s**thole, but it’s our s**thole, you know?”
But Matt, like Jamie, also believes that football has put the town on the map in the modern era, and while a lot of other clubs in England thrive off a global fanbase, Burnley has a fantastic ratio of population to attendance.
“It’s much smaller (than Manchester or Liverpool),” he says, “not the sort of place you’d visit without a specific reason—like football. Cities like Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds have loads of things going on, but in Burnley, the football club is the focal point.
“The ratio of population to attendance is the best in the country—I remember when we last went to Wembley for the play-off final, pretty much half of the town was there. Burnley was practically deserted for a day. You don’t, can’t, get that in your big cities.”
Burnley’s population, unlike the big cities of the country, has reduced since the 1980s. Close to 93,000 people resided in the town back in the 1980s, but the population now stands at around 87,000, which is closer to the place’s population back in the late 1880s. That trend is the exact opposite to the likes of Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds, who have witnessed their population sprout over the last three or four decades.
Jamie explains: “The difference between cities like Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool is that investment has been made in other departments to keep them growing, with Burnley unable to keep up. Burnley used to be well connected—being on the Leeds-Liverpool canal was ideal for industry—but its transport connections are not really suited to the modern era, unfortunately.
“A lack of quality jobs means there aren’t many reasons for people to move to Burnley, which is a shame as the town has a lot of character and local pride—and it is very affordable compared to Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds, too.”
And for a long while, Burnley Football Club had a similar fate. After a single year in the Premier League back in 2009, hopes for going back up again remained limited as clubs around the Clarets either modernised or acquired external finances to reach the top tier of English football. But if anything, the people of the town have a rich history of appreciating hard work, commitment, and the value of a strong work ethic, something which always shone through when Dyche arrived from his spell at Watford.
Dyche came following the exit of Eddie Howe, who had previously led Bournemouth to their miraculous run from League Two to the Premier League and acquired the reputation for being one of the few English managers with an expansive approach.
But what Dyche’s approach to the game presented was, for a long time, a perfect fit for the town, the club, and the reputation that both have.
Matt says: “Hard working, rough around the edges, an acquired taste to some, but more widely, downright unpopular. So yeah, I think it did [suit them].”
At the same time, Jamie points out how the image of the club also acquired some political undertones over time. A perception developed of Burnley being a right-wing club, especially when 2019 saw the Conservative Party acquire a majority in the town during the General Elections.
“Dyche’s tactics and style were a good fit for Burnley,” says Jamie, “but it did make it easy for outsiders to point at some of the town’s more unseemly elements. Far-right politics, unfortunately, found a place in Burnley for a time and many have also remarked on how white the squad has been in a town that voted strongly for Brexit.
“Dyche’s Burnley were resilient and hard-working, two of the qualities Burnley people would say of the town for sure.”
And that helped the club set a new identity for itself in the global game, as it managed to qualify for the second qualifying round of the Europa League—something that much more fashionable clubs such as Brighton & Hove Albion, Aston Villa, and Southampton haven’t done since 2015. And the Clarets did that with shoestring spending, relying on their unique approach and gritty tenacity of the players who had never played at a European level themselves.
But Dyche’s work with the club somehow evaded credit and continues to do so, perhaps now overshadowed by how his time at the club has ended amidst talk of dressing room unrest during his tutelage.
“Like most Burnley fans, I tend to find it quite funny,” says Matt. “You could tell a lot didn’t really watch the games and then fans of the bigger clubs don’t take too kindly to being given a bloody nose by a club like Burnley.
“The thing is if you gave me a choice between the football played under Dyche to what we were playing under Howe before him, I’d take Dyche every time. Under Howe, it was endless side-to-side passing, possession for the sake of it. Under Dyche, when we had the ball, we looked to attack straight away. Sometimes long, yes, but not always.”
However, with the general negativity surrounding Burnley and Dyche’s view of the game, an average football fan became oblivious to the fact that Total Football first reached England through the same club that they were looking down upon. Perhaps, if the Premier League was not broadcast and sold across the world as this shiny product, the variety that Burnley added to the English game would have received more respect.
Clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Manchester City have unintentionally aimed to follow a similar track of modernisation. Over time, they have become clubs that are growing far apart from their local communities, catering to a global audience and serving their demands. In a way, they are very different from the people that Patrick Kenzie referred to—those that fell into the cracks, especially during changing times.
And now, perhaps Burnley may emerge out of the cracks due to the new American ownership that has brought about the promise of a much-modernised club, highlighted by the hiring of Vincent Kompany. An acceptance of the need for change seems to have taken over Burnley fans, even though the club may lose the roots that it is very much proud of as it sheds the older identity.
“I don’t fully trust the new-ish American owners but they have signalled a desire to take a more modern, progressive approach to various facets of the club and that doesn’t seem to fit with Dyche’s comparatively old-fashioned values,” says Jamie. “It’s also quite rare that players and managers going back for a second spell works out that well, so it’s best that we move on.”
In a way, this marks a new era of foreign investment in Burnley, with the first watershed moment arriving post-World War II. While that period was marked by the erosion of what Burnley truly was as a mill town, it handed the town a very tangible footballing identity that set the tone for the country to follow suit.
This club has been slightly late to this revolution. But coming from a town that has always longed for beauty in being sharp around the edges, there is now finally hope for a new and positive beginning under Vincent Kompany.