Is the Premier League really the Holy Grail for supporters?

bUrnley needs therapy. They are the couple who have lost their spark after a whirlwind romance that won the 2022/23 EFL Championship, England’s second division, by a crushing 101 points. They are the nostalgia-laden seeker of purpose, wondering what the point of it all is this?

If they were on the figurative couch, they might need a Frasier Crane more than Jennifer Melfi to help work through classic psychodynamic defense mechanisms of repression, denial, and rationalization. After all, it is the same coach and players who pushed the club to great heights last season. How do you deal with something as diametrically opposed as their current malaise of being bottom of the Premier League table, behind a team that has just been handed a 10-point deduction?

After a season-long coronation, Burnley are at the foot of the table. They have scored four points out of a possible 36. They have scored nine goals all season, the weakest result in the league.

The Premier League is the most important thing, we are told. Being part of the league with the big boys should be more than just sport, especially for English provincial towns. Supporters can go on the same journey as shareholders and money people, but only to a certain extent.

“When I first arrived at the Club, I spoke about growing the Burnley brand and taking the Clarets to a global audience,” says chairman Alan Pace. wrote to sympathizers before the start of the season.

For supporters, moods will always be determined by results – regardless of the wider context. Brand Burnley means little if the team scores goals. England’s top management can financially maintain and establish clubs in the coming years, but where can you find comfort if you have not yet achieved a single point on home soil, and what does that do to the mood of a supporter?

“The general sentiment is that The Championship is a much better league to play in than the Premier League,” says Natalie Bromley, host of the No Nay Never Burnley podcast. Bromley first started watching the club with her father at the age of 11, and has made it a regular part of her life ever since.

“Playing in the Premier League has made me question everything I thought I knew and loved about football,” she says.

“The Premier League has become a technically perfect television sport for a global audience. It doesn’t care about itself and doesn’t market itself to the long-standing football fan. It’s not about the experience on the ground, watching the match live. It’s just about technical perception and producing enough material that television producers can keep [pushing] content out. The power that the top six to eight clubs have in terms of influence, financial power and decision-making: there is no level playing field. It’s just a very frustrating and terrible place to play football.”

So far, Burnley’s return to the English top flight has been a horror show. They have lost all six of their home Premier League games this season – the only team in the history of the English top flight to do so, and the third team in the overall history of the English league, after Newport County (70/71 fourth tier) and Watford in 90/91 (second tier) to do this. They have lost eight home games in a row in the Premier League dating back to 21/22 – the first time in their history. No team has lost more points from winning positions this season than Burnley (11). They conceded thirteen goals in the first half and scored the fewest goals (nine) in the entire competition.

The mood music becomes increasingly somber with each defeat, with manager Vincent Kompany describing defeat to Crystal Palace as a “tough task” after seeing his side give up four shots on target and two on net. Burnley finished the match with 17 tries and zero goals.

Burnley fans walk past a mural outside Turf Moor stadium. Photo: Craig Brough/Action Images/Reuters

Turf Moor is one of the most claustrophobic stadiums in England. It comes towards you and suddenly greets you with an overarching spotlight or a corrugated iron billboard in a dimly lit valley town. It’s never been a fun place to play for opponents. Last season, the narrow enclaves seemed to be closing in tighter and tighter, squeezing the opposition in the neck with every victory.

This season is a different story. A lull has prompted the club’s American owners ALK Capital, who took over in December 2020, into action. In an effort to improve atmosphere, the club announced plans in October to introduce flags, banners, safe standing areas and playlists. An accompanying statement noted that the atmosphere had “fallen flat” this season. Supporters were also asked to complete a survey with suggestions to “improve the atmosphere and get behind the team for the full 90 minutes.”

It feels like a desperate response in a season that hasn’t gotten going yet. That begs the question, what did the club expect from a return to the top level?

“All the talk about Burnley finishing in the top ten [in the final Premier League standings] and it was rubbish to do very well in the first season,” says Bromley. ‘I don’t know if I believe we’ll survive. I think if Burnley survive it will be in 17th place, but the reality is we will probably go down.”

