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Sean Dyche continues to work miracles as Burnley eye Europe

Off the field, Burnley have endured a difficult restart. The Premier League season only got back under way a fortnight ago, but the Clarets have had a great deal to contend with since then.

One of the uncertainties surrounding the intended resumption of the campaign surrounded players who were out of contract on June 30. None could be forced to represent their employers beyond that date, and it was suggested that many would prefer to keep their powder dry due to concerns over a potential injury affecting their future.

Yet many players did put pen to paper on short-term extensions so that they would be able to complete the 2019/20 season. Chelsea wingers Pedro Rodriguez and Willian were two of the most high-profile to do so, while Jan Vertonghen, Jose Holebas and Simon Francis were among those who followed suit at Tottenham Hotspur, Watford and Bournemouth respectively.

Burnley had less luck. Experienced former England internationals Aaron Lennon and Joe Hart both departed on June 30, as did key midfielder Jeff Hendrick. The Republic of Ireland international has enjoyed an excellent season and was recently linked with a move to Milan; as such, the former Derby County man did not want to jeopardise his next long-term contract.

That is understandable. Players must protect their futures and Hendrick’s decision was no doubt influenced by the fact that he will turn 29 next year. While he should still have several years left in the game, the next deal the Irishman signs could be the most lucrative of his career. Phil Bardsley also looked likely to depart until he and the Burnley hierarchy agreed a new one-year deal before the cut-off point.

Burnley have also been disadvantaged by injuries, chiefly to strike duo Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes. Neither of the forwards has played since the Premier League returned, giving manager Sean Dyche another puzzle to solve.

The biggest off-field event involving the club came at the Etihad Stadium in Burnley’s first game back. Shortly after kick-off, a plane flew above the stadium and displayed a banner with the words: 'White Lives Matter Burnley'. It was a clear attempt to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement that has been given prominence by the Premier League in recent weeks, with players taking a knee before the start of matches to show support.

The incident was condemned by Dyche, captain Ben Mee and chairman Mike Garlick, but it is clear that Burnley - as a town and a club - has a problem with racism among a significant minority of its followers.

With safety virtually guaranteed four months ago - the Clarets were just one shy of the fabled 40-point mark following a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in early March - you might expect that Burnley’s season would peter out, particularly given the off-pitch distractions the club have had to deal with. Yet after back-to-back 1-0 wins against Watford and Crystal Palace, Dyche’s side have a real chance of qualifying for the Europa League.

As things stand Burnley must finish seventh to reach the continent’s junior competition. But eighth spot - the position it currently occupies - could yet be sufficient. 

Earlier this year Manchester City were hit with a two-season ban from European competition after being found guilty of breaching UEFA regulations surrounding Financial Fair Play. If their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport is unsuccessful, that would mean that the eighth-place finisher in the Premier League would qualify for the Europa League if the FA Cup is won either by City or a team that has already qualified for the tournament via its league position. After last weekend’s quarter-finals, that now looks very likely.

"I think it's certainly up there in one of the biggest results I've had as manager here,” Dyche said of Monday’s victory over Crystal Palace.

“You can't really speak about it at the moment because you've seen how few players we've got,” he added on potential Europa League qualification. “[But] the grandeur for a club like us making it into the Europa is considerable.” 

Burnley participated in the Europa League last term but did not make it into the group stage after falling in the qualifiers. That was a shame after their tremendous achievement of finishing seventh the previous year, but Dyche made it clear throughout the campaign that the Premier League was his number one priority.

That will surely remain the case for the long-serving Clarets boss should his team qualify for next season’s competition. Yet fans of the club will have been unnerved by reports that Dyche, who has been in situ at Turf Moor since 2012, is considering his future after growing frustrated by a lack of money to spend in the transfer market. Some have opined that he may have taken Burnley as far as he can.

His departure would be a huge blow to the club, as Dyche has done a magnificent job to make them an established Premier League side over the last few years. For now, though, the Burnley boss will be fully focused on his attempt to lead the Clarets into Europe once more.

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