Cotterill takes the lessons of home turf to breathe fire into Burnley

FA Cup Countdown: Ahead of the Liverpool test tonight, Tim Rich speaks to Burnley's journeyman boss
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The Independent Football

"Trialist, £350-a-week kid, £200-a-week kid, £200-a-week kid. That's it, that's the bench I've got against Liverpool." But you need five to start a game. "Yeah, I know that," Steve Cotterill reflects standing against a board in the manager's office at Turf Moor, which details Burnley's rice paper-thin squad. "I might have to use Mark Yates, my first-team coach, as a substitute. He's used to it; he's done it four or five times this season already."

Liverpool have seen their season savaged by injuries but the difference is that Rafael Benitez will not have to ask his backroom staff to bring their kit to Turf Moor to sit on the bench during tonight's FA Cup tie.

Burnley and Liverpool each boast rich histories, and some of England's most passionate fans, but they share little else. Burnley can be summed up by its training ground at nearby Padiham. From the outside it appears deeply imposing - it is, after all, built around an old Victorian institution. Inside, it is a shell and the pitches, Cotterill points out, are sub-standard.

Two years ago, Steve Cotterill was regarded as one of the finest young coaches in England, and whose interest in tactics and techniques was almost continental. When recalling a victory over Liverpool, he does not cite the reaction of the crowd at the Stadium of Light, nor the delight of a young Wearsider called Michael Proctor who scored an improbable winner or even that it took Sunderland, however briefly, out of the relegation zone. His first memory is that Gerard Houllier employed a diamond formation.

By the age of 38 he had taken Cheltenham football, a sport that lay in the shadow of the annual cricket festival - not to mention horse-racing - from the Dr Martens League to what would now be League One. After a brief interlude at Stoke, he resigned to join Howard Wilkinson as manager of Sunderland with the tacit understanding among the fans that he was being groomed to succeed. It proved a wretchedly unhappy move. Sunderland were relegated with the lowest points total of any top-flight side since the 17 Stoke garnered in 1984-5. In 20 matches before they were sacked, Wilkinson and Cotterill managed 10 points, although four of those came against Liverpool.

The talent, however, did not disappear and this season Cotterill has transformed Burnley from relegation candidates to within touching distance of the play-offs, having beaten Aston Villa in the League Cup on the way. All he needs is a few players.

The sale of Robbie Blake, arguably the finest striker in the Championship, to Birmingham - a deal concluded on the day we met - means there will be one less to select from this evening. Blake, a Teessider who had promised much without really delivering at Bradford, had blossomed at Turf Moor. His 19 goals last season earned Burnley a dozen points, without which they would have been comfortably relegated and probably bankrupted.

"I didn't imagine he would go," said Cotterill. "One of the the things I asked the chairman when I took the job was: 'Will I have to sell Robbie Blake?' He said no, but when you get an offer of £1.25m we cannot turn it down, not in our present situation."

Cotterill's brief from his chairman, Barry Kilby, when he succeeded Stan Ternent in June was straighforward: "I just had to keep them up but the chairman said that if I got relegated with them, I wouldn't get the sack because of the size of my budget."

Their relationship does not appear to be especially close: "He never phones me when we've done well but then he never phones me when we have a bad day. He hasn't wished me happy new year yet. The one thing about the Robbie Blake transfer is that he now knows my telephone number."

Cotterill's predecessor, Stan Ternent, used to become angry when reporters were sent to Burnley to write features on the club. Ternent thought they would write about the "whippets and slagheaps", while to him Burnley meant the sunlight catching the Pennine peaks and the scent of heather in the moors. "If you go down to our training ground and drive five minutes out into the Ribble Valley, you will see some of the most beautiful sights in Britain," says Cotterill, who grew up in Gloucestershire and has not lost his West Country accent.

"Burnley itself is a hard-working area that will not forgive anything except a hard-working football team. It's very, very working class and the only thing it has against it is the constant bloody rain. If we had better pitches at the training ground and the ball rolled in the right direction, the weather might not bother me so much."

Burnley, arguably far more so than Blackburn, is a proper football town. When Tony Blair's former press secretary and celebrity Burnley fan, Alistair Campbell, returned to Turf Moor to interview Cotterill, he mentioned the great fact about the place. A higher percentage of Burnley's population watch their local team than anywhere else in England.

"If you walk down the road you don't see Manchester United or Arsenal shirts, they'll be claret and blue. Alistair Campbell seems pretty happy with what's going on at Turf Moor but he told me the weight this club carries in the town. If I was to achieve half here what I achieved at Cheltenham, I'd get the key to the town. To be honest I never got very much recognition at Cheltenham. There was talk of me getting the freedom of the borough but somebody rang me and said to qualify I would have had to do something for 25 years."

In Cheltenham, Cotterill might have stood more chance had he been a horse. He is still fiercely proud of what he achieved in his home town. "We had one good stand, the other three were irrelevant. Leaking gutters, puddles and holes and everything. Awful pitch, a turnover of £100,000 and 400 supporters. Five and a half years and three promotions on, one cup final at Wembley, play-off final at the Millennium Stadium, million pound turnover, three new stands, fantastic pitch. Brilliant. An absolute fairytale, and my mum still alive to see it. I remember me and my assistant, Mike Davis, painting the players' bar in a new stand we'd opened. My last game was seeing them win promotion at the Millennium Stadium. Wonderful, I wonder if you ever get that again?"

His family still live in Bournemouth, where he played in the mid-1990s before a knee injury took its toll. It it a fair drive to Cheltenham and for Sunderland and Burnley it is hard to imagine a more inconvenient location. "If you are going to be a football manager, houses come, houses go. I have two daughters, who are at a difficult age, 12 and 14, at a lovely little school where they are safe. We moved them out of there once and it didn't go well. It is easier to see them every now and then rather than see them every night when they are not happy.

"I have always lived away from my family. You can be in early in the morning, go to games and reserve fixtures at night. You have to go to games most nights, otherwise you don't pick up Gary Cahill from Aston Villa reserves." Driving back to Bournemouth, he feels he is almost home when he picks up the signs to Cheltenham.

"I feel a bit better because it's my home town. It's an hour and three-quarters to Bournemouth but I'm into territory I know; the signs become reassuring... Swindon... Bristol... I know my way from there."

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