I think it was in March 2014 when I first decided that I hated Sean Dyche.
We, Leicester City, had just travelled to Turf Moor in the form of our lives, winning comfortably with two goals from the ever dependable David Nugent and the not so dependable Chris Wood (we’ll come back to him later).
Believe it or not, this was my favourite season as a Leicester fan. It was a year where everything finally clicked: Vardy began to show the form he displayed at Fleetwood, Danny Drinkwater and Matty James were a breath of fresh air in the centre of the park, and Wes Morgan plugged our otherwise leaky defence. After a decade of dross, us fans finally began to forget about those miserable days out at Watford and Cardiff (Kermorgant’s name is still talked in hushed tones around the King Power), and, instead, fawned over top-flight football. Commentators, pundits and opposition managers alike were all praising Pearson’s well-drilled and well-built team. Well, nearly everyone.
In his post-match interview, Sean Dyche bemoaned the Foxes for “having the rub of the green” and the kind of riches that Burnley could only ever dream of. Even more bizarrely, he went on to cite City as “market leaders.” Here was a man who, instead of lauding Leicester’s 20-game unbeaten run, had pointed to the club’s ‘excessive spending’ as the reason they were flying high at the top of the division. And this was nothing new; in fact, I vividly remember Dyche spouting the very same ridiculous rhetoric season after season, as if he managed a Sunday league team and was being forced to mix it with the ‘big guns.’
Who the hell was this lego-headed, sickly-voiced, second-rate ex-centre-back to deny my beloved club of success, I thought? And, who in their right mind would insinuate that a trio of ex-Man United reserves, a handful of free transfers and a conference player were collectively grandiose in an otherwise cash-strapped division? Surely he remembered our debt-ridden days of the early 2000s, where we relied on pecuniary handouts from the likes of Gary Lineker to bring us back from the brink? Perhaps not.
Make no mistake, I really didn’t like the guy.
What I also didn’t like was that his side finished second that season. Here was my team finally getting their just reward for playing attractive, high-pressing, high-tempo football, yet hanging from our coattails was a side whose sole philosophy was to defend first and worry about goals later. It didn’t sit right with me. If ever there was a team who personified their manager, it was Burnley.
Will Burnley still be ‘a small club’ next season?
Five seasons on and Burnley are currently on a club record five-win run in the Premier League, now inconceivably hanging on the coattails of Arsenal. That’s right, the cash-strapped side who were relegation favourites at the start of the season, are currently amidst the mire of billionaire owners and some of the world’s best footballing talent. And what’s more, I don’t know how to feel about it.
Every essence of my being wants to earmark Dyche as one of the best managers to grace the top tier since the Premier League was established in 1992 — Europe or no Europe — but still, I find it hard not to hark back to those irksome days in the Championship, where he so regularly castigated clubs for inheriting the same kind of wealth he will likely see should Burnley take to the big stage next season.
To put his success in perspective, Burnley’s last appearance in Europe was a run to the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fair Cup in 1966-67. A competition we all remember well…Before that, the Clarets’ only other stint in Europe came when they entered the 1960–61 European Cup after winning the 1959–60 First Division Title. This ended in a 5–4 loss on aggregate to Hamburger SV.
Drawing similarities with the Foxes
Throughout the season, I’ve heard everyone from pundits to players draw similarities between Burnley’s success and Leicester’s title-winning campaign. However, the big difference for me is that not only has Sean Dyche done it on a shoestring budget, but he’s done it with a group of players who are widely known for underachieving in English football. Take Chris Wood, for instance: before failing to make an impression at Leicester, the New Zealand international’s club career highlight was scoring for Birmingham in Bruges in the Europa League. Having gone on loan to six clubs over the course of three seasons while on the books at West Brom, Wood has flourished under the tutelage of Dyche, taking a return of 9 goals from 21 appearances. Not bad for a £15 million investment.
Similarly, perennial loan-player Kevin Long probably knows England’s motorways better than most, having played for the likes of Accrington Stanley, Rochdale Portsmouth, Barnsley and MK Dons, before making his way back to Turf Moor. Under Dyche, he has secured himself a slot at CB (albeit at the expense of Ben Mee) and has risen to the occasion. He even had the audacity to put one past the Foxes last week. Then again, most have this season…
These aren’t players like Mahrez or Kante who were cherry-picked from football’s forgotten leagues for pennies; these players were punts, who Dyche knew he could get the best out of. It’s for that reason alone that he should be in the running for Manager of the Year.
Burnley know what they are
Dyche has a very rare ability to man manage middle-of-the-road players. We need only look back at recent seasons to see the value he added to players like Trippier, Ings and Keane, the latter of which now look a shadow of their former selves.
His production has largely come from being compact and by implementing an “old school” psyche into his squad – a characteristic which is mirrored by the Turf Moor terraces. Burnley are the exemplar of a football club that knows exactly what they are: a team who fight tooth and nail to minimise their goal deficit. If you don’t concede, you don’t lose, as the old adage goes. It’s for this reason that no team have scored fewer home goals this season than Burnley. Their 328 shots are way below the league average. Their shot accuracy is under the league average. Their conversion rate is under the league average. In fact, only Newcastle, Stoke and West Brom keep less possession than Burnley. But who cares? The manager knows, like Ranieri did, that statistics don’t matter if you win.
While Burnley might know what they are at present, European football will demand that they add strength to their ranks. I just hope that Dyche chooses to splash some of the cash he so ardently claims is missing from his club, and isn’t there just to make up the numbers.