Owen Coyle: Shrewd operator knows time is right

Can Owen Coyle be faulted for leaving cash-strapped Burnley for a bigger club? It was only a matter of time, says Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

When Owen Coyle turned down the chance to take charge of Celtic in the summer, the assumption was that he was the kind of manager who would be happy to bounce along in the bottom half of the Premier League with good old Burnley.

In the space of seven months, he has demonstrated that he is a lot shrewder than that. Just because Coyle did not leave Burnley for Celtic in the summer did not mean he lacked ambition; he was just smart enough to recognise that a move back to his boyhood club in Scotland would not represent a step up the career ladder.

There will be many who accuse Coyle of disloyalty for leaving Burnley, one of the Premier League's most likeable new teams of recent years, and joining Bolton Wanderers who are a bigger club than Burnley – but not by much. Coyle, however, is just taking the manager's pragmatic attitude towards survival: when your stock is high, you have to move on.

There have been plenty of good young managers who have polished their reputations by taking teams into the Premier League only to find that the impossibility of keeping a small team afloat in the top division has dragged them down too. Alan Pardew went up with West Ham in 2005 but they eventually sacked him in December 2006. Mick McCarthy took Sunderland up in 2005 and was sacked the following March.

Aidy Boothroyd took Watford up in 2006 and down again the following season and was sacked four months into his second season in the Championship. George Burley went up with Ipswich Town in 2000, came back down and was eventually sacked.

Rather than wait for the relegation battle to engulf him at Burnley – as it surely will at some point – Coyle has moved to a club that he feels gives him a better chance of staying in the Premier League. No shame in that. It will be galling for the Burnley supporters, and some will never forgive him, but if results were to turn against Coyle at Turf Moor, it would be him who paid the price.

In football, it is managers who are sacked when things go wrong – not players. Nevertheless, Coyle has taken a risk because Bolton is not much of an improvement on Burnley. But then this is a manager who had £16m to spend last summer, the lowest-ever transfer budget in the Premier League. To put it in perspective, it was £10m less than the next lowest, Derby County in 2007.

With two points fewer than Burnley and two games in hand – albeit one of them away to Arsenal tomorrow – Bolton are not exactly a solid bet to stay in the Premier League. However, Coyle will know the bottom half of the table as well as anyone. He presumably believes that Bolton have better resources than Burnley to finish outside the bottom three.

Sometimes managers have to make unpopular choices and in doing so, Coyle has demonstrated that there is steel in his soul. Burnley will get the compensation from Bolton that might allow their new manager to invest in January and from then it will be down to the nous of the man from the Gorbals to keep his new club in the Premier League. With debts of around £50m, Bolton can not afford relegation.

As a player, Coyle was in the Bolton team that won promotion to the Premier League in 1995 but was largely overlooked by then-manager Bruce Rioch the following season. Popular with the fans at Burnden Park, Coyle can now joke about how they used to sing his name when he warmed up as a substitute – which would only make Rioch more determined not to bring him on.

He played for 10 Scottish clubs as well as Bolton and was a prolific striker who never made it at the top level – a career template that is eerily similar to that of his fellow Glaswegian Sir Alex Ferguson. Coyle came from an area of the Gorbals he describes as "Little Donegal" and elected to play his international football for the Republic of Ireland, because of his Irish heritage.

The highlight of his season so far was the tumultuous victory over Manchester United at Turf Moor. Coyle handled the praise skilfully, taking care, where Ferguson was concerned, not to rub it in.

Coyle is a very affable, bright man, who talks 10 to the dozen when it comes to football. No doubt he will wince at some of the things he said in the summer about the importance of loyalty when it came to rejecting Celtic but he should not be embarrassed.

Football is a ruthless business and history tells us that if Coyle had not left Burnley, sooner or later they would have got rid of him.

Flying Scot: Coyle's career

*Born in July 1966 in Paisley, Scotland.

*Began senior career with Dumbarton in 1985, played for number of Scottish teams and also spent two years at Bolton. Helped Lancashire side gain promotion in 1995.

*Began managerial career with brief player-manager role at Falkirk in 2003 before taking over at St Johnstone in 2005. Left to join Burnley in November 2007 and won them promotion to Premier League last May. Has been linked with Celtic.