Richie Sadlier: The end of the Premier League brought a different type of closure for Burnley
Sean Dyche tells Richard Sadlier that there are positives to take from Burnley's relegation season
The car park at Burnley FC was quiet last Monday afternoon. The UK bank holiday meant the club wasn't open for business, but the end of the Premier League the day before brought a different type of closure.
Manager Sean Dyche had picked me up at Manchester Airport and we conducted this interview in his car on the way to the ground. I didn't know his assistant Ian Woan would be joining us for the journey until I arrived. I wondered whether his presence in the back seat would affect what Dyche would say. Maybe he would intervene to censor his manager if he felt it was needed. I should have known better. There are football managers who require guidance on how to behave and what to say. Sean Dyche is not one of them.
To those unfamiliar with Dyche or his methods, he rose to prominence in February with his handling of Jose Mourinho's latest claims of Chelsea victimhood at the hands of match officials. Mourinho invited himself onto Goals on Sunday on Sky Sports to cry foul. He was unhappy that Burnley striker Ashley Barnes would escape punishment for a tackle the previous day on Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic during their 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. Dyche was widely praised for his measured and thorough response the following day but, as ever, he looked for the learning from the whole experience.
"I saw a top-class manager who, make no mistake, is the absolute top of the tree, be very, very wise and very clever in how he dealt with the media and how he used it," he says. "So I learned that. That's why he does what he does. It's not just on the pitch - he can find ways of making things disappear. Little old Burnley drew one each, nobody mentioned it. Nobody mentioned the other incidents that happened in that game, apart from me on the Monday when I did a piece. The FA didn't mention them, so it all goes away. I learned from that. I'm not saying I'm going to use those tactics, but it's very clever."
Dyche wasn't told to respond in the way he did and nobody coached him on what to say, but not everyone was convinced at the time. "There was the immediate story, by the way, that Alastair Campbell advised me on it," recalls Dyche. "People would say that, 'cos he's a Burnley fan, like I ring him for every informational bit I can get out of him. Obviously that's nonsense. We have a good laugh about that. I said to him, 'you've done well to get your name linked to that. Just 'cos it was half decent you put your name to it'. I get on well with him."
While Burnley's season ended only 24 hours before we met; their hopes of remaining in the Premier League were dashed a fortnight earlier. The majority of pundits point to Burnley's policy around transfers and wages to explain their 19th-place finish. The club, with what was regarded as the weakest squad, spent less than anyone on new players. George Boyd was their most expensive signing at £3m and their wage bill is half that of the club nearest to them. Dyche rejects the claim that this showed a lack of belief that ensured relegation. If anything, as he explains it, over-ambition may have thwarted them.
"The decision was made early on to attempt to tick all the boxes To attempt to make infrastructure changes, to attempt to get planning for a new training ground, to put new pitches in. Do the ground up, to compete in the market and then, not only enough to compete in the market, but get players in who can do enough in the Premier League. And whilst doing all that keep the cost-base reasonable. Not trying to be so prudent that it's going to be impossible. Keep the cost-base reasonable and still allow the club to compete. But if you try to do that all at once then it's very difficult. Not impossible but very difficult."
He stresses throughout the interview these are not excuses for failure. Despite relegation, Burnley are financially secure and in a position of strength. Most of the players are still under contract and the club are not facing a situation where they have to sell. Unlike the majority of clubs that step down to the Championship, the wage bill is not a concern. There have been "massive improvements" to the stadium and the training ground and there are plans in place for a new academy training facility.
"We're talking millions," said Dyche, reiterating the club's desire to do things their own way. "You need something that is real, something that has actually happened at a club, beyond just getting some players in."
Every club ends the season thinking what might have been. For Burnley, perhaps the last-minute collapse of a January transfer deal was a key moment. "We had one player physically in our building waiting to sign and it fell through because the parent club called them back," recalls Dyche, but it wasn't their only disappointment. "We had another player whose club phoned us saying, 'will you buy this player?' An hour later we said 'yes, we will at this level'. They agreed, and then an hour later said, 'no, we're not selling him anymore'. It was a farcical situation, I will say that."
Every manager reflects on things he might have done differently but the margins of defeat were minimal for Burnley in so many games. "We weren't getting smashed every week. If you're getting smashed every week, you have to change it. If you look at the last five games before we went down it was all one-nils. You scratch your head on a few where you think, 'how have they not got something out of that?'"
