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The last fixture of 2021 to be played in English football’s top four divisions was a late kick-off at Old Trafford on the night before New Year’s Eve.
When the final whistle sounded, a 3-1 defeat confirmed that Burnley would end the calendar year with the worst record in English football over the course of that past 12 months. Not one of the 92 clubs from the Premier League down to League Two had taken fewer than Burnley’s 34 points from 39 games, not one had won fewer games than their seven.
That defeat marked the end of a disappointing year at Turf Moor and fell almost exactly 12 months to the day since the announcement of a new dawn: the takeover by Delaware-based investment firm ALK Capital, led by the club’s new chairman Alan Pace.
Mike Garlick, his predecessor, described the leveraged £170m buyout as a “natural progression” which promised to transform a provincial east Lancashire club that has admirably held its head above water in the Premier League for the past five seasons. But for all the talk of progress, results have only gone backwards.
Burnley are now bottom of the table, with one league win to their name all season. Their top scorer in three of the past four seasons has left for a relegation rival, with time running out to sign a replacement, while Sean Dyche largely sticks to selecting the oldest starting line-up in the Premier League from its smallest squad.
And then, there are the postponements. As the Premier League’s wave of Omicron begins to show signs of subsiding, Burnley’s backlog of five games is the most of any club, while the only positive to take from their premature exit from the FA Cup in a late collapse at home to Huddersfield Town is that it has cleared space in the schedule to fulfil fixtures.
The issue of calling off games due to Covid-19 has become increasingly fraught and politicised over the past few weeks, with the claims and counterclaims expected to force an imminent rule change – but it is worth stressing that in the case of the worst-affected club, Burnley have been truly unfortunate to suffer such disruption.
The first postponement against Tottenham was called off due to heavy snow. The second, third and fourth, against Watford, Aston Villa and Everton, were down to Covid outbreaks in the opposing camps. Only the fifth – last Saturday’s visit of Leicester City – was due to Covid within Burnley’s own squad, though that also wiped out Tuesday’s Watford rescheduling.
The upshot is Burnley have played just two league fixtures since 12 December and the English top flight has a club with six games in hand over another for the first time since 1988. That team, third-place Chelsea, are a distant irrelevance, though. Burnley’s focus is solely trained on catching second-bottom Newcastle United, who have played three games more, and third-bottom Norwich, who have played four more.
It may be that the league table gives a false impression of Burnley’s predicament, then. Dyche’s side could even be said to have an advantage in the battle against relegation. There are concerns among some Premier League clubs that if postponed fixtures are not fulfilled quickly, clubs with multiple games in hand will know what they need to overtake rivals, raising questions about the integrity of the competition.
Yet in Burnley’s position, it would be much more preferable to have points on the board, and those points would seem much more achievable had the postponements been played while Chris Wood was still at the club.
Wood’s departure to fellow stragglers Newcastle was unforeseen and unavoidable, triggered by a £25m release clause in his contract, yet it has ramped up the pressure to find a suitable replacement before the end of the January window, at a club who have struggled to reinforce the squad in recent years, have a tight wage budget and have typically bought from a shallower pool of players than their rivals.
The hope this time last year was that ALK’s takeover would help to change that. Before completing the takeover, the new ownership had invested in London-based football data analytics firms AiScout and Player LENS. This type of technology will power transfer recruitment at Turf Moor under ALK’s management but has its first serious test in the rush to replace Wood’s 53 goals in 165 games.
The pace of innovation and modernisation in other departments has been equally fast but it has also resulted in a high turnover of staff in key roles, with the chief executive, technical director and commercial director just a few of those to depart in the past 12 months.
It is the nature of the takeover itself that has raised the most pressing questions of all, though.
ALK’s purchase was funded in part by a £60m loan from private investment firm MSD Holdings, owned by the founder of computer manufacturer Dell. Interest payments on the loan are the responsibility of the club, while money from Burnley’s existing cash reserves was used to pay the £102m put up by ALK Capital themselves.
Pace has repeatedly sought to ease supporters’ concerns over the structure of the takeover, comparing it to taking out a mortgage, but has declined to go into detail with a full breakdown, citing confidentiality. “I don’t mean to be over-dramatic on it because I can’t explain it but if you knew you would be: ‘Oh my goodness, this is incredible’,” he said last year.
The terms of the purchase have come under renewed scrutiny in light of the struggles on the pitch.
A report by the Daily Mail this week claimed that ALK have restructured the agreement with Burnley’s former ownership, delaying payments which are required in order complete the takeover until the new financial year. If the payments are not made on time, it is claimed, the ownership of the club will revert back to Garlick.
Pace publicly responded to those reports on Thursday, describing them as “inaccurate” and moving to reassure fans in a statement co-signed by Garlick and former shareholder John Banaszkiewicz, who both continue to sit on Burnley’s board.
While insisting that the conditions of the payment structure are a private matter, Pace said that “every payment required as per the terms has been made on time and in full, the future payment schedule remains in order and all parties have no concerns over the structure or the compliance to those terms”.
Whatever the structure of the takeover and however many reassurances are made, there will naturally be concerns if Burnley slip out of the top flight and lose access to vital streams of Premier League revenue.
According to the latest set of publicly available accounts, broadcasting income accounted for 84 per cent of Burnley’s total revenues during the 2019-20 season, the most of any club currently competing in the Premier League. By contrast, commercial revenues were the lowest of any club in the top flight that year at just 12 per cent.
It would be challenging for any relegated club to lose such an important flank of their financial model, especially when 11 players have contracts which are set to expire. Key figures of the Dyche era such as captain Ben Mee, James Tarkowski, Jack Cork and Ashley Barnes are among those who could leave for nothing in the summer if no agreements are reached – not only depriving the club of their services but also their precious sale value.
Post-takeover, Dyche himself was quickly signed up to a new four-year contract. But a manager’s position is always more malleable than a player’s, for better or for worse. Should worst come to worst, keeping hold of the third longest-serving manager in English football would be Burnley’s best bet of a swift return to the top flight. Yet after nine years in the job, that is no guarantee.
There are other clubs in English football on sharper declines, as seen with the desperate situation at Derby County, while the high stakes and sheer extravagance of Newcastle’s battle against the drop has naturally garnered more attention. Yet at Turf Moor, there is an inescapable feeling that a season is slowly and quietly unravelling.
Last year was a bad one for Burnley, an annus horribilis, but things have to change quickly to ensure that this one will not be much, much worse.