As his Burnley side prepare to face Liverpool in front of the Sky Sports cameras, Sean Dyche opens up on his management style, how he’s not obsessed with football and why the Turf Moor hotseat still fits.
When Premier League life got tough for Burnley last season and Christmas was spent in the relegation zone, Sean Dyche turned back to his Sunday League roots for inspiration. Peers higher up the pyramid had been in touch with galvanising words but simple ones from his days at Kettering side Ise Lodge stuck.
“A great attitude is everything. It was bouncing around in my brain, that idea. It really started that simply. I said to the players, ‘Before we get to the tactics or anything else, we have to get back to giving your lot’. It’s old-fashioned but it’s still so important, that mentality to give everything. You layer up from there – tactics, shape, quality, organisation – but it takes collective hard work. That will never go away for me.”
Burnley vs Liverpool
August 31, 2019, 5:00pm
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Back to basics, by Dyche’s definition, paid off. Burnley had taken just 12 points from 19 games but racked up more than double that in the second half of the campaign. With three fixtures remaining, they were above Tottenham and Chelsea in the form table. There was a six-point buffer in the end, Premier League football secured for a fourth successive season.
If that achievement has gone under the wider radar – Dyche insists he is “not precious” about praise from outside Turf Moor – the straight-talking 48-year-old is clear where the turnaround alone ranks personally. “We didn’t just sneak over the line, we were comfortable in the end. It probably is my biggest achievement, that second half of last season, because when the team is flowing, you often just have to twist and tweak it. Where we found ourselves, there had to be a big shift. We took it on. The players found a way. It was a powerful thing.”
In hindsight, it was easy to see how a small squad thrust unexpectedly on a European tour lost its way for a while. Seventh spot in 2017/18 – unfathomable given the club’s relative resources – meant the new term started in July. Trips to Turkey and Greece had followed by the end of August and yet, back home, they were bottom of the Premier League with a single point from five games. The challenge was eye-opening beyond the changing room, Dyche admits.
“The Europa League was a challenge, no two ways about it,” he tells Sky Sports. “The programme of games, the injuries we had, the demands, the radical travel… a perfect storm. It was our first time in Europe for 51 years; we were learning about the logistics side of things and as a club, not just the team. We were so close to going through (against Olympiakos in the play-off round) but in the meantime, you’ve forgotten about your league form. All of a sudden, you’re playing catch-up. You’ve got to stay focused on what’s going on in the Premier League and we just lost that…”
At the start of the new campaign – four points from nine are on the board but the performances are what have really pleased him so far – Dyche can see “fire in the eyes” of his players again. “You get used to the nature of your group. We weren’t a million miles away last pre-season but we just look different. The lads have come back with a clearer mentality about the challenge of the Premier League. They’ve come in with an edge to them – not just fitness but in terms of the demand from themselves. They’re playing with a strength to their performance.”
They weren’t in a Carabao Cup defeat at home to Sunderland the night before we meet at the still-shiny Barnfield Training Ground but a 3-1 loss for a side capable but much-changed amid “bread and butter” Premier League obligations has not dulled Dyche’s demeanour. He is equally in the groove contemplating his Desert Islands Discs – “something rocky but not Metallica, that’s too much; Morrissey, The Smiths – there’s a subtle difference between them, you know – my taste is eclectic, it’d have to be a compilation” – as he is opining on the game and its foibles.
He fumed after a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal about players “diving and feigning injuries” and is standing his ground. “I don’t understand why it’s crept, no, leapt into our game. I feel like we’ve adopted it and I don’t know why. Football mirrors society in so many different ways. What’s ironic is that I get stick about it from people on the TV who’ve seen cheating in front of their eyes. Do I regret anything I say? Not often. I try and call it as fairly as I see it. I’m not planning on changing.”
His crusade there might continue but he is famously, emphatically not 24/7 when it comes to football. He speaks with a sense of pride that his family home is shorn of memorabilia from a career spanning four decades: “I want my family to have their own lives”. He laughs thinking about his son glued to the computer screen: “He’s got an opinion on every player out there! He’s probably got as good a knowledge of European football players as I have!” He is convinced that detachment, that desire to look outside the game is what keeps him sharp in it.
“I played for 20 years at all different levels – some successes, some promotions; I felt I had a varied experience going into coaching and then management but one thing I distinctly remember picking up was from Fortune 100 companies in America. They were looking for CEOs who weren’t obsessed. Everyone says you’ve got to be obsessed because how else can you learn, but actually, these guys didn’t want obsessives because they’d burn out. They lose their edge because they can’t come away from it. That felt natural to me – it did as a player. I live football every day. I don’t go home and then watch every minute I can. I personally believe to do my job right, I need to be wanting to do it, not bogged down in it, swamped with almost too much information, too much opinion. I’m obsessed with the idea of management and working with people but not the actual game.”
