THE Chinese Year of the Rabbit, 2011 has been the year of transition for Burnley Football Club.
The Clarets were without a manager when it began, after a 2-0 home defeat to struggling Scunthorpe United (who went on to be relegated despite their Turf Moor triumph) signalled the end of Brian Laws’ reign less than 12 months after it had begun.
With just over two weeks of the transfer window remaining when Eddie Howe was announced as his successor, the new man was backed in the market.
There was very much an eye on the future with the New Year captures of Charlie Austin and Marvin Bartley.
Burnley were on the cusp of the play-off positions at the time, and although the camp never completely gave up hope on achieving a top six spot until it was mathematically impossible, the focus had shifted to the long-term rather than the short-term with Howe’s arrival.
A rebuilding project had begun with the acquisition of a former brickie and a window fitter who had taken an unorthodox route into football but still yearned for success all the same.
The former non-league duo were raw and not quite ready for the rigours of the Championship this time last year.
From the end of February, striker Austin spent the rest of the season on the treatment table after needing surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder, while no sooner had midfielder Bartley started to find his way into the side than suspension forced him out again following a red card at Nottingham Forest.
What a difference a year has made. Both players are fulfilling their potential this season, with Austin joint top scorer before suffering another dislocation last month, and Bartley grabbing Clarets’ fans attention with some consistent, box-to-box displays.
But the last 12 months hasn’t just been about acquisitions. There have been some significant departures too.
The loss of Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears was sudden but not wholly unexpected.
Kieran Trippier, on a season-long loan from Manchester City, has been an inspired signing at right back, while permanent deals for Keith Treacy and Junior Stanislas have led to increased competition on the left wing, and no shortage of creativity.
Howe’s decision to reduce the average age of the squad meant there was no place for the likes of Graham Alexander or Clarke Carlisle, who is on a season-long loan at Preston and will leave when his contract expires in the summer.
Watford’s offer for Chris Iwelumo was accepted before the season started, as was Birmingham’s transfer deadline day bid for Wade Elliott.
Money was the motivator in the Danny Fox sale, and a decision that is certain to have been taken out of Howe’s hands.
But the Burnley boss still has created competition between Brian Easton and Ben Mee for the left back spot that would have been Fox’s to lose.
The Clarets have missed the benefit of experience at times this season. It is no coincidence that Burnley have improved – specifically defensively – since Michael Duff returned from injury.
But the young Burnley players are benefiting from the experience of playing together and growing with every game.
If Howe is backed again in January, the Year of the Dragon – 2012 – could be full of promise.