This feeling seems accepted within the club. Chairman Alan Pace has been quick to say that the club is two to three years ahead of schedule. “This wasn’t our plan,” Pace said after securing promotion. “We gave ourselves two to three years, that was the plan.”

Sure, but being ahead means adapting and changing tactics, right? There was frustration over the lack of transfer activity last summer, with many putting this down to the team’s current problems.

The club needed goals but instead opted to recruit goalkeeper James Trafford from Manchester City in a deal reportedly worth up to $23 million. Pragmatic Norwegian midfielder Sander Berge was also brought in from promotion rivals Sheffield United for a fee of around $14 million. But it was a lack of contingencies surrounding the failure to sign players such as left-back Ian Maatsen, who had been on loan at Chelsea last year and was on the verge of rejoining, that hampered Kompany’s options.

Burnley’s most publicized deal of the off-season was an investment from YouTubers Dude Perfect. “The relationship demonstrates our continued ambition to bring the Burnley brand to younger audiences around the world,” said Pace. 1-0 for the brand; you don’t have to worry about no one actually putting the ball in the net.

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There will be no quick fix to the team’s problems during the season. Statsbomb’s attacking radar has Burnley in the zero percentile for counter-attacks with an average of 0.36 per 90 minutes. They also register in just the fourth percentile for expected goals (xG) per shot at 0.08 and two percentile for free shots at 1.72. Their statistical problems aren’t just limited to offense, they rank in the ninth percentile for throws against, coughing up 15.09 per game.

Burnley scored nine goals in twelve games.
Burnley scored nine goals in twelve games. Photo: Jed Leicester/Shutterstock

It is admirable that Kompany is still Burnley’s man. His intense character, coupled with a philosophy honed by the Pep Guardiola School of Building Game, surprised everyone last season. Burnley built a 3-2-5 shape, with suffocating attacking patterns in the final third. It was a stark departure for the club from what had happened before. Where Burnley were once considered old-fashioned, they were now at the forefront of tactical innovation.

Kompany was appointed for the start of the 2022/23 season after Burnley parted ways with long-serving manager Sean Dyche, now at Everton. Stylistically the two could not have contrasted more. For years, Dyche created a conservative football brand based on hearts, legs and minds. When Kompany came in, he created an explosive brand of intoxicating football that banished any scent of Dyche’s blueprint.

Kompany largely sticks to his philosophy, but thinks the Premier League is a more ruthless beast. Yet many would be shocked and disappointed if he were removed from his role, not least after what the chairman said about his manager in March 2023: “It’s like going out with the prettiest girl in town and knowing that the chance nil is that they I will marry you. But everyone else wants to marry her. So how long can you date, how long can you stay together? I hope it’s for a very long time. But it’s up to her.”

(Seriously, what is going on with Premier League stakeholders and… strange comparisons marry women?)

All of this begs the question of whether the Premier League is the holy grail as it is seen from the outside. To Pace and the board of directors, certainly. It’s guaranteed TV revenue and parachute payments if the increasingly inevitable threat of relegation materializes. But for a football club, manager, team and supporters, it is not so easy to live in such ignorance.

Football is primarily a spectator sport and has become a global entertainment product, one that offers nine months of influential refereeing decisions and three months of chaos in the transfer market. You can throw in a miracle goal every now and then, but it’s always low on the list of talking points.

Going down a division may remind fans of the Before Times. Before the razzmatazz. Before Brand Burnley. Before VAR. When the game was still over the game. “A season back in The Championship reminded me of what football should be like from a supporter’s perspective,” says Bromley.

There is no Video Assistant Referee system in the Football League, or any of the endless controversies. “Football fans, especially those who watch live matches, hate VAR,” says Bromley. “It’s the worst initiative to introduce, in terms of a live sports experience. As great as it is to see some of the best players in the world play every week, the Premier League as a brand is not exactly an enjoyable place to play football.”

It may get worse before it gets better; Burnley hosts an in-form West Ham on Saturday. Even a win wouldn’t be enough to lift them out of the relegation zone.

Sometimes you have to rekindle the romance to make home feel like home. For Burnley, the return to the Premier League has brought more questions than answers – and little time to process it all.