The Limey
Friday July 10th, 2009

Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez is not a happy man. In the past few seasons, he's had his own way in the transfer market, happily signing 3-4 big-name players each summer, spending an average of $70 million across the last four.

This season, Liverpool's debt-ridden finances and the current state of the world transfer market are up against Rafa, who was quoted in The Times saying, "The market is now crazy. It is all money, money." We agree -- transfer values have rocketed thanks to Real Madrid's current penchant for paying top dollar, and thanks to Manchester City's oil-filled pockets.

Thanks to his sole piece of business this summer, Benítez is doing his own bit toward inflating the market with the signing of fullback Glen Johnson for $28 million, a player for whom Portsmouth paid $4.5 million less than two years ago. Further, it's looking increasingly likely Liverpool may have to accept the bounty that Real Madrid and Barcelona are thrusting under its nose for Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, if he wants to have more money to spend this summer.

So what can Benítez learn from his Big Four compatriots? The lesson emanating from his big rivals in the Northwest is to be canny in the transfer market. Manchester United is flush with money after Cristiano Ronaldo's record $131 million move to Real Madrid.

Unlike some other big European clubs, Sir Alex Ferguson thus far has been relatively restrained in the transfer market, signing the talented Antonio Valencia from Wigan, young Frenchman Gabriel Obertan from Bordeaux and, in the biggest eyebrow-raiser, signing former star Michael Owen on a free transfer. The Owen transfer could turn out to be one of Ferguson's shrewdest pieces of business if the striker can achieve anything close to the strike rate he had at Liverpool.

Chelsea is seemingly willing to throw money around in a way Benítez currently only dreams of doing. After apparently making failed mega-money bids for AC Milan's Alexandre Pato and Andrea Pirlo, Chelsea is, according to chairman Bruce Buck, after a "marquee name" to go with the $29-million purchase of Russian midfielder Yuri Zhirkov. However, Chelsea is standing firm in one area in which Benítez should take note: Don't sell your key players. The Londoners have been resolute in their refusal to entertain Manchester City's pursuit of club captain John Terry, with an imminent third bid set to be given the same treatment as the first two.

In North London, Arsenal's mantra is don't spend money if you haven't got it. Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis rejected major shareholder Alisher Usmanov's proposal to raise funds for transfers by releasing additional shares, arguing that in an inflated transfer market "simply spending money in the transfer market does not make a team or guarantee success." The major danger for Arsenal is that if Manchester City manages to secure the signatures of the sorts of players being talked about, and is able to meld them into a team capable of finishing fourth or higher, it's likely to be the Gunners who would slip out. The prospect of not qualifying for the Champions League would be unbearable to the team, the supporters and, most of all, to Arsenal's bottom line.

Manchester City is dominating the back pages with its attempts to simultaneously attract marquee signings Terry, Samuel Eto'o and Carlos Tévez. Though Chelsea is adamant that Terry isn't for sale, could the 28-year-old English captain be interested in a last big-money move? Failing that, City has alternative center backs Joleon Lescott and Lúcio in its sights. Team Limey suspects Eto'o will leave Barcelona, but that the deal with City is dragging as the Cameroonian striker hopes for a Champions League qualifier to make an offer. Tévez, though, is expected to sign shortly for City once the complications of signing him from agent Kia Joorabchian -- rather than a soccer club -- are resolved.

City executive chairman Garry Cook received widespread criticism in January when he accused AC Milan of "bottling it" over Kaká's proposed transfer. No unprofessional outbursts have since emanated from Eastlands. Benítez could take note.

In this column, we present the first of three profiles introducing the new members of the English Premier League. West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough and Newcastle United finished in the bottom three places of the EPL last year and were subsequently relegated to the Championship, the second tier of English soccer. Coming the other way are Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham City and Burnley.

Burnley (population 88,500) is, by far, the smallest city in the EPL. The former cotton-weaving town, nestled high in the Pennine moors, is only 30 miles north of Manchester (population 2.5 million), but when it comes to soccer, Clarets fans look only one way: 10 miles west to the arch rival Blackburn Rovers.

Burnley's trip to Ewood Park on Oct. 17, the 96th East Lancashire derby, will be the pair's first top-flight affair since 1966 and only the fifth time the sides have met since '83. Undeniably small-town, it's not a classic North London, Merseyside, Manchester or Glasgow derby -- but don't underestimate the passion and friction involved in this raw heart-on-the-sleeve clash.

Burnley last played top-flight soccer in '76, but that statistic belies a proud history that, like Blackburn's, dates back to being one of the 12 founding members of the Football League, the world's first, in 1888. Indeed, the '09-10 season marks the 50th anniversary of Burnley's last league title, the second in its history. Also in the trophy cabinet is an FA Cup.

But there have been lows, too. Burnley finished sixth in the top flight in '74 before suffering a decade-long decline that saw it relegated all the way down to the fourth and lowest division of English professional soccer. The absolute nadir came on May 9, 1987, when a 2-1 season-ending win over Leyton Orient saved the Clarets from relegation out of the professional league. They had finished 84 places below their '74 position.

Careful commercial management saw Burnley rise again through the leagues, and re-establish itself in the second tier from '00. Burnley was back in the top half of the league structure -- but in the present money-driven climate, few thought that promotion to the EPL was likely for a club with a limited fan base. To fly the flag for all small-town dreamers would require a touch of magic. It arrived on Nov. 22, 2007, in the shape of new manager Owen Coyle.

Coyle, a teetotaler, perennial optimist and soccer obsessive transformed the team. Former regular for Manchester United and the English national team Andrew Cole told the BBC, "I cannot say enough superlatives about him. His enthusiasm made me feel like I was 21 again." In '08-09, Burnley not only gained promotion with the smallest squad in the Championship, but also dispatched Fulham, Chelsea, Arsenal and West Brom from cup competitions. Indeed, until Roman Pavlyuchenko's 118th-minute goal, Burnley was heading for the Carling Cup final.

Burnley's single hope this season is to stay in the EPL. Its current squad won't achieve that feat, and it will require many astute signings on a limited budget. Even so, Coyle may have to show exactly why Glasgow Celtic tried to attract him last month.

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