Return of the prodigal sons
Al Jazeera's Paul Rhys talks to Clarke Carlisle about Burnley's EPL resurrection.
Last Modified: 29 Jul 2009 05:37 GMT

Carlisle challenges Andrei Arshavin as Burnley meet Arsenal in the FA Cup [GALLO/GETTY]
When Burnley Football Club played their first fixture in the top flight of the English game, Jack the Ripper was at large in London and Vincent van Gogh was about to cut off his own ear.

The last time they played in what is now the English Premier League, Concorde commercial flights were in their infancy and Pol Pot was taking over Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge.

In just over two weeks, the Clarets will kick off the 2009/10 Premier League season against Stoke City.

Defender Clarke Carlisle spoke exclusively to Al Jazeera as he prepared for his first taste of life at the top.

And having claimed victory in his own personal struggles, he is confident the Lancashire club won't be staring at another stay in the wilderness when they face Tottenham Hotspur on the last day of the season in May.

Clarke Carlisle has come up with his own description for the team he helped back into the top flight of English football after 33 years in the lower leagues.

"They are the prodigal son of the Premier League and everyone should rejoice in their return," the 29-year-old said, fresh from a long-haul tour of the United States that even caught the attention of the New York Times newspaper.

Local rivals Blackburn Rovers are unlikely to be delighted, but Carlisle is pretty close to the mark about Burnley.

If there's one thing the English football public like, it's a fairy story.

Founder members of the Football League in 1888? Check.

From a tough, industrial northern town? Check.

Grainy footage of the FA Cup being lifted in front of stands packed with men in flat caps? Check.

Back from the brink

In 1987 Burnley even came within 90 minutes of dropping out of professional football altogether, so traditionalists should indeed celebrate the return of a club that last won the English title in 1960.

Tom Boyle leads Burnley out during their victorious FA Cup run of 1914 [GALLO/GETTY]
"Burnley as a football club is steeped in heritage," Carlisle said on Tuesday.

"It's one of the founder members of the Football League and back in the day was one of the big names in sport.

"To have helped get the club back to the top level is a real privilege and an honour."

Carlisle himself knows all about resurrection.

An England under-21 international in 2000 after impressing for lower-league Blackpool, he could have kissed goodbye to his career and even his life if he hadn't sought help for a drinking problem at his next club, Queen's Park Rangers.

"What I had was a real lack of control when it came to socialising and prioritising," the father-of-two said.

"All I was focusing on was the next night out as opposed to what was paying the bills and what my family needed from me.

"Everything was out of sync. But it was nipped in the bud when I was still only 23.

"It has saved me from a lifetime of problems – and what would probably have been a very short lifetime."

Second chance

When Burnley won promotion in May this year, Carlisle was quick to thank the Sporting Chance clinic he attended back in 2003.

"At the time I was about to lose my job and my family," he told Al Jazeera.

"Ian Holloway, my manager at the time at QPR, was almost fatherly.

"He admitted that he didn't know what was going on but he was damn sure he could put me in touch with someone to help me.

"He's a beautiful man, he's very loving and very giving. I'm very proud to have known Ian Holloway."

Public displays of emotion are rare in football, but it was a gauntlet the player was forced to run in order to get better.

"What was important to me was that I held my hands up," he said.

"There's a big stigma in that, especially when you're in such an alpha-male environment and you don't want to show a sign of weakness."

United in sight

With those days well behind him, Carlisle is desperate to make his Premier League debut on August 15 against Stoke – and keep his place four days later against champions Manchester United.

Carlisle on...

 Winning 'Britain's Brainiest Footballer' in 2002: "They never had another so I think it's undisputed." 
 Who he'd like to play against: "An afternoon next to Fernando Torres would be a very exciting and troublesome experience."
 Being rejected by his home-town club: "I've got a little bit of a thing about Preston. Not that I'm bitter 13 years on, but they won't be getting my support."
 Supporting a small-town side: "They're representing you up and down the country, even a small town like Burnley with 70,000 people, going out and beating the big boys."
 Virtual reality: "I never play Playstation now but I always used to buy myself in Champ Manager.
You can pick me up from QPR in the 2001/02 version for about three million."

But he has no illusions that his arrival in the big time is ordained, having been hailed as one of the country's best defensive prospects at the start of his career.

"I played about 50 times last season which is the most since I had major knee surgery in 2001," he said.

"I missed a whole Premier League season through injury when I was at Watford which was incredibly frustrating.

"I don't think it's my rightful place but it's something I've always wanted.

"No-one has a divine right to it – even to have a job as a footballer is a blessing."

For Burnley's town of 73,000 souls, the blessing comes in the form of manager Owen Coyle – or, as they call him, God.

The Scotsman and former Republic of Ireland international rejected overtures from boyhood heroes Celtic to remain Burnley manager after May's 1-0 playoff win against Sheffield United.

And Carlisle is in no doubt that the 43-year-old managerial rookie is the right man to keep Burnley up.

Asset management

"It's such a privilege to play for Owen Coyle – he's a fantastic manager and coach, he nurtures the person as well as the 'asset'," he said.

"In other clubs when you're injured, you're kept segregated. Unless you're a really driven person it can be hard.

"That doesn't happen here. He always makes you feel that the team will be better when you're fit. He'll say, 'we can't wait to have you back'."

Coyle will be welcoming the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool to Turf Moor [GALLO/GETTY]
There is a hard season ahead if Burnley are to emulate recent examples like Wigan Athletic, Hull City and Stoke in staying in the top flight.

But after Burnley shocked several Premier League big guns on their way to a League Cup semi-final and FA Cup fifth round last year, Carlisle says it can be done.

"Even last season in the Championship I remember looking at the fixtures and thinking there were no easy wins," he said.

"There are a lot of teams in the league that if we bring our best qualities to the match then we can beat them, and we showed that on numerous occasions last season.

"That's what brought us to this – the promised land."

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