It is a well-thumbed phrasebook. Sean Dyche was “flattered” to be linked with higher-profile positions, because it “showed he was doing the right things”. Still, he would stress he was “just concentrating on my job here”, followed by that stock phrase of every football manager either under pressure or en vogue: “It’s business as usual.”
Few managers are bold enough to publicly state their interest in a job and risk fall to follow their pride, but we can be pretty confident that Dyche would have been interested in the vacancies at West Ham and Everton. Both might be worlds away from the tranquillity of Turf Moor, but budgets are bigger and ceilings higher. That’s not a slur on Burnley, merely the reality.
And yet Dyche stays. Three mid-ranking Premier League clubs have sacked their manager recently (Everton, West Ham and Leicester), but none have fallen over themselves to appoint the most over-performing manager in the Premier League.
Everton seemingly prefer the short-term option of David Unsworth before likely summer pursuit of Marco Silva, Leicester opted for the safe (and sensible) option of Claude Puel while West Ham continue their extended practical joke on supporters that began with Matthew Etherington stepping out of a London black cab.
But if not them, then who and where? Nobody is under any obligation to appoint Dyche, and promotion is a privilege not a right, but the options for his next step are not immediately obvious.
Let’s put Dyche’s record into context. Last season was the first time Burnley have survived relegation from the top flight since 1975. In 2014/15 (the last season they were in the Premier League for which there are published figures) they had the lowest revenue of any club. Last season they had the lowest wage bill. Even if the uncharitable assessment is that Burnley and Dyche have maximised the opportunity of a Premier League containing plenty of dross below the top six, it’s still a huge achievement.
Dyche would argue – and has argued – that this is an issue of nationality when, really, it is a question of style. Were Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth in seventh place having taken five points from away games against Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, Howe would be the apple of Premier League owners’ eyes.
The accusation is that Dyche has benefited from a safety-first mentality and players who have been instructed to sit deep and clear away everything that comes within three yards of their head and boots. Burnley have scored more than once in just one league game this season, against a team with nine men. It is not just chairmen that recoil at the thought of Dycheball, but supporters too. There are too many clubs with hardwired fallacies of ‘the Club X way’.
If a club does want to go ‘back to basics’ they appoint Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis, managers who have proven their firefighting abilities at multiple clubs. The potential rewards of Dyche, so the theory goes, are not worth the risk.
The alternative view is that Dyche has unearthed a strategy that works for Burnley’s personnel, and has drilled it so effectively into the squad that they coped with the loss of their best player in the summer. Why is there an assumption that Dyche would not or could not alter that style to fit the next squad he took over? Is that not what good managers do? Effective pragmatism is based on versatility. The insinuation that Dyche would somehow be worse with better players seems illogical, or at least uncharitable. It’s hardly as though he would be staring at Gylfi Sigurdsson’s free-kicks in Everton training and forget to coach them defensively because he simply could not take his eyes off something so beautiful.
It has never been harder to compare managers. Each job requires effective use of the transfer market, maintenance of relationships with sporting directors, management of egos, development of young players and making do with the players they inherit, all at varying levels dependent entirely on the club. Yet there are a few basic tenets: Do they make the team better than the sum of its parts? Do they identify the best way to make the team successful? Do they improve players?
On Saturday, Burnley kept their fifth clean sheet of the season; only Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United have kept more. Every single member of their back four played for the club in the Championship in 2015/16. The entire back five of the fourth-meanest defence in the Premier League cost £7.5m to assemble. It takes a fairly uncharitable observer to conclude ‘Bah, he’s better with worse defenders’. Dyche took a group of Championship players and turned them into consistent Premier League performers.
Dyche must accept his own share of the blame, though. His antagonistic, perma-bitter front is almost entirely counterproductive, and he regularly requires seasoning and sauce for the chips on both shoulders; the more Dyche plays up to the parody of ‘nobody appreciates what I’ve done’, the more he deflects attention away from his success.
Yet you can also understand the frustration of a manager who feels typecast by his methods rather than his results. Dyche took over a team 13th in the second tier and with one top-flight season in 26 years, and has delivered three more in just over half a decade in charge. He is the seventh youngest Premier League manager, and this just his second managerial role.
For now, however, Dyche remains in statis as ‘Sean Dyche: Burnley manager’. He is unable to change his style given the budget at his disposal and unable to gain promotion because of his style. With clowns to the left of him and jokers to the right all appointed at Premier League clubs over the last two years, Dyche remains stuck in the middle with Mee.