Interview: George Burley on Newcastle United's relegation battle

THE 2001 Premiership Manager of the Year thought he’d cracked it.

Former Ipswich manager George Burley
Former Ipswich manager George Burley

THE 2001 Premiership Manager of the Year thought he’d cracked it.

Against every expectation his team finished fifth in the league, and qualified for Europe having spent most of that season in the top three thanks in part to expansive and attacking football.

For 10 glorious months, they were everyone else’s favourite other side.

And then it all went wrong. Really, really wrong. Does this remind you of anyone?

For Alan Pardew at this moment in time, read George Burley of 12 years ago.

He was boss of newly-promoted Ipswich Town and, in a season when Sir Alex Ferguson won a third title in a row, it was Burley who was voted best boss by his peers, the same accolade Pardew received last May.

Despite winning promotion via the play-offs, the Tractor Boys stunned the Rolls-Royces in English football’s elite league. But then a year later they were the game’s equivalent of a Lada with wonky steering.

How did it happen then to Ipswich and why is it happening now to Newcastle United?

The Journal caught up with Burley this week to ask why his team and Pardew’s have so much in common, apart from the fact a Sir Bobby Robson statue stands outside their respective stadiums.

And the Scot believes he knows why the squad of players that earned the right to be called England’s fifth best last time around are, with three games to go, fighting for their Premier League lives.

Burley said: “I don’t know Alan all that well, but I feel for him. What he is going through is a mirror image of my final two years at Ipswich.

“We got relegated after our second season in what was then the Premiership and I hope that doesn’t happen to Alan because Newcastle is a great club, one of the biggest in the country.

“Europe was our downfall. The players I had simply didn’t have the experience to handle playing Thursday night, which it was even back then, and then on Sunday. We lost so many points in the weekends after our UEFA Cup matches.

“Do you know who can handle this commitment? The top four, that’s who. Everyone else struggles.

“If we hadn’t had Europe to deal with then there is no way we would have been relegated. I haven’t seen all of Newcastle’s games, but I’m guessing the run they had in the Europa League has had a massive effect on Premier League results.

“When you factor in the extra games, travelling and the lack of rest that gives you, it can be a massive disadvantage when you come up against teams that don’t have any of this to contend with.

“And in the Premier league, even if you are off by just a few percent, any team is going to lose games and drop points that ordinarily they wouldn’t.”

Ipswich lost too many games they shouldn’t have when second-season syndrome hit with a vengeance. They finished third-bottom and were relegated. Burley left soon after with the old “mutual agreement” line peddled.

The club have not returned to the big time since.

Europe was one factor for Burley, but so, too, was the unrealistic expectation heaped on his players after that one golden campaign.

Burley said: “Newcastle’s position is similar to ours in so many ways. We surprised everyone by finishing fifth. We got off to a good start and never really lot that momentum. We were actually third for a long time.

“The players were confident of winning every game and they deserved all the praise that came their way.

“But we were never going to follow that up and playing in Europe made things all the most difficult.

“You could see the confidence going from players who had got used to doing well. That is unavoidable whenever a team goes from winning all the time to one that is struggling a bit.

“It’s a different type of pressure to the one teams are put under when going for a top-four place. That’s enjoyable. The other side of football, when you are at the bottom, can be a battle.”

Like peacocks turning back into feather dusters, football managers can be top dog one moment and before they know it there are in the doghouse.

Pardew has that feeling right now, and Burley, a former Sunderland right-back, feels for the man.

The former Southampton and Scotland manager said: “The worst thing, and Alan will know this by now, is that it affects your family, your children.

“The pressure isn’t really something you can hide from them.

“But you get on with it. This is football. It happens.

“There is hardly a manager out there that hasn’t gone through at least the threat of relegation at least once in their career. It’s never nice.”

Burley has since gone on to manage Southampton, Derby County, Hearts, the Scotland national team and, most recently, Apollon Limassol with varying degrees of success – he was sacked last year by the Cypriot club after two games in charge.

However, Burley always said that he came out of his ordeal a stronger person and a better manager.

This is something Newcastle United’s manager needs to cling to during this trying period.

Burley said: “Alan is a good manager. You don’t become bad at that job within the space of the year.

“Listen, much of what happens is destined by how the players perform. They are the ones crossing that white line. At the end of the day, it’s down to them how many games are won and lost.”

Even Pardew’s sternest critics can’t argue with that.

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Mark Douglas
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