Despite having one of the smallest budgets in the Premier League, despite staying afloat in the English top flight for five consecutive seasons, and despite qualifying for European competition for the first time in 51 years, Sean Dyche’s Burnley have never quite gotten the respect that their achievements have merited.
Perhaps it’s because of their old-fashioned, rugged 4-4-2 system, or their modest, 21,944-capacity Turf Moor stadium, or the fact that they haven’t signed a player from a foreign league since purchasing Steven Defour from Anderlecht in 2016. Whatever the case, Burnley have continuously punched above their weight under Dyche since his appointment eight years ago, although their unprecedented success is at risk of coming to an end.
The Clarets currently find themselves hovering above the relegation zone with 10 points from 12 matchdays, although they have two games in hand on relegation rivals Fulham (10 points), Brighton Hove & Albion (11 points), and Arsenal (14 points). Perhaps more concerningly, though, is the contract status of their star defender James Tarkowski. Tarkowski’s contract expires in 2022, and after rejecting two contract extensions thus far, he shows no signs of staying put in Lancashire.
Humble Beginnings in Manchester
Born and raised in Manchester, Tarkowski grew up supporting Manchester United and watching his idols David Beckham and Paul Scholes on the television. The grandson of a Polish immigrant who fled to England after World War II, Tarkowski began his footballing career at Oldham Athletic before joining Blackburn Rovers’s academy at 11 years of age, where he would remain for three years until being released from the club at his own request. “It was a strain on his father, John, an electrical engineer who worked all day and then would drive him to training. He admitted later he was too ‘soft’ and he was also deemed too small,” wrote Andy Jones in The Athletic.
Tarkowski grew disenchanted with football but was convinced to continue his development by former schoolteacher John Rawlinson, who brought him to North West Counties League side Maine Road FC. Playing against opponents twice his age, the teenager regained his passion for the beautiful game and soon returned to Oldham Athletic, joining the club on a two-year scholarship. Tarkowski initially cut his teeth with the reserves before being awarded a professional contract in May 2011, although he would have to bide his time on the fringes of the first team before nailing down a starting spot during the tail-end of the 2012/13 campaign under manager Lee Johnson. He became a vital performer for the Latics, forming a rock-solid defensive partnership with Jean-Yves Moto and piquing the interest of League One side Brentford, who signed him on a three-and-a-half-year contract on January 31, 2014.
For the first time in his life, Tarkowski left North West England and headed for London, where he quickly became an undisputed starter at Griffin Park. Brentford would go on to finish second in League One, sealing automatic promotion to the Championship. The following season, Tarkowski played a leading role at the back as the Bees advanced to the promotion play-offs, where they would lose to Middlesbrough in the semi-finals.
After a phenomenal start to life at Brentford, Tarkowski was forced to endure a turbulent spell both on and off the pitch. Mark Warburton, who had both overseen Tarkowski’s arrival and ushered him into the starting line-up, departed the club on May 30, 2015. He was replaced by Marinus Dijkhuizen, who would last just three months until being given the boot after a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. With the Bees hovering just above the relegation zone, Lee Carsley took over, but he too endured a brief but tumultuous spell and was sacked on November 30, before being replaced by ex Walsall manager Dean Smith.
Off the pitch, Tarkowski was dealing with far worse turmoil; his mother, Janice, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Whilst various clubs began to register an interest in signing the defender, Tarkowski had his heart set on a move to Burnley, where he could remain close to home and help take care of his family. He refused to play against Burnley in a 3-1 defeat at Griffin Park due to not being in the right mindset, and two weeks later, he joined the Clarets on a three-and-a-half-year deal.
Breakthrough at Burnley
As Brentford gradually rebounded under Smith to muster a 9th-place finish, Dyche’s Burnley went undefeated for the rest of the season to win the Championship title and make an immediate return to the Premier League. Tarkowski struggled for game time in his first season in England’s top flight, often being played out of position at right-back or as a defensive midfielder, but after an impressive substitute appearance against Manchester United on April 23, he was given his full Premier League debut a week later against Crystal Palace, starting in place of the injured Ben Mee as Burnley captured a 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park. The following week, he started alongside Kevin Long at Turf Moor as the Clarets ground out a 2-2 draw against West Brom, reaching the 40-point mark and all-but sealing their status in next season’s Premier League campaign.
