Owen Coyle: 'It's my team and I put my heart and soul into it'

Following an outstanding promotion campaign Burnley are facing a baptism of fire. Their manager, Owen Coyle, explains to Sam Wallace why the top flight holds no fears and why he rejected a dream job to stay at Turf Moor...
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The Independent Football

On his desk in his office at Turf Moor, Owen Coyle has a printout of Deloitte's study of spending by Premier League clubs. Reading went down last year having spent £33.1m. Derby spent £26.1m and finished last the same season. Coyle has roughly £16m to keep Burnley in the Premier League.

He laughs when he hands me the paper but he is not daunted by it. "It doesn't faze us, we are up for it, we are ready to give everything we can," he says. Starting with Stoke City today and then, on Wednesday, the first visitors to Turf Moor will be the champions Manchester United. After that Burnley play Everton, Chelsea and Liverpool. "People say to me 'Could that be any more difficult?'" Coyle says. "I tell them 'Aye, if Real Madrid and Barcelona were in the league'. But this is where we want to be."

We know all about Burnley's fairy-tale season last year, the Carling Cup run that took them past Fulham, Chelsea and Arsenal before they narrowly lost in the semi-finals to Tottenham. We know about their play-off final triumph over Sheffield United to return them to the top flight almost 50 years since the club won the First Division championship. But what about the richly talented manager who led them there?

Coyle, 43, is an intelligent, engaging individual, once a prolific striker who scored almost 300 career goals but never hit the net in the two brief months he played in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers in 1995. He is, like Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, a Glaswegian, albeit one of Irish heritage. All of which makes his decision to turn down the Celtic job this summer all the more remarkable. It should also be mentioned that he is very loyal.

The Premier League's latest bright young manager, Coyle grew up in Glasgow's Gorbals one of nine siblings to parents who took their Irish roots very seriously. "Where we lived in the Gorbals was called 'Little Donegal' because it was very much an Irish community," he said. "We are a very tight-knit family. To be fair, with the books about the Gorbals, Jimmy Boyle [the former Glasgow gangster turned artist] and all that it has got a bad rap, but I never found it tough because it was what I was used to.

"A lot of management is social skills and growing up in the Gorbals you learn that. There's no doubt you have to fight your corner at times and stand up for yourself but I grew up with that in the house. You scrap with your brothers every day and you might even get a couple of slaps off your sister. I wouldn't have swapped it for the world. The people I grew up with are still friends to this day. My mum is still in the Gorbals."

By his own admission, Celtic are Coyle's team. They are the club he dreamt of playing for when he was a kid, just as a young Ferguson dreamt of playing for Rangers. Coyle's career is a tour of Scotland's less glamorous clubs – 10 in all but none of them Celtic. He established himself as a manager at St Johnstone in the Scot

tish First Division, came to Burnley in 2007 and then did the thing he never thought he would this summer: he turned down the chance to manage Celtic.

When Gordon Strachan resigned, Coyle was the club's choice ahead of Tony Mowbray, who is now in charge, and his decision to turn them down was the biggest of his career. "You have to weigh everything up but if someone had said to me [in the past] that I would be offered the Celtic job and not take it I would have said, 'You are off your head, that will never happen'. Celtic are my team, Celtic will always be my team.

"I grew up in a Catholic area, Irish family, everything associated with Celtic. I went to all the games as a kid, when I wasn't playing as a professional I was at the games. Last season I would even go to see them, because? Well, it's my team. When I took the emotion and the heart out of the decision, which I had to do, I said 'Burnley are great for me'. The people are good to me, Brendan Flood [operational director] and the chairman, Barry Kilby, they didn't need to take the chance on me. It could have been someone else.

"I always have a gut feeling for whatever club I am at. I put my heart and soul into it and try to take on board the fans' thoughts and embrace the history. That was a big part of saying no to Celtic. I like to think I am a very loyal person. I know I am working with good people here. That was a big, big thing."

"I felt they had shown incredible loyalty and I felt it was only right that I gave that back. I hope people see that and the type of person I am. We are a very honourable club. Last year we had problems with cash flow and we [were late on transfer payments]. There was nothing we could do at the time but everyone knew they were going to get their money eventually and they did."

Loyalty, doing the right thing – they are a big part of Coyle's ethos. And he is not afraid to make tough decisions. When he was a teenager he was offered an apprenticeship at Dundee United, but his father advised him to sign for Dumbarton where two of his brothers, Tommy and Joe, were professionals. It gave him the chance to flourish despite being small for his age and in a way his decision to stay with Burnley is similar. They may be smaller but they represent a great opportunity for an ambitious young manager.

"As a manager you are responsible not only for a team but for a whole town," he says. "We really know what it means to everybody and when we lose a game – 'hurtful' doesn't explain it. I feel as if I have let the whole town down. Especially this town because, as we know, next year when Old Trafford is full there are more people in there than live in the whole town of Burnley."

Coyle has signed equally ambitious young players to strengthen his team. Richard Eckersley joins his former Manchester United academy team-mate Chris Eagles; David Edgar came from Newcastle; Steven Fletcher came for £3m from Hibernian and Fernando Guerrero, rejected by Real Madrid. All of them have a point to prove, just like their manager who was denied his moment of glory during his two years as a player in England with Bolton Wanderers.

He was dropped for the League Cup final against Liverpool in 1995, having played in every round, and was then largely overlooked in the Premier League the following season. "I was on the bench under Bruce Rioch [then Bolton manager] and because the fans knew I gave 100 per

cent they used to sing for me all the time," Coyle says. "Bruce used to say to me, 'The more they sing the less chance you have of playing'. So when I did my warm-up I would say to them, 'Shh, don't sing until I get on'."

He left Bolton because he wanted to play regularly and took a cut in his salary accordingly, something he says he has done at least four times in his career. It is that determination, a love of the game, that he has tried to instil in his players at Burnley. And in the talented Wade Elliott, Martin Paterson, Steven Caldwell and Eagles, to name but a few, you could see it clearly last season, especially in the Carling Cup run.

That run, which saw Burnley take Spurs to extra time in the remarkable semi-final second leg at Turf Moor, has given his young team an edge. Within the space of six months they played at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, White Hart Lane and Wembley. They do not hold as much fear for Coyle's players as they may for other newly promoted sides.

"The fact that we have experienced these places means that, hopefully, we won't freeze," he says. "Before we played in the play-off final I took the players to Wembley the night before after the League One final had finished. The reason was that I didn't want them arriving on the Monday and all of a sudden looking around. I wanted them to go there knowing what the stadium was all about. That stood us in good stead.

"The pace and power and quality of the goal we conceded at Chelsea: Frank Lampard passed the ball that quickly and then [Didier] Drogba and it was all over in a few seconds. Sometimes you have to hold your hand up and say, 'You know what, the quality was so good, my centre-halves had no chance'. We have to be focused."

The away dressing room at Turf Moor is notoriously small, so the story goes, but Coyle says it is no bigger than the home one which, in turn, is about the size of his compact office. The size, he says, means some of the players are behind him when he gives his team talk. Elliott is tucked in next to the team fridge. But Burnley have thrived on being the smallest team – relative to the town's population – ever to reach the Premier League.

"I don't get stressed about out financial structure," he says. "Every player will have a Championship clause in his salary because we have to guard this wonderful football club with a history of over 100 years. We want to make sure it runs for many more. We haven't got the best players in the Premier League, we haven't got the best team, but we are going to have a side who are capable of standing up and competing at this level."