Outside looking in

A lifelong Burnley fan reflects upon his club's most recent Premier League relegation

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Football isn’t meant to be watched this way. Sitting on the sofa, with the second espresso of the morning, the Miami sunshine forcing the blinds to be closed. Air conditioner on, waiting for the game.

The television is tuned to auxiliary channel 1694 displaying its static message: “No programing scheduled at this time.” At 9:58 a.m., a burst of noise comes forth with no introduction, no pre-game build-up; the image of Turf Moor, home of Burnley FC, appears suddenly on screen. It is a raw feed — the sound of the crowd, the stadium announcer, the view of the diminutive looking Bob Lord stand, as seen from the back of the opposite James Hargreaves stand. The teams come out of the tunnel, and then finally there is human contact as the commentator welcomes the viewers to the game.

I know the Turf, it is a part of me. It was the first football ground I ever visited, as a 5-year-old sat in the Cricket Field Stand with my Dad. Two years later I had a season ticket, a few more years later and I was playing for the “Junior Clarets,” which, in the days before academies and centers of excellence and community programs, was what passed as the club’s schools football program.

I grew up on the Longside terrace, stood with my late father and with close friends, watching Burnley in the third and fourth divisions. My father had seen the Clarets crowned champions of England in 1960, watched them play Hamburg and Napoli in European competition, and watched them regularly beat the big city teams. I saw more downs than ups and witnessed the lowest point in the club’s history, a 6-0 defeat at home to Hereford United in the fourth division, as part of a miserable crowd of 1,961.

The club nearly died that year but had climbed back to the third tier by 1993 when I left England and moved to Budapest to work as an English teacher with ambitions of being a foreign correspondent. I spent the first few Saturdays of the 1993-94 season kicking a ball against the chicken shack in the dusty back yard of the old Hungarian lady’s house on the outskirts of the capital where I rented a room.

“Aunty Piroska” let me use her transistor radio which, tuned into the BBC World Service, brought the results from James Alexander Gordon. No report, no detail, not even the goalscorers. Piroska didn’t have a telephone so an hour or so later, at the public payphone booth on the corner of the street, I rang home to Lancashire, getting a quick call back from my Dad who gave me his 10-minute long, detailed match report, always ending with “Do you want a quick word with your Mum?”

Newspaper clippings of match reports and interviews would arrive regularly, sometimes a VHS cassette with recordings of Football League highlights shows would turn up in bubble-wrapped envelopes. This was the pre-internet life of the expat fan of a small, rarely-televised lower division club.

My “few months in Hungary” turned into six years, then eight years in Italy, where, by then, I was writing about football every day. There were still the match reports from Dad on the phone but gradually the connection with my hometown club was weakening. Trips home to see the family always involved a game or two at the Turf, but Burnley was becoming one of many English things I had slowly left behind, even more so when I moved to Miami.

It all changed again in May 2009. Burnley won promotion to the Premier League, returning to the top flight of England after a 33-year absence. Once the emotion, always slightly tinged with some degree of homesickness for an expat fan, had subsided there was the recognition that Burnley games were on television in the United States. Not all matches were shown live by FOX but there was always a pirate stream of the Clarets match somewhere, even if it came with Chinese or Arab commentary.

For one season, I lived English football like the expat or foreign followers of Manchester United or Chelsea have done for years. I read news on the team every day, watched videos of pregame press conferences, argued on the fan message boards, and I settled down every Saturday morning for the match. Football after breakfast is a very different experience and the time difference, which creates an early morning start, means that the post-defeat glumness or post-victory euphoria runs through the whole day and not just the evening.

It was a season which began with the fairytale home win over Manchester United but which turned into a campaign soured with bitterness and rancor after manager Owen Coyle walked out on the team midseason for local rivals Bolton Wanderers. His replacement, Brian Laws, was helpless to stop a slump towards what felt like an inevitable relegation.

That was that. One season. Then back in the Championship, back to perhaps half a dozen games on some sort of broadcast or feed. The quick “bounce-back” didn’t happen. Laws and his replacement, Eddie Howe, came and went. Sean Dyche took over and didn’t look like doing much to lift Burnley beyond the lower-middle reaches of the second tier.

I was back at Turf Moor for the start of the 2013-14 Championship season. Burnley v Bolton. It is never quite the emotional homecoming, the revisiting of childhood and youth that I kid myself it will be. The Longside Terrace where I stood as a 16-year-old has long gone; so has the wide-open Bee Hole End behind the goal. The atmosphere is different, less intense. There is no longer any hint of violence in the air, no longer a whiff of urine from the back of the Longside and above all, no movement — everyone is sat watching, far more quietly than in the past.

A few days before the start of the campaign, the club had been forced to sell top scorer Charlie Austin; hardly the way to inject the place with optimism. Sam Vokes and Danny Ings were paired together in attack, but the fans wanted to know who would be bought to replace Austin. No one was. Small town Burnley have never been big spenders but the Austin money, like the money from the sale of Jay Rodriguez to Southampton a year earlier, would be used simply to keep the club going. Mid-table mediocrity seemed the most that could be expected from a club with one of the lowest wage bills in the league.

