Burnley roots

Diaspora delight; two weekends in March

As we converged on Turf Moor, via the Burnley Miners, we were coming in from all directions; Manchester, Brighton, the Fylde, Harrogate, Ripon. The match against Manchester City was a sellout, a mouth-watering prospect. The richest club in the country and current Premier league champions chasing points to close the gap on Mourinho and Abramovich’s Chelsea, against host Burnley, the latter struggling to get out of the bottom three and claim another season in the Premier League that would guarantee a share in the Premier League’s biggest-ever jackpot of £5.136 billion, Sky and BT Sport’s payment for the domestic live TV rights for three seasons from the 2016-2017 season onwards.

We made it to the Burnley Miners, where the excellent local beer has now risen to £2 a pint, and met more incoming fans, including Knaresborough Pete and his wife Chris. In retirement Chris and Pete were revelling in Burnley’s second season in the Premier League; in the 2009-2010 Premier league season and for the five years onwards in the intervening Championship seasons, they’d been stalwarts of the away fixtures and eager recipients of bargain weekend accommodation across the geography of England and Wales. Before the City game Pete prophesied over a pint the recall of Burnley’s veteran centre-back Michael Duff, a snip from Cheltenham 11 years before. The fans in the Miners had an air of optimism alongside a realistic sense of resignation that we were still near the bottom of the table; we had after all come back from two goals down to City at the end of December, taking the one point but feeling lashings of pride at the emerging David and Goliath narrative.

Windermere Avenue, where I was born and raised, didn’t seem as welcoming as I remembered in the 1950s. There were no kids playing on the pavement, let alone the road. A giant construction – a golf-driving range – was rising in the field across the road, threatening the uninterrupted view of Pendle Hill, north-west Lancashire’s own Table Mountain. Pendle looked resistant, defiant and beautiful, a long strip of snow covering its main ridge, as if to say to those gloved global superstars from the Etihad Stadium that the elements were with the underdog, that it would be tough going this few miles north in the windswept corner of north-east Lancashire. The wind was whistling down across the foothills of Pendle and into the town. Windermere Avenue didn’t seem as friendly as when I’d delivered football pinks to Eddie Hitchen in the late 1950s, and the memorable moment in1960 when Burnley won its last top-division league title.  A few houses up from my brother’s, in the garden of a house next to where Eddie had rewarded me with a Mars bar for those Saturday evening errands, the remnant of a tree trunk was decorated with a notice: “No Trespassing – Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again”. I wondered about some new form of gun law in the suburbs of a town once hailed in its nineteenth-century booming peak as the wildwest boomtown settlement of the region. It was looking like a cold day all round.

The people were friendly enough though as I took the bus to Burnley town centre on the morning and early afternoon of the match. The centre was far from busy, the pedestrian precinct dominated by a police presence, reminding any unwanted visitors or over-enthusiastic fans that they were under the watch of the local constabulary. I thought I’d take in a cup of coffee and some warming homemade soup. Before a match on a previous visit I’d snuggled into a corner at Bellissimo! “Passionate about food”, boasted this sweet little Italian coffee shop, and I recalled its co-operative response to my query for a wifi connection. My bother’s house had no internet connection, the Lancashire Library wifi was woefully weak and unreliable, and I needed a cyber update. But there was no passionate welcome here today. Police warnings had maybe over-alerted the local traders to the invading and unsettling arrival of City fans. “Fully booked” I was told as I eyed up a couple of empty tables in far from overcrowded corners. I’d have to catch up on the cyberlinks later.

Walking to Turf Moor from the centre is a ten-minute tour of ambition and decline, with hints of recovery and renaissance. On the wall of The Mall, the avenue that bisects the pedestrianised shopping area in the centre, Burnley Football Club’s crest and slogan – Pretiumque et causa laboris, the prize and the cause of our labour – overlooks a down-at-heel perfume shop and as you leave the mall you’re confronted by Simply delicious, a gaudy pink and white stall specialising in candy floss and doughnuts. All a world away from the Harvey Nichols and superstores of Manchester. But the best-dressed young man in town wasn’t a Manchester fan; it was the well-fed looking white-skinned smoothie manning the UKIP stall at the heart of the precinct. There was no claret and blue here of the homefans, just the UKIP pledges: lower taxes, better education, controlled migration, plus a populist pitch to protect the NHS.  And as I made my way to Turf Moor, passing the Yorkshire Street Aqueduct, carrier of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal since 1797 when it was the largest canal embankment in Britain, the terrain got seedier and poorer, the pubs and the clubs less welcoming to the visiting supporters. Even at the Burnley Miners it was now Home Fans Only, since some fans had started a fracas after a Burnley-Sheffield Wednesday game just over a year ago.  