Striker Danny Ings is reportedly going to sign for either Spurs or Liverpool in the coming week. His contractual situation was publicly known for some time, having turned down an extension in favour of leaving this summer. I wondered what impact this may have had on Dyche's dressing-room and how it may have affected Ings' performance. A club with so little resources could surely ill-afford a player with less than 100 per cent focus. Perhaps this was a key factor also?
"People were trying to make a story out of him flying out to meet David Moyes but that's part of the business now. He's out of contract and the rules state you are allowed to do that. How can you stop people from doing what they are allowed to do?
"He's a great lad, I've no problem with him at all. The thing is it's hard for players to play with total freedom when their contracts are running down. The risk of injury, the risk of lack of form. It affects performances and it definitely affected his." It was a pragmatic view on the realities of modern football. If he had stronger feelings, he hid them well.
So where does Dyche see himself in the future? Recently retired former Republic of Ireland midfielder Steven Reid said Dyche would manage England one day, but that was dismissed as an obligatory answer from a player put on the spot. "He's hardly gonna say 'nah, I can't see it'. He's got no choice."
Dyche knows any comment about his managerial ambitions would be reported as a desire to jump ship, and that even refusal to answer the question can be spun as the same. "We just got relegated at Hull, and the third question was about my future. And I'm like, what? You've got to be kidding me. Do you think I'm bigger than what's just happened here? I said 'come on, I just wanna get this done and go see my wife and kids'. That made a story, that I was 'uncommitted'. How can that be a story?"
Would he be tempted by an offer to leave Burnley to stay in the Premier League? Though he replies in typically thorough fashion, the response came with a warning not to be loose with his words. "You must make it clear that you've asked me a hypothetical question and I've given you a hypothetical answer," he demanded, "because if not there'll be a million tongues wagging."
So, would he? "First things first," he said, "are you ready for it? Can you deliver? This is beyond worrying about Burnley, so forget about my link with Burnley. Just imagine that's not there. This is self-questioning. Are you ready for the effect it's gonna have on your life and your family's life? Can you package all that together and think 'I am the man to take that forward'? That would be my first question. If I believe I can do that then it would be time to go 'Right, Mr Burnley people, we need a chat'. Because if I didn't think that was right I wouldn't even entertain it and I'd stay where I am now."
It struck me how odd it was to be asking such a question in an interview which also covered the threat of getting sacked. Burnley were relegated, after all, and statistically speaking he's a rarity to be still in his job. Even more unusual is that Dyche appears to have emerged from the season with his reputation enhanced, not that he's content with being praised for the work that he did. "Some very prominent managers ring me up and say 'you've done terrific,' he explains. "Yeah, but we haven't done terrific enough. That's my driver. They see the reality from the outside and think 'to get to where you've got to was great', and I'm thinking 'yeah but we didn't get to where I wanted to get to. You might think it's alright but I don't".
There are few, if any, noticeable changes in Dyche since I played alongside him at Millwall 15 years ago. He talks with intensity about his work yet seems unaffected by the pressure it brings. He's confident and self-deprecating, driven yet light-hearted. His profile has never been higher but the trappings of professionalism and fame are still of no interest.
"I don't really do all the pomp of it, you know, shoulders back, peacock suit, wandering around. That's not my bag. I just get on with my work and work hard and try and see my family like most dads do".
I finish by asking for a stand-out moment, a lasting memory from a season that created so many. Dyche goes straight for the performance his players gave at Old Trafford in February, particularly in the first half. I thought he might have listed that as one of the big disappointments. Burnley had outplayed Manchester United yet lost 3-1. So much effort put in for ultimately no return, but Dyche remembers it differently.
"Little old Burnley go to that team on that night, and then you have Man United fans come up to you afterwards and go 'That was unbelievable. I can't believe what I've just seen.' That's a new one in my career. I've never experienced that before. So that was a strange kind of stand-out moment."
Much like how the season went for Burnley and Dyche, the end result wasn't a true reflection of the whole experience. One of the highlights of a season was a performance in a 3-1 defeat? "Yeah, but sometimes there's a pride beyond the outcome."
With that, Dyche and Woan switched their minds to the evening's end-of-season awards do. It would be their final engagement of their Premier League season before heading off on holidays the following morning.
Sunday Indo Sport