But Ings and Vokes formed a wonderful partnership, scoring 47 goals between them, and it was enough to propel Burnley to an unexpected but thoroughly deserved promotion back to the Premier League. And thanks to auxiliary channel 1694, Burnley games would be live on my television every single week.

Football isn’t meant to be watched this way.

There is a strange bittersweet feeling watching games from Turf Moor in a living-room in South Florida. There is, undeniably, an amount of pride in knowing that a piece of the little town you were born in is being showcased around the world. As Canada-based Andrew Campbell, who runs a Facebook group for the sprinkling of “North American Clarets” puts it: “In the past I’ve gotten tired of having to explain to soccer fans where Burnley is. For the past year a lot of that stopped and I was now part of the conversation.”

I find there is still a connection there, a sense of loyalty to the club, to the other fans, to the history, but at the same time a knowledge that you are not really part of it, no longer a member of the tribe, just an observer from afar, someone who might never be part of it again. And there is the homesickness, the feeling in your stomach and the sense of melancholy that has rarely troubled me apart from during Burnley’s two seasons in the Premier League.

Another “North American Claret” Don Kirkham, put it this way: “Watching Burnley made me homesick more than once, not for Burnley per se, but for the occasion of watching Burnley at Turf Moor, of leaving home at 11 a.m. for a three o’clock game, calling into pubs on the way to the ground, pie and peas, things that seem trivial but in fact are full of treasured memories.”

Once again I was able to see the first game of the season, in-person, at Turf Moor. Chelsea were the visitors on a Monday night and after an early Burnley goal from Scotty Arfield raised the roof, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Oscar put on a show and ran rings around the collection of Championship players and other castoffs that Dyche had turned into a Premier League team, before easing off and settling, thankfully, for a 3-1 win.

Of course we reassured ourselves that it wasn’t games like Chelsea at home that were going to determine Burnley’s season. It was beating the likes of Hull, QPR, Leicester, Sunderland and West Brom that would count. Yet the season will be remembered for a draw at Stamford Bridge in the return game with Chelsea, the comeback 2-2 draw at the home of outgoing champions Manchester City and then the March victory over them at Turf Moor. The draw at home to Manchester United in Angel Di Maria’s English debut. All remarkable results for such a low-budget team, but it was the failure to beat the middle- and lower-ranked teams that condemned Burnley to an immediate return to the Championship.

Burnley barely invested in new players for the Premier League and what little they did spend failed to improve the squad significantly. Without billionaire owners, without the ability to attract even players from the Championship to move up for a taste of the top flight, the Clarets were always going to be fighting at the foot of the table, hoping that Dyche’s evident motivational skills and the relentless pressing game he had instilled in the team would somehow suffice.

Any lingering hope of survival ended with the home defeat to Leicester and was confirmed last Saturday, despite a 1-0 win at Hull City. When the whistle blew, the 3,000 traveling Burnley fans responded with a chant of “Burnley, we love you” and Dyche stood in the centre of the field with his players and applauded back. Thankfully the feed was still running on auxiliary channel 1694.

It was a dignified end to Burnley’s attempt to survive in a league for which they are ill-suited. Unlike QPR they will go down without any worries about debts, about Financial Fair Play and without any need to off-load their players. It could, very well be a similar team that starts next season in the Championship with a realistic hope of returning to the top. But unless the club is sold to new owners with bigger pockets, the decent and committed local businessmen who hold the purse strings at Burnley will not be able to make the kind of investments that could allow Burnley to establish themselves in the EPL in the way that clubs like Stoke and Swansea have been able to do. The most that can be realistically hoped for is that Burnley become a “yo-yo club,” sliding up and down between the top two leagues.

For many of those who were in the crowd 28 years ago, for that 6-0 fourth division defeat to Hereford, a yo-yo existence is way beyond what we could have expected. Life back in the Championship is not a total tragedy for fans back home — it brings two ridiculously intense derby games with the old enemy Blackburn Rovers, fixtures with familiar foes such as Leeds United and Bolton Wanderers, slightly lower ticket-prices for away games and a lot more chances to celebrate Burnley wins.

For the expat Burnley fan, though, it means a drastic reduction in the amount of games that can be seen. It means the end of Burnley being part of the telenovella that is the Premier League on American television. No pundits discussing the team, no longer “part of the conversation,” just another of the 72 English professional clubs that are virtually invisible to the foreign consumers of the game.

And it also means, for me at least, less reminders of those Saturdays at Turf Moor with my father, less nostalgia and fewer occasions to ask myself whether it is really wise to live thousands of miles away from home, from family, from the friends and the football I grew up with.

I’ll watch the internet highlights and the occasional game that is broadcast here next season. I’ll read the local papers and fan forums online and keep in touch with how the team progresses.

But football really isn’t meant to be watched this way.