Thrifty Burnley wins admirers by punching above its weight, staying in fight for survival

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BURNLEY, England — With chimneys rising from the former cotton mills which nestle between tightly-packed houses, Burnley provides a quintessentially English vista for fans at the town's soccer stadium.

From the days Burnley was the world's cotton-weaving capital through the hardships endured as the thriving textile industry collapsed, Turf Moor has been a constant presence for 132 years. While many of England's pioneering 19th-century clubs have abandoned their original homes, Burnley has remained at the heart of its community.

These days, the global platform for this town of 73,500 — smaller than the capacity of Manchester United's Old Trafford — is provided by world soccer's richest domestic competition rather than industry.

"This is what this game started as, it's almost like a time capsule," former United States midfielder Kyle Martino said on his first visit to Burnley to analyze Saturday's match against Arsenal for American broadcaster NBC.

It's not only the audience for games that has spread far beyond the Pennines mountains. Burnley's fan base extends beyond Britain, with the online store selling merchandise to the United States and Asia.

"We punch above our weight," Burnley chief executive Lee Hoos said from inside the cramped office he likens to a rabbit warren. "It's one of the romantic stories of football."

A parsimonious policy ensures the riches generated by being in the Premier League are not squandered on big-money contracts for aging players as some other teams have done after gaining promotion.

"We didn't bring in a lot of flash Harrys," said Hoos, an American using an English colloquialism and not singling out clubs like Queens Park Rangers, who did just that.

Burnley's net transfer spending was barely $12 million after climbing from the League Championship last May. That's despite knowing it will generate at least $90 million in television money and prize money even if its stay in the Premier League ends next month after one season.

"There are too many examples of clubs who have gone out chasing glory and ended up in administration (bankruptcy protection)," Hoos said. "You look at other clubs around here in Lancashire and the amount of debt they are carrying, and quite frankly they have unsustainable business cases."

Burnley hasn't always been a nobody. The team won the English title in 1921 and 1960. And don't write off the club now surviving among the elite in this gilded age of soccer.

Through determination and doggedness, Burnley has defied expectations. The team, led by gravel-voiced manager-of-the-year contender Sean Dyche, enters the final six games of the season a point off last place in the standings but only two points from safety.

"We knew it was going to be difficult moving into this league and people were writing us off but we're still there, we're still fighting," Burnley defender Kieran Trippier said. "We've got a spirit and our belief is so strong."

It was only a slender 1-0 loss to second-place Arsenal on Saturday when Burnley was a constant threat. As Hoos quipped: "The only reason we lose games is because the referee blows the whistle too soon."

Burnley has stunned several big-spending teams in recent weeks: drawing 1-1 at leader Chelsea, beating champion Manchester City 1-0 and holding Tottenham to a 0-0 draw.

"It shows you don't have to be huge if you apply yourselves correctly," Hoos said. "From a foreign perspective, us Yanks, we love those underdog Cinderella stories."

Given how English the club is, perhaps it's surprising to discover the day-to-day operations are run by an American with a jersey from baseball's Baltimore Orioles hanging in a tiny office he has to share. Hoos started working in soccer with Fulham in the 1990s and gained further experience at Southampton and Leicester before ending up in northern England at Burnley.

It didn't take long for Hoos to realize that in this town less than an hour's drive from Manchester United, the soccer club binds the community unlike many others where bigger clubs can compete for loyalties. That adds to a sense of responsibility, particularly to embrace and help the next generation of fans.

"To help the town itself lift itself," Hoos said, explaining a scheme that will see teenagers who obtain good grades rewarded with free tickets.

Burnley has admirers at the top of the English Football Association, which is trying to introduce new rules to force Premier League squads to include more homegrown players. The entire starting lineup on Saturday was from Britain while Arsenal's contained only one British player: Wales international Aaron Ramsey.

Much to the chagrin of some agents, Burnley will not take a gamble on signing players with exotic names based on YouTube clips when there is talent to be found closer to home with a better understanding of the club.

"All it takes is one person not pulling their weight," Hoos said, "and the bottom drops out."


Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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