Sean Dyche factfile
- Born in Kettering, 1971
- Started in youth ranks at Nottm Forest, joined Chesterfield in 1990
- Helped Bristol City to promotion in 2007
- Achieved promotion to Championship with Millwall
- Captained Watford in 2004/5 and signed for Northampton before retiring in 2007
- Coached Watford’s youth team before rising to assistant manager then manager in 2011
- Appointed Burnley boss in October 2012
- Secured club’s best ever Premier League finish – seventh – in 2017/18
Dyche has spent time with the Oxford University Boat Club, went to Saracens last year and is planning to drop in at Harlequins during the international break. “A lot of football people might go to Ajax and watch what they’re doing and I thought, well, I should really know about passing drills and finishing drills, so what’s bigger than that? Cultures, environments. I’ve been to KPMG, the accountants. You can get bogged down in football challenges but actually, these guys all have the same challenges, just packaged up differently. Management is management, it just comes in different situations.”
He thinks the people side of it – “forget players, it’s just people” – is where he has developed most since he started his coaching career at Watford, taking the top job for a year before moving to Turf Moor in 2012 after a short stint on the England U21 staff. He is pleased with the emergence of young winger Dwight McNeil, has taken his time integrating another youngster, summer arrival Bailey Peacock-Farrell from Leeds, and is keeping tabs on former Clarets defender Kieran Trippier, whom he believes has what it takes to succeed at Atletico Madrid.
He has been here long enough – only Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, by days, has served longer in the top flight currently – to know his people, understand what they want here. Twenty miles away, Bury’s demise and expulsion has been a sobering story. Dyche describes it as a harsh reminder – “fans and clubs can push but they have to be ready to push” – and feels an acute sense of belonging, of responsibility at Burnley.
“Clubs in this area are so important – and I’m not saying they aren’t elsewhere – but in the North West, it’s such a hotbed. There’s an earthiness about the people. They’ll give their opinion – but they’ll accept yours back. It’s honesty, grittiness, that sense of, ‘We want our football team to work hard but we work hard as well, you know’. There’s a connection. I bought into it early. In my first press conference, I said, ‘I can’t guarantee you success but I can guarantee you’ll have a group that will put sweat on the shirt. And the fans were terrific when we had a rough time. They were steadfast to the cause.”
Dyche was linked with the then-vacant Everton job at the end of 2017, his side flying high. He is pushing seven years at Turf Moor but insists the Burnley cause still stirs him. He is restricted in the transfer market. He would like the board to tart up Turf Moor and put a top tier on the Bob Lord stand. Dyche is on-message as he assesses the bigger picture but he is clearly at home here and the fit, it feels, remains right all round for now.
“There are challenges at this club. As much as the market says you have to invest, we have to watch our finances. I can understand the reasons. But the other side of it is that this is a healthy club, a good environment to work in, a place I enjoy coming to, a good group of people who are honest in their work. That’s not easy to come by. It sounds like it is but it’s not. The club have allowed me to mould it. When I got here, we had 11,12,000 fans. Now we’re got full houses (nearer 20,000 watched their opening victory against Southampton), a state-of-the-art training ground and we’re turning over £130m a year (the club announced a turnover of £138.9m and a record net profit of £36.6m in the last financial year). I genuinely think we’re in a good place and beyond winning games – that’s obvious – that’s what keeps me motivated.”
He has taken Burnley to the Premier League and straight back again; kept them there and shaped their development. What more is there for him to do? “More on and off the pitch. The players are hungry for more, as I am. We want to be better and stronger than last season for a start. I’m not one for cycles or targets but we weren’t ready physically or mentally last year to challenge and this year we are. There’s the community aspect, the history, the player development side. We’ve got players playing for England, young players coming through. There’s always a new challenge.”
This weekend, it is Liverpool, already looking the business and targeting a fourth win from four. Jurgen Klopp hit out at tough tackling he perceived as “dangerous play” when the sides met at Turf Moor last season as Dyche defended his “good, proper professionals”. Saturday’s is a battle that will be pitted as a stylistic one but the Burnley boss is relaxed when it comes to perceptions.
“Politicians, film stars, pop stars… in the modern world, you get labelled. I’ve got no problem with it. To get to a fifth season in six in the Premier League, we’ve had to play well, fight, defend, counter-attack, attack. We want to play good football but effective football and the effective is as important as the good. If you think you’re going to out-pass Manchester City, you’re not. Pep Guardiola makes me laugh when he says the opposition have tried to play the right way – usually after they’ve won 5-0! It’s a delicate balance.