The run in to last season provided a platform of cautious optimism for Clarets fans, with a good point at home to runaway league leaders Cardiff followed by assured victories over Wolves and Ipswich that even pushed the team to the heady heights of an 11th place finish, an improvement on Eddie Howe’s 13th in his solitary full season in charge. However, a rollercoaster pre-season has seen optimism fluctuate wildly amongst the fanbase, with question marks still hanging over the head of manager Sean Dyche.
The summer’s transfer business has overall been badly received by fans. The departures of million-pound signing Martin Paterson and long-serving youth team product Chris McCann on free transfers were disheartening, particularly as both were key members of the 2009 promotion-winning side. The fact that both moved to divisional rivals, Paterson to Huddersfield and McCann joining former boss Owen Coyle at Wigan, added to the frustration that transfer fees could not be recouped for either player, although both have been plagued by injuries since our return to the second tier and, in truth, may not be as sorely missed as those looking back on the halcyon Premier League days through rose-tinted spectacles would suggest. The other most disappointing departure (apart from the obvious, which we’ll talk about later) was goalkeeper Lee Grant, who elected to return to old club Derby instead of signing a proffered new contract. Long-serving goalkeeper Brian “The Beast” Jensen was another goalkeeping departure, leaving with the best wishes of fans but an understanding that his best days were long behind him.
Even accounting for the disgruntlement over departures, the biggest worry has been the lack of arrivals at the Turf, with young striker Ryan Noble and Huddersfield reserve Scott Arfield seen as wholly inadequate replacements for a frontline weakened by the loss of Paterson and a midfield shorn of its most talented footballer in McCann. David Jones’ arrival, also in the centre of midfield, has been much more positively received, and his partnership with Dean Marney in pre-season has looked very promising, but the issue Arfield’s arrival has failed to address is the lack of strength in depth in this position, with Marvin Bartley departing on loan to Leyton Orient and Brian Stock still struggling to put a run of games together. Another body is welcome in both positions but does Arfield have the quality to step in if Jones or Marney suffer injury or suspension, and does untried youngster Noble have the goals in him to replace last season’s second top scorer Paterson? One position Dyche has sewn up nicely is the goalkeeping position, with Tom Heaton an excellent replacement for Grant on a free transfer, and no less than three young goalkeepers brought in to provide backup and challenge for a place on the bench.
The jury is still out for a lot of fans on Sean Dyche (and there are a fair few fans who have already made their minds up) but it’s worth remembering that he still hasn’t had the opportunity to spend a transfer fee on a player in the two transfer windows he’s been at the club. The squad looks adequate for another reasonably comfortable mid-table season- Kieran Trippier at right back, Jason Shackell at centre half, Junior Stanislas and Ross Wallace out wide and the emerging talent of Danny Ings up front will all continue to be important players- and pre-season results and, crucially, performances have been encouraging, particularly in the excellent 4-1 victory over Sparta Rotterdam, where the free-flowing, passing football was an answer to the numerous critics of Dyche’s perceived “long-ball” style of play. Dyche can rest assured that strong home form, a few goals and a gap between the Clarets and the bottom three should be enough to satisfy home fans for this year at least.
However, the biggest worry for the season emerged on Thursday with the sale of Charlie Austin to QPR for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £3m. It is crucial that this money is at least in part reinvested in a goalscoring centre-forward- Austin managed a whopping 25 goals in the league last year, and even the departed Paterson with 8 managed more than our remaining strikers combined (Vokes 4, Ings 3). Although Ings in particular will be expected to have a much greater impact on the first team this year, that replacement for Austin will be crucial to the team’s chances of success this year, and of course, we’re looking for one later rather than sooner with this sale coming so close to the start of the season. With a failed medical at Hull lowering his value and the difficult prospect of losing him on a free next year emphasised by Paterson and McCann’s departures, the board’s decision to cash in is understandable, but with noises from the Chief Executive suggesting that Dyche will not see much of the money in his quest for a replacement, it’s a very testing time for the relationship between the board and the fans, let alone for the manager and the team, if Austin’s powers aren’t replaced by someone equally groovy.
Written by Tom Whittaker, We Are Going Up’s Burnley Blogger
Tom tweets at @tomclaret