On July 3, 2017, Burnley completed the sale of Michael Keane to Everton, pocketing a club-record fee of £25 million, rising to £30 million in potential add-ons. With Keane plying his trade at Goodison Park, Tarkowski quickly cemented a starting spot in defense alongside Mee, leading Burnley to a 3-2 away win against reigning Premier League champions Chelsea in the opening match of the season. That famous victory on the opening day helped pave the way for a historic season. Despite scoring the sixth-fewest goals in the Premier League (36), Burnley finished seventh in the Premier League thanks to a rock-solid defense that conceded just 39 goals in 38 matches. Burnley qualified for Europe for the first time since 1967, but after brushing past Aberdeen and İstanbul Başakşehir, they were eliminated in the Europa League play-off round by Olympiakos.
Tarkowski’s performances for the Clarets earned him a maiden call-up to the England national team in March, starting in a 1-1 draw against Italy at Wembley Stadium, but while he was included in Gareth Southgate’s five-man standby list for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he was forced to withdraw in order to undergo a hernia operation.
Tarkowski began the 2018/19 season with a bang, scoring two goals in August, but it proved futile as Burnley took one point from their first five fixtures. Fresh off sealing a historic qualification to Europe, Dyche’s men were cruelly knocked back down to earth.
After being ensnared in a relegation battle, Burnley gradually found a consistent run of form, taking points off Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester United and finishing six points clear of the drop. Tarkowski’s gritty performances in the heart of defense began to attract admirers within the Premier League, with Leicester City eyeing him as a potential replacement after completing the sale of Harry Maguire to Manchester United for £80 million, making him the most expensive defender of all time. However, Burnley refused to budge from their asking price of £50 million for Tarkowski, holding firm and hanging onto their star centre-back in the waning days of the summer transfer window.
Apart from an EFL Cup fixture against Sunderland, Tarkowski played every single minute of the 2019/20 campaign, wearing the captain’s armband in the final six matches and leading the Clarets to 15 clean sheets in the league and a 10th-place finish, with Burnley equalling their single-season points record (54). He continued to attract an increasingly wider net of suitors, with both Leicester and West Ham registering interest, but the Foxes would instead sign Wesley Fofana from Saint-Étienne after balking at Burnley’s price tag. The Hammers tabled several offers for the defender rising to £30 million plus add-ons, but Burnley put their foot down for the second straight summer window and refused to part with him for less than £40 million. As his future remained up in the air, Tarkowski missed Burnley’s first four matches of the season with a “toe injury,” but returned to the side in a 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup.
On November 11, Tarkowski gave a revealing interview with The Telegraph, stating: “We’ve had two transfer windows now where the club have decided, for whatever reason, that whatever has been offered on the table hasn’t been enough and that’s fine because I signed a contract for four-and-a-half years. But the longer my contract runs down, I feel I gain the control of my career more than Burnley having the control of it, which is what I feel like I need right now.
“There is nothing I have heard or has been put to me that makes me think there is a scenario in which I would sign a new contract at Burnley. That can change, but currently, that is the situation.”
Next Big Move?
Burnley will be desperate to keep hold of the 28-year-old defender as they attempt to maneuver their way out of another relegation battle, but with Tarkowski’s contract set to expire in 18 months, it seems a foregone conclusion that they will be forced to cash in on him in the following summer transfer window.
With Angelo Ogbonna approaching his 33rd birthday and Issa Diop struggling to convince in defence, West Ham will be expected to resurface as a potential suitor, whilst other sides could emerge as well. As he seeks to double his £50k-a-week wages and earn a recall to the England national team for the first time since March 2019, it seems that James Tarkowski has finally outgrown Sean Dyche’s plucky Clarets.