BURNLEY, England — They tell the old war stories quite often at Burnley nowadays, and with a certain amount of nostalgic glee.
They remember the days — not so very long ago — when instead of an ice bath to soothe weary legs, the club had a trash can filled with freezing cold water. These memories are shared with perhaps not actual fondness, but something quite close.
They can see the absurdity in the fact that — again, in very much the recent past — Burnley’s training facility was so rudimentary that players used to have to get changed at the club’s stadium, Turf Moor, and then drive themselves 20 minutes or so to training sessions. Afterward, they had to drive back, sitting in mud-caked uniforms.
At the time, though, those strictures did not always seem quite so funny. The training facility — on the grounds of Gawthorpe Hall, a pristine Elizabethan manor house — made Burnley a hard sell to players and, particularly, their agents. It was a collection of modular outbuildings “with water dripping down” from the roof, as one former player, George Boyd, put it, next to a flood-prone training field on the banks of the River Calder.
This was not, to put it mildly, an attractive workplace environment for a club bobbing in and out of the Premier League every few years. The kindest word Tom Heaton, a former Burnley captain, could think of to describe it was “functional.”
That all changed in 2017, when work finished on Barnfield, Burnley’s state-of-the-art training facility on the other side of the river. Barnfield has all of the delicate touches Premier League players would expect: inspirational slogans painted on the walls; a medical room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the training fields, reminding the injured where they are supposed to be; an indoor field for when the Calder bursts its banks, as it did this month.
It is also a physical manifestation of Burnley’s time in the Premier League. The club has spent five of the last six seasons in the richest league in the world, a feat that has brought about $500 million into the club’s accounts, thanks mostly to its share of the league’s television revenue.
For a while this season, it looked as if Burnley’s days among the elite could be numbered: The club won only twice in nine games from the end of November to the middle of January, and found itself dancing around the fringes of the struggle to avoid relegation.
Though an uptick in form — including wins against high-flying Leicester City and the slightly more grounded Manchester United — has eased those concerns, Barnfield is a reminder that, should Burnley, a club with one of the lowest budgets in the division, ever succumb to economic reality, it will have something beyond happy memories to show for its spell in the Premier League.
That idea — that the riches on offer in the Premier League should have a material impact on the club’s existence — was something that Sean Dyche, Burnley’s manager, raised in his first meeting with his new employers eight years ago.
Burnley had spent one season in the Premier League before that, so when Dyche arrived, he asked “where the Premier League stuff” was. “Not the money,” he explained, “but what it brings. I was saying that we had to start building things that mean something.”
It is an approach shared by Burnley’s board, if not always by the team’s fans. Mike Garlick, the club’s chairman, said he was aware that there had been times when the fans might have preferred for the team to invest more heavily in players, to break its rigid — though highly incentivized — salary structure and bring in stars. Burnley has always resisted that temptation. Until 2018, it was spending only a little more than half its revenue on wages.
“It is run on a break-even model,” said Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in accounting and finance at the University of Liverpool and the author of “The Price of Football.” “There is no debt to the owners, which is remarkable. Without wishing to stereotype, you can tell it is run by a group of northern businessmen.”
Now that Barnfield is complete, as is a multimillion-dollar upgrade of facilities for the disabled at its stadium, Burnley is considering how else it can invest in itself. It is discussing plans to modernize Turf Moor, one of the most atmospheric stadiums in England, but hardly a gleaming beacon of 21st century progress.
What is most striking about Burnley is not that the club conceived a plan to use its newfound wealth to improve its infrastructure, but that it has stuck to it. Few teams promoted to the Premier League manage the first step; barely any find that the courage of their convictions survives once they have taken their seat in the casino.
There is a stark contrast, certainly, with Burnley’s visitor this weekend. Bournemouth’s recent history tracks neatly with Burnley: It was promoted in 2015, a year before Burnley’s most recent return, and has spent the last five seasons in the Premier League. There remains, though, a risk that this will be Bournemouth’s last season in the top flight. It sits only two points clear of a relegation battle that is convoluted, and unpredictable, even by English standards.
Bournemouth is a prime example of a far more common approach for young Premier League teams: It has used a considerable proportion of its eye-watering broadcast revenues to sign, and pay, players. Since arriving in the top flight, Bournemouth has spent $175 million on players — a net, rather than gross, figure. In 2018, its salary sheet accounted for three-quarters of its income.
That year, its wage bill, on a slightly smaller revenues, was $25 million higher than Burnley’s. Maxim Demin, Bournemouth’s Russian owner, has invested around $155 million of his own money to prop up the club.
Its infrastructure spending, in comparison, is negligible. Bournemouth has, by some distance, the smallest stadium in the Premier League, and the club has expanded it only a little. Bournemouth has been planning a new training facility for some time, in the village of Canford Magna, but work has just started. The delays, in part, explain why Bournemouth’s academy remains only a third-class facility, meaning the club has long had problems producing its own players.
Instead, the club has spent millions on the squad. That is not devoid of merit, according to Maguire. “Bournemouth has more sale-able assets within its squad,” he said. “The cost of expanding a stadium is high, and the return is both slow and, compared to staying in the Premier League, quite small. So why not invest in the playing staff, if it increases the chances of staying up?”
That model, though, is “inherently riskier,” Maguire said, because relegation would, naturally, hit harder, as players would have to be sold off to make up for the drop in income.
“As frustrating as it has been for fans, the emphasis on strengthening the playing side has been right,” said Sam Davis of Back of the Net, a weekly Bournemouth podcast. “Tangible, bricks-and-mortar investment has happened slower than people hoped, but by putting football first, the stature of the club, the finances, and how appealing it is to investors has increased at the same time.”
In that light, Davis said, it is a “sensible approach.” The problem comes if that perpetual growth ends.
“Relegation would spell disaster,” Davis said. “We would be kidding ourselves to believe we could come straight back up. There would be an exodus of players. Those sales, and the parachute payments, would lessen the blow, but we would have to put together a squad hastily. We’d be completely up against it.”
That has certainly been the experience of most of the teams relegated in recent years, no matter how much they spent to try to stay in the Premier League. Few teams, other than Burnley, have managed to absorb the blow of relegation and recover immediately.
Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Hull City and Sunderland, among others, all remain languishing in the second tier, or below, the players they bought in the Premier League either departed or diminished, left with nothing more concrete than memories, and regrets.
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