John Gibaut is a Burnley fan. You can find his words on Up The Clarets and Premier Punditry. In this article he argues that Burnley’s defensive core are evidence that young players need to play first team football to progress, rather than accepting bench roles at bigger sides.
Burnley, a big hearted town with the smallest club in the Premier League
This season Burnley returned to the Premier League, after a one-year absence, for the third time. In the big league once again. Let me put Burnley’s, the Clarets, achievement into some context. Whenever Burnley play at Old Trafford, the home ground of Manchester United, one quote that frequently does the rounds is, “the entire population of the town can fit into that ground”.
Burnley is a small market town in Lancashire, in the north west of England. It is one of the old mill towns, which had its hay-day before the First World War. The Clarets have won the English title twice, in 1921 and 1960. That was in the day when clubs were on a relatively level playing field compared to the extremes, in particular financially, that exist today.
The dominance of the elite
The town is about twenty miles north of Manchester. That city hosts two of the Premier League’s elite teams, United and City. The elite includes the Manchester clubs; Arsenal and Chelsea from the capital, London; and Liverpool. This group has dominated the Premier League for over two decades, Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers’ achievements aside.
The elite are able to attract many players. Youngsters hoping for a life in football or world class players brought in at escalating expense. The fact that these teams can afford to buy players just to loan them out, is a testament to how difficult it is to break into the first team. For example, Manchester City and Chelsea, both with incredibly wealthy backers, are currently loaning out the best part of an entire Premier League squad of players. Many of those players are internationals. What chance does a young hopeful have of ever making the first team squad, never mind the starting eleven?
The players conundrum, ‘to play or not to play?’
The main conundrum for any player at one of the elite clubs is, ‘Is he happy at the club playing little or no part on the field, or is he happier playing week in, week out somewhere else?’. You could argue that this applies at many clubs. A youngster certainly learns most by playing, and an international class player certainly gets more recognition playing.
The case for the defense – Burnley’s defense
We are now half way through this season, the Clarets’ most successful to date in the Premier League. Many of the Burnley starters have won some accolade or other during the season. However, for now, I will refer to four players. These are the exhibits for the defense.
I believe that one of the main reasons for Burnley’s success over the last year or so, has been the strength at the core of the defense. Tom Heaton, the club’s captain, keeps goal. Michael Keane and Ben Mee, the centre-backs, play directly in front of Heaton. All three players have one thing in common. They started their careers in Manchester. The reason they are all now at Burnley is not due, solely, to the proximity of that large city.
The evidence is compelling, play!
Tom Heaton was a trainee at Manchester United. He joined the club when he was sixteen. His chance of playing at Old Trafford was extremely low. He was regularly sent out on loan. After more than five years at the club, during which time he never played a league game for United, he moved on in 2010. Less than three years later he arrived at Turf Moor. With the exception of two games recently, Heaton has been an ever present in the starting eleven since joining the club.
Some of his performances this season, in particular the one at Old Trafford, have been outstanding. One of the consequences of regularly playing is that Heaton is now a full England international. He won international caps at under 16 to under 21 levels. However, his lack of playing time at United, and subsequent move down the leagues, resulted in Heaton having to wait seven years for his call up to the senior squad.
A similar story befalls Michael Keane. He spent five years at Old Trafford. Keane did manage one league appearance for United, but his prospects of breaking into the first team were always low. After a handful of loan moves, he arrived at Turf Moor two seasons ago. It didn’t take Keane long to break into the first team, which resulted in him signing for Burnley. He has virtually been an ever present since. As with Heaton, Keane’s reward for improved performances resulting from regular playing time, is that he has been called up to the England squad. It is only a matter of time before he gets his first full cap.
Keane’s partner in central defense is Ben Mee. Rather than being a red, Mee was on the blue side of Manchester, at the Etihad Stadium. Like the others, Mee’s opportunities in Manchester were extremely low. He did not play a league game for City. After one loan move, he arrived at Turf Moor on loan. Within six months he had a full contract. Initially he played at left back. However, since the middle of last season, he has partnered Keane in the centre. Again, as for Heaton and Keane, he has been a virtual ever present over the last few seasons. Although he hasn’t had the international recognition the other two have, could it be just a matter of time?
And the argument continues, play!
There is one other Claret I’d like to mention. His story is very similar to that of Heaton, Keane and Mee.
As with Mee, Kieran Trippier was a youth player at Manchester City. In fact, nine years ago he captained City’s team that won the FA Youth Cup. After five years at the Etihad Stadium, he arrived at Turf Moor on loan. Soon afterwards, he signed a full contract.
In the four years he was at Burnley, Trippier missed two games. His stature, as a player and fans favourite, increased each season. What an ex-Manchester defense the Clarets would have now if he’d stayed, playing right back alongside Keane and Mee. There was a collective sigh when Trippier was transferred to Tottenham Hotspur, a club trying to join the elite, just before the start of last season. In the season and a half since, Trippier has made nine league appearances. Does his lack of regular playing time have an impact on his ability to gain international recognition? Only time will tell.
Up The Clarets – John Gibaut
The strategy adopted by the elite clubs who hoover up hundreds of kid is well defined in Scotland, where the big two dominate at youth level but few play at the highest level and the result a very poor international team.