Burnley are in trouble and ill-equipped to deal with relegation

Ian King
Burnley manager Sean Dyche

Burnley are at risk of relegation this season, and they may be the least well-equipped of the four bottom clubs to deal with such an eventuality.


It has become received wisdom that, with a six-point gap having opened up between 16th and 17th places in the Premier League, three of the bottom four clubs in the Premier League will be relegated come the end of this season, with one contriving to survive. But out of those four, one is considerably worse-equipped to deal with life in the Championship. Norwich City and Watford have earned a reputation as yo-yo clubs in recent years; both have proved that they are capable of bouncing back. Newcastle United are richer than Croesus, at a time when the pandemic is pinching the finances of all clubs who aren’t the beneficiaries of £100m in television money every year. And then there’s Burnley.

The story of Burnley’s last six decades is one of decline and revival. They were the champions of England in 1960, but by the last day of the 1986/87 season they needed a win on the final day of the season to stop themselves from becoming the first Football League club to be automatically relegated into non-league football. Twenty-two years on from that close escape they were promoted into the Premier League, and although they’ve been relegated back twice since, they have been promoted back twice too, and are now on a run of six straight years of Premier League football.

There is a conflation of reasons why Burnley may be ill-equipped to bounce back in the event of relegation. The most strikingly obvious is financial. Burnley are more dependent on television money than most clubs in the Premier League. Hamstrung by a relatively small catchment area for support, their season tickets are the sixth cheapest in the division and their attendances are the second lowest, and while parachute payments would cushion the blow of relegation, they wouldn’t completely eliminate it. Burnley received £101.7m in television and prize money for the 2020/21 season. Their first post-relegation season would see the club lose 45% of that money straight away, and television money makes up almost 85% of their total revenue.

But the club’s ownership raises questions. It’s been a year since Burnley were purchased by the American consortium ALK Capital, but ALK didn’t put much of their own money into this purchase. Paying the selling shareholders was financed with a loan from MSD UK Holdings, Michael Dell’s investment company, which was reported to be for about £60m. The loan was charged like a mortgage on Turf Moor and the club itself will have to repay it from its own revenues, with interest also payable. In the club’s most recently published accounts, for the year to June 30 2019, it was stated that Burnley had no borrowings at all and £42m in the bank. Taking all of this into account, we can only conclude that the club was made at least £90m worse off, with interest payable, just to complete the sale to ALK.

Things look little better if we take a look at their current squad of players, either. Burnley have the oldest team in the Premier League, with an average age almost a year higher than the next oldest. Ten of the current squad are 32 years old or over, and there are precious few who are aged much under 25. This refresh would become all the more urgent if relegated into the Championship at the end of this season. After all, relegation would result in Burnley having to play an extra eight league games next season and having to replace that number of players – even over two or three transfer windows and yes, even in the Championship – that would be unlikely to be inexpensive.

Burnley’s squad has grown old together because manager Sean Dyche places considerable importance on trust and loyalty. But would Dyche even be there to do the rebuilding himself? He signed a new four-year contract as recently as September, but he’s been at Turf Moor for over nine years and either he or the club could realistically decide that this was long enough, should relegation come at the end of this season. His achievement in keeping the club in the Premier League for six years has been incredible, but such is the nature of the financial forces behind the division that few can defy gravity indefinitely.

Certainly this season has been a difficult one for supporters to watch. Burnley are currently six points worse off than they were on the corresponding date last year despite having played a game more, and like Newcastle United they’ve only won one Premier League match this season, the worst record in the division. Their record of 11 points from 17 games is more than relegation form, and it’s only the statistical irregularity of there being three other clubs who have been as poor that is keeping them from being anchored to the bottom of the table, though this does also go for the other three involved too, of course. Having lost at home to Championship opposition in the FA Cup, they now face a period without Maxwell Cornet, who has been their biggest positive this season, to Cote d’Ivoire and the AFCON.

Newcastle are already moving to disrupt Burnley’s attacking options still further by signing their striker Chris Wood during the January transfer window. Chris Wood has scored at least ten goals in each of the last full four seasons for the Clarets and is strongly rumoured to have a release clause in his contract at around £25m (although this has been questioned, with there even being a suggestion that the clause wouldn’t become active until the summer and that Burnley therefore must have sanctioned this sale), although it also worth mentioning that he’s 30 years old and has scored scored just three goals (with no assists) in 21 matches so far this season. Whether this compensates for Newcastle losing the services of Callum Wilson until the start of March with a calf injury may prove to be one of the determining questions of the second half of the season for both clubs. Sean Dyche’s reaction to all of this is likely to be…interesting, to say the least.

But it’s not all bad news for Burnley. Newcastle are engaging in some high-stakes poker in the transfer market, while Norwich City and Watford have both already changed their managers this season to little effect on the pitch. All three of the other four at the bottom have significantly worse goal differences than Burnley, who haven’t conceded more than three goals in a match in any competition so far this season, and the Clarets have only lost eight league games in total, which is five fewer than either Norwich or Watford. They have games in hand on every other team in the division, due to postponements. It is a very long way indeed from being a lost cause.

Correlation does not equal causation, and it may be a coincidence that Burnley’s first full season under new ownership happens to be the one in which they look a little out of their depth in the Premier League for the first time since they were last relegated. But the money taken out of the club to fund its purchase in January 2021 would have come in mighty useful in the transfer market this time around and it doesn’t really look as though the new owners have benefitted the club itself in any meaningful way. But with league matches coming up against Watford, Leeds United and Everton, Burnley don’t have much time to get their house in order for a relegation battle that seems to have sneaked up on many at the football club.