Cotterill out to give vintage Clarets a taste of big time

Steve Cotterill coached at the top level for four months before being sacked by Sunderland - now he is desperate to return with unfashionable Burnley
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The Independent Football

Burdened by an agonising career choice last summer, the Stoke City defender Wayne Thomas headed for Florida to consider which of three Championship suitors represented the best step forward. One night, sat with his family at their rented apartment, there came a knock at the door. Behind the door stood the manager of Burnley Football Club, Steve Cotterill, and suddenly his options reduced to one.

Many managers will go to extremes to pursue players, but few travel back and forth across the Atlantic within 24 hours to convince a free transfer target to ignore more lucrative contract offers and commit himself to a club that has just survived near financial meltdown in English football's second tier.

"I felt if we gave him the two weeks to consider our offer he could go to Norwich or Derby," Cotterill recalls. "To this day I don't know if I was awake for three days because of the time difference but I took a taxi to his villa, took him out for lunch, and made sure he signed the contract before I flew back the next day. I didn't take too long out of his holiday and he got a free meal out of it. He was very unlucky last season with injuries but now he's my captain and, if he stays fit, he will show everyone why I went over there to sign him."

After a measured pause, Cotterill adds: "If you want something enough you've got to go and get it."

Adhering to that philosophy has served him - and Burnley - well as the man from Cheltenham rehabilitates his reputation as one of the next generation of promising English managers, and the reputation of a club that, save for the FA Cup defeat of Liverpool in January 2005, lost its place in the nation's consciousness long ago.

The recovery has been fraught and painful, and no one would dare to suggest complete, but the fact it has commenced at all in the Championship after the traumas of the ITV Digital era - Saturday's home defeat by Wolves representing the Clarets' first reverse of the season - is testament to a manager who is lauded in Burnley not just for tenacious transfer chases in the three years since he replaced Stan Ternent.

A career that started with Sligo Rovers blossomed on home soil where Cotterill came to prominence by guiding Cheltenham Town from the Beazer Homes Southern League to then Division Two inside five years.

Promotion to the Potteries and Stoke City lasted four months before an invitation arrived from Howard Wilkinson to become his assistant at Sunderland, an offer that guarantees a hostile reception from the Britannia Stadium locals to this day. Instead of a natural progression for an innovative coach, however, the experience soured quickly as the Black Cats were relegated from the Premiership and the management team were sacked without a full season at the helm. The episode has altered the career-map Cotterill had drawn at Cheltenham. "It has been a burning ambition of mine to manage in the Premiership and I'm a little bit late on that. I gave myself a time scale when I was about 35, because sometimes time-scales make you work harder, of managing in the Premiership at 42. That means I've got nine months to do it because I'm already 42."

The setback at Sunderland, however, did not discourage the Burnley board from turning to Cotterill in 2004, an appointment that has benefited both parties with the manager addressing its desperate financial plight to build the strongest squad he has witnessed at Turf Moor.

"Your bad experiences in life are your best ones if you are intelligent enough to learn from them. Sunderland was a magnificent club and to have managed them would have been fantastic but it never got to be that. Maybe if the opportunity arises again to manage in the Premiership I will be a lot better and a lot wiser. You can't have a career that's unblemished, somewhere along the line it will happen and maybe it was better happening to me earlier. I should be better for my experiences when I have to tough it out."

Astute business in the transfer market - such as the £1.75m sale of Ade Akinbiyi to Sheffield United 10 months after buying the much-travelled striker for £600,000, the sale of the homegrown Richard Chaplow to West Bromwich for £1.2m and £1.5m from Birmingham for Robbie Blake - has stabilised the club and enabled £300,000 to be spent on a new training pitch. With good reason. "When I first came here we could only train on grass for the first two months of the season, after that it was a complete wash-out. It was shocking," he said.

Cotterill's predicament has been appreciated by the Burnley support, although attendances are down and many question why the club's finest assets had to be sold when the chairman, Barry Kilby, and the vice-chairman, Ray Ingleby, are both multi-millionaires. But the manager counters: "The chairman has come from nowhere, he's got a family to support and he's more than supported this football club.

"He's not been able to give me the financial backing he was able to give previous managers, but I knew that when I arrived. That doesn't make him any less of a good man, he is. I've just been on the phone to him and rang off by saying, 'See you later mate', and that's because he is a mate. At the moment he's on holiday in Scotland and he rang me up because he thinks he's found a Spanish lad playing for Cowdenbeath."

Having ridden the worst of their financial problems, Burnley's next challenge is to sustain their early-season impact on a division that "could be Premiership Two when you look at the clubs that are in this league now", insists Cotterill. The success of local rivals Blackburn, plus Bolton and Wigan in establishing themselves in the Premiership has, admits the Burnley manager, created an envy around Turf Moor that will disappear only with their own successes.

"But it has brought everyone closer and tighter for Burnley. There is a lot of goodwill in the area. A local guy, who I won't name in case it embarrasses him, came to me with a cheque, made payable to me, for £6,000. He knew I wanted netting around the new training pitch so that we wouldn't keep losing balls. It ended up costing £9,000 and he came back with another cheque for an extra £3,000 to pay for it. He came back the other day with a cheque for £3,500 so that we can take the train to away games rather than sitting on a coach for seven hours. You can't beat things like that. Another guy bought all the lads £2,500 worth of training watches, terrific gestures from those people."

How Cotterill repays that generosity remains to be seen. Outright promotion to the Premiership this season is, he believes, beyond Burnley this season although he refuses to discount advancing through the play-offs. In the meantime, there are other pressing targets. "It is part of my job to make Burnley fashionable again," he said. "I remember when we changed kits to Errea, which is an Italian make and a bit figure-hugging, which some of the staff didn't really want. Someone said to me, 'Are Burnley really ready for a sexy Italian kit?' They have to be."