Burnley's back, baby, the smallest club in the Premier League

Burnley will kick off a Premier League campaign for just the second time in history when it faces Chelsea on Aug. 18 at Turf Moor, and to truly understand the smallest club in the league, you need to visit their past.

For many older ‘Clarets’ supporters the defining moment in the club’s history would be May 2, 1960, when Burnley, inspired by the creative genius of Northern Irish midfielder Jimmy McIlroy and playing a fluent attacking football, became the smallest town to be crowned champion of England.

In those days of the ‘maximum wage’, Burnley kept hold of the talent discovered by its outstanding scouts, and so the small textile town in East Lancashire, which had won its first league title in 1921, built a team with internationals from the British nations without fear of them being poached by the big city clubs.

A year after Burnley’s triumph, though, the maximum wage rule was abolished. Though the club remained a respected force in the game throughout the 1960s, the unleashing of market forces in English football meant that the time when small clubs could compete at the very top was coming to a close.

When Burnley was relegated to the second tier in 1976 (after a brief yo-yo earlier that decade) it marked not only the definitive end of the ‘golden era’ for the club, but the start of a dramatic slump which saw it drop to the fourth tier and which nearly ended with the club’s extinction.

For my generation then, the defining moment in the history of Burnley Football Club came on May 9, 1987 when Burnley’s final game in a miserable, depressing fourth division campaign was against London club Orient and the scenario was stark – win or die.

The club was in serious debt and for the first time the Football League had introduced relegation for the bottom club in the old fourth division (now League Two). The banks had, according to most people in the town, made it clear that if Burnley went out of the league and into the semi-pro ‘non-league’ scene, they would pull the plug. A founding member of the Football League in 1888, two-times champion of England, European Cup quarter-finalist and FA Cup winner, Burnley faced extinction. The scenario involved Burnley having to beat Orient and other results to go its way.

Crowds had slumped to as low as 1,700 a game during a season in which Brian Miller, a member of the 1960 title-winning team, had taken over and tried to cobble together a team on a tiny budget to keep the club alive. But for the Orient game, over 15,000 turned out. The suspicion was that many were there just to witness the club’s final moments.

With the guillotine hanging over the head for an intensely nervous 90 minutes, Burnley scraped a 2-1 win and, with the other results favorable, the club was saved and fans flooded on to the field at Turf Moor in scenes of rare and raw emotion.

Slowly Burnley got back on its feet and five years later managed to get out of the fourth division. “Burnley are back” we sang at York City as we celebrated promotion to the third division in 1992, the year the Premier League was formed. But for all the joy, few of us who drove back across the hills to celebrate that success could imagine that our club would return to the elite. For all its proud history, Burnley had become a small lower league club and most of us were grateful just to have a team to support.

As Burnley crawled its way back to the second tier, winning promotion in 2000, the English game was changing radically with the influx of television money, foreign ownership and players from across the globe. In an era of Russian, Arab and American owners, what chance did a town of 87,000 have of competing?

But in 2009, Burnley beat Sheffield United at Wembley Stadium in the promotion playoff final and entered the Premier League for the first time. Inspired by the motivational skills of the man Burnley fans simply but sincerely called ‘God’, Scottish manager Owen Coyle, the team started the season with 1-0 home wins over Manchester United and Everton. For a brief moment, Burnley was back in the 1960s – beating big city rivals in the North West and proudly competing with the very best in the country.

There is little place for sentiment or romance in the modern Premier League, however. Burnley fans were introduced to that cold reality in brutal fashion in January, when Coyle walked out on the club mid-season to join local (and likely relegation) rival Bolton. Now known universally in the Lancashire town as ‘Judas,’ Coyle took almost all the backroom staff with him and instantly became the most hated figure in the club’s history, charged with betrayal, dishonesty and sabotaging the club’s first season in the top flight in 33 years.

The bitterness didn’t fade as Burnley fell away to relegation and the inevitable financial complications that come with the process. Taking stock of the situation, Burnley — with an ownership made up of local businessmen, all fans of the club but without a fraction of Premier League resources — had no real prospect of making it back to the top tier.

Indeed at the start of last season, some bookmakers made Burnley favorites for relegation to the third tier. Young manager Sean Dyche, who had been harshly dismissed by Watford’s Italian owners in their rush to appoint Gianfranco Zola, lost his star striker on the eve of the season when Charlie Austin left to Queens Park Rangers. No replacement was bought.

But Dyche transformed a collection of players unwanted by other clubs into a collective that played positive, high-pressing football, and despite one of the smallest squads and lowest budgets in the Championship, Burnley won promotion with some ease.

In the highly globalized Premier League, Burnley, with its local owners, all-British squad and careful approach to the transfer market, stand as something of an anomaly. But there appears little desire from the fans for any radical change to fall in line with other teams in the elite.

“We are the smallest club in the league beyond any doubt in every way. It makes it difficult for us to compete and maybe some investment from outside of Britain would initially make things more comfortable for us,” says Tony Scholes, editor of the fan website Clarets Mad.

“But I’d prefer to stay just how we are and put my trust in people who care as much about Burnley Football Club as I do.”

Pundits will predict relegation for Burnley, but Dyche showed last year that he can squeeze the maximum out of his modest resources. And, as the club’s 132 year history shows, overturning the odds is nothing new for the Clarets.