If 40 points is where a team can consider themselves safe, then Burnley secured a third season as a Premier League team on March 3rd. Anything since is a bonus.
In reality, relegation hasn’t been a concern of Burnley’s all season – having started the season taking three points at Chelsea and a point at both Spurs and Liverpool – and their sole focus has been hijacking Arsenal’s god-given right to be in the Europa League qualifying place of sixth.
Burnley’s fans are enjoying their moment and so they should. Sean Dyche should be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year. But where to next? What happens if Burnley do nick sixth place from Arsenal?
Qualification for the Europa League from seventh place now looks a very likely possibility, with only Southampton winning the FA Cup able to put the kibosh on that scenario, and one suspects that the Saints have bigger fish to fry right now, with relegation looking more and more certain.
Burnley currently sit nine points clear of Leicester in eighth, with just five games remaining so it’s fairly safe to say that Burnley will finish seventh at least. A first European campaign since the mid-sixties beckons. The Clarets’ fans will be dusting off their passports and trying to find Ruzomberok on a map.
But a place in the Europa League means more football matches, as many as ten more by Christmas should they need to go via a third qualifying round (by finishing seventh) and make it to the group stage. It’s a workload that made a mockery of Everton’s early season form this year, and arguably cost Ronald Koeman his job. Everton’s resources and squad depth far outweighs Burnley’s.
Many past Europa League participants have bemoaned the unsettling effect of moving to Thursday-Sunday schedules. Travelling to a distant European outpost on a Thursday night and following it up with a tricky Sunday afternoon at the Etihad or Old Trafford can be costly in terms of league points, form and player fatigue or, even worse, injuries.
Newcastle have twice suffered from the burden of extensive European campaigns, dropping eleven places from their previous season’s finish in 2013 and nine places in 2005 (then still the UEFA Cup). A decade ago, Sammy Lee’s Bolton team also suffered a nine place drop during a UEFA Cup campaign.
Leicester’s amazing Premier League win of two years ago heralded a first foray into the Champions League the following season. Despite some memorable nights and gutsy performances against the likes of Porto, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, Leicester spent most of the campaign milling around the lower reaches of the table, only becoming resurgent when the intensity of Champions League qualifying died down, eventually finishing a lowly 12th.
And this is where Burnley find themselves; in the classic ‘stick or twist’ scenario. Do they spend big to deepen the squad? Or do they pay lip service to the Europa League knowing even a run to the final is, at best, of equal monetary value to dropping a couple of places in the Premier League?
One thing is for certain, relegation doesn’t seem to be something that Burnley need concern themselves with – and that can be the danger.
It’s a lonely life in the middle echelons of the Premier League; too good to go down but not good enough to be of any real concern to the established elite.
Stoke fans soon got bored of the safety that Tony Pulis provided during five Premier League seasons that saw them finish in a variety of positions from 11th to 14th.
Stoke fans were tired of Pulis’s functional style and finally managed to pressure chairman Peter Coates into making a change in 2013. After three seasons finishing in ninth place under Mark Hughes and a marked upturn in the style of play – and player – murmurs of discontent returned last season as Stoke regressed to 13th. Those murmurs grew stronger this season and Stoke now seem doomed to relegation, having accidentally dialled Paul Lambert’s mobile number when looking for a new manager.
They twisted. The fans demanded something better than the cosy comfort blanket of mediocrity.
Flair players arriving with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter and Bayern Munich on their CVs certainly get fans salivating, but guess what; they aren’t so great when it comes to a relegation battle. Right when Stoke need them most, Clasico alumni Jese Rodriguez and Ibrahim Afellay have been told to stay away from the club’s first team. It would never have happened under Tony Pulis!
West Brom are even more adrift and certain to go down. They too got sick of their mid-table existence under Pulis and longed for the heady days of struggle under Pepe Mel. Yet when Alan Pardew arrived and ramped the toil all the way up to 11, the fans weren’t happy.
FA Cup semi-finalists Southampton are also beginning to look lost to the sea. So sure were they of their membership of the mid-table safety club, that they sacked manager Claude Puel after delivering an eighth place finish and a Wembley appearance in the EFL Cup last season. Years of selling their best players and getting away with it was always going to come back and bite them on their backsides.
“The Saints tell no tale; but even as selling players was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, the Championship.”
Even Charlton’s fans got bored of life in the nothingness, the world in between worlds. Finishing no lower than 14th in six seasons under Alan Curbishley, the fans felt they could do better. That was twelve years ago and they haven’t been seen since.
The last two seasons has seen perennial drain-circlers Aston Villa and Sunderland drop into the Championship.
This season, it looks like newly-anointed ‘circlers’ Swansea and Crystal Palace will live to fight one more season, and it will be those sides who deemed mid-table safety not good enough who will disappear. Their fans or owners – or both – felt they could do better. They wanted to see their team go to the mythical ‘next level’. Their reward? The Championship highlights show starts earlier than Match of the Day.
So, Burnley fans; don’t despair if next season isn’t quite as heady as this one. Don’t demand a prima-donna centre forward just because all the cool clubs have got one. Don’t demand that the club play like Guardiola says they should, or implore Sean Dyche to send out the second string in a Europa League tie, so he can focus on ‘getting into Europe’!
Take a tenth place finish next season, and take another the season after that. Enjoy the Europa League for however long it lasts. Don’t bemoan it while it’s there, and then mourn it when it’s gone.
The football under Sean Dyche, the ginger Mourinho, might not be earth shattering, but it works. And it will keep on working as long as you don’t get bored by it.