It’s been to the surprise of literally nobody that Chris Wilder and Sean Dyche have been among the most vocal managers in favour of Project Restart. Both are unashamedly old school and proudly no-nonsense but there is another factor here: both are enjoying seasons far beyond what anybody could have reasonably expected in August. The last thing they would want is for this campaign to be expunged from the records, for this season’s achievements to become little more than a series of ‘what ifs’ and ‘remember whens’.
That paragraph may have sent you scrambling to Google to confirm that yes, Burnley are still in mid-table while Sheffield United are in a ridiculous seventh; there is no doubt about the identity of the real over-achievers here. In a season when Liverpool have cruised to the title – crushing all but Watford in their path – Wilder is the reason why we still pause when asked about the manager of the season. But that should not detract from Burnley and Dyche, who were barely given any greater chance of survival. And that is not collective hindsight – after a summer of spending from Aston Villa and a change of manager at Brighton, the odds cast Burnley, Norwich and the Blades as favourites for the drop. As we wrote our own pre-season predictions, as many chose Burnley as Sheffield United.
The theory was that Burnley were sleepwalking to a relegation battle under a stale manager who really should have gone solo when they had pulled off an unlikely top-ten hit two seasons before. Their summer business did little to alter that theory and the only question seemed to be whether Dyche would be allowed to survive relegation – as he had before – or whether Burnley would instead lurch in another direction, perhaps away from percentage football and towards something less gruff but somehow sexier.
But perhaps there was an element of wishful thinking in those pre-season predictions with many pundits and journalists long bored of watching a side that refused to evolve. The unexpected and refreshing emergence of Dwight McNeil had made them easier on the eye, but most outside Burnley would have happily seen them expunged from the top flight and replaced by Marcelo Bielsa’s more glamorous Leeds.
Instead, football was suspended with the Clarets far closer to the Champions League places than the relegation zone. And that’s what makes this season potentially even more impressive than the seventh-place finish of 2017/18, when they scored just 36 goals in 38 games and finished the season nine points behind Arsenal, 16 points behind fifth-place Chelsea and 21 points behind a Champions League place. They were the tallest, dullest dwarf. This season they are in the same clutch of teams as several Champions League stalwarts and only Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have picked up more points in 2020.
There are few managers who can follow a poor season with an excellent one, though many are never allowed that challenge. David Moyes at Everton is one example of a man who could follow 17th with fifth and it feels like Dyche is in the same mould; it’s a rare and precious skill to re-motivate players whose chins are on the floor. He must command a respect that few managers can maintain in the long term.
But while this season has rescued Dyche’s dwindling reputation, it may eventually be a curse for the club. There have been mounting stories linking him with an exit – to Crystal Palace, Aston Villa or West Ham. There have been leaked stories of a £10m compensation fee and leaked stories of mounting tension with the board over contracts. All this adds up to a manager who knows that his stock is high once again but with the painful knowledge that you can too quickly find yourself back on a list of dinosaurs.
As we take a minute to applaud the current Burnley manager – forgotten among so many other over-achievers – it’s impossible not to wonder just how long he will remain in that role.
We could not keep away from the camera for long so we made a Football365 Isolation Show. Watch it, subscribe and share until we get back in the studio/pub and produce something a little slicker…