There are no miners in Burnley any more, and though away fans streamed downhill from Manchester Road station, very few railway workers; though Burnley once had five stations: Burnley Central, Burnley Barrack’s, Rosegrove, Hapton, as well as Manchester Road. Now there aren’t even direct trains from Manchester, though for some years the promise of the re-opening of the Todmorden Curve, re-establishing the direct line, has suggested another potential lifesaver for Burnley as a low-priced housing option for commuters to the city. But just two of those five stations remain in use, Manchester Road and Burnley Central. And they don’t do a lot for Burnley’s civic pride when the Mancunians and Londoners come to town for the football. English novelist E.M. Forster called railway termini “our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine”. Escaping Burnley residents over the years may agree, though as arrival points the two surviving stations may guarantee a little of the unknown but nothing remotely glorious. 

But since 1882 Burnley has had its football club, and provided the champions of England twice, in 1921 and 1960. One of the 12 original members of the Football League, the club still plays at Turf Moor, one of just a very few of the oldest English professional clubs that can lay claim to such a record of spatial continuity. And so the returnee fans walk themselves back into history at every home game, mixing nostalgia with anticipation, among the 21,216 who would be passing through the turnstiles to experience the thrill of the game and the frisson of local rivalry. Burnley had last beaten Manchester City in 1974, and even more significantly, on a Tuesday evening in April 1960 had travelled to City’s home ground Maine Road and via a 2-1 victory secured the First Division League Championship. I wasn’t allowed to go to that game and was kicking about my Frido football in the front fields, to where neighbours and friends relayed snippets of hope and eventual victory from radio reports.

The club hasn’t always played in claret and blue. In 1910 Burnley copied Aston Villa’s colours, superstitiously believing that wearing the top club’s colours could transform their own performances. Switching from their most recent green seemed to work. Burnley won the FA Cup at Crystal Palace in 1914, and the First Division Championship in 1921.  Post-World War Two Cup Final appearances, and the second championship won in 1960, kept the team in the public eye.

Many current fans though do not live in the town. The club records on season-ticket holders could provide a revealing picture of residential distribution. But if the club could give some of us something to talk about when we left for colleges and universities, and met people of different class, colour, and culture, many of us never came back. But in its football Burnley had style and a charm, it was a classy underdog, spotting, raising and selling on football talent. At one match in Southampton some years ago I met a Londoner from Wimbledon who followed Burnley all his adult life, transformed as he was by one match that Burnley lost, to Tottenam Hotspur in 1962, in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. His father encouraged him to support the underdog, though only a couple of years earlier Burnley had won the First Division championship, and a couple of months before succumbing to Spurs had been widely expected to emulate the London side by winning the double of the league title and the FA Cup. The Wimbledon man became a fan for life, getting to as many as he possibly could of the club’s away fixtures in the south of England. Alistair Campbell, spin doctor supreme, is perhaps Burnley’s best-known fan; he’s not from Burnley though. He’s a Yorkshireman, born in Keighley. But it’s as if the ruggedness of Burnley’s industrial setting combined with the attractiveness of its 1960s teams lured him over to Pennine Lancashire away from the clutches and charms of the likes of Leeds United.

The 1-0 win over Manchester City was a highlight for the local and returning fans alike. After the intoxicating win, Burnley’s next game was at Southampton, where there was no spare seat visible in the visiting fan’s corner of the stadium. Coincidentally, Wimbledon man was sat behind me, and I recalled our earlier encounter a few years before; “I’ve met a lot of people on trains” he said, when I was looking to pin down the precise context of our first encounter. I’d lunched with a former colleague who was actually born and schooled in Bolton, and works now in Plymouth. At the game itself, Burnley missed its good chances, faded in the second half, and the team began to look jaded, with home games around the corner against Arsenal and Tottenham.  “We’ll always have City”, those of us at Turf Moor the previous weekend can always say, that was ours, one of football’s great Casablanca moments. There’s something arresting and attractive about the vicissitudes of life as a fan of the underdog. It’s what keeps the Burnley expatriates going, pulling out those claret and blue identifiers wherever and whenever their diasporic diaries permit.