Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 January 2020

The sporting read: Blackburn-Burnley rivalry — enmity that runs deeper than simple geography

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND // It’s a filthy morning as rain sweeps into Darwen from the East Lancashire moors. The patrons of the Golden Cup public house are not taking refuge within, but are standing outside in the rain, scrutinised by a large police presence, backed up by horses, vans and dogs, which forms a barrier to stop them leaving. Above, the whirring blades of a police helicopter indicate that this is no normal Saturday morning in the town Mahatma Gandhi visited in peace in 1931.

The next visitors, who are due to exit the M65 motorway in a fleet of 60 coaches and buses, do not come in peace. The huge convoy is carrying 4,800 Burnley fans eight miles for England’s oldest derby match, first played in 1888.

Today, Blackburn Rovers will host their greatest foes in a match in the Championship, English football’s second tier.

The buses swing off the motorway in the half-light of the early hours and turn right towards Ewood Park, the home of Blackburn. The roads have been cleared of home fans, the patrons of the Golden Cup held back, but they erupt into a sea of contorted faces as the first of the Burnley buses passes in front of them.

Young men, few wearing Blackburn’s colours, scream abuse as the buses whizz past. The scenes are reminiscent of the 1982 Miners’ Strike, when police, usually in England’s north, kept rival factions apart.

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“Scum!” chant the Blackburn fans. “We hate Burnley!” One lets off a blue smoke bomb, which adds to the febrile atmosphere. They sing: “Your mum’s your dad; your dad’s your mum. You’re interbred, you Burnley scum” and “You’re just a small town in Yorkshire.”

Burnley fans respond by banging their bus windows, by making offensive gestures. You can see that they’re all singing, but it’s an odd sight seeing a bus full of people singing but not being able to hear anything bar bangs on the windows. Some Burnley fans find a solution, opening the back windows of their buses to scream direct abuse at their foes. The police have it all well in hand.

“All the Burnley fans are on those buses,” explains an officer. “It helps us keep control and to keep the fans apart. The early kick off helps, too. Less time for fans to drink.”

While fans of England’s biggest clubs can make their own way to games against their deadliest rivals, three games are restricted to away fans being escorted in by bus in an unpopular (with fans), comprehensive — and expensive — “bubble” operation. Cardiff v Swansea, who don’t play in the same division, would be the other, along with the cross-border skirmish between Wrexham of Wales and Chester of England in England’s fifth tier.

Burnley (population 89,000) and Blackburn (115,000) are working class football towns. The textile mills which turned the wheels of the industrial revolution and made these towns prosperous have long gone, leaving a post industrial decline which has had a corrosive effect on the social and economic fortunes of both.

European money has been invested in the region as it tries to shed the cloth cap, Hovis bread commercial image so often reinforced by visiting journalists, but the 1,000 page Rough Guide to England doesn’t find space for even the merest mention of either town.

At least The Beatles were more forthcoming, name checking Blackburn in A Day In The Life, even it was only for having a reported 4,000 holes, whether these were in the roads as John Lennon later explained, or in its inhabitants’ arms, as Fab Four folklorists claim.

As the buses carrying the last of the 4,723 Burnley supporters turn into a street called ‘Top O’th Croft’ this writer is subjected to sustained abuse in the assumption he is a Blackburn fan.

A skinheaded man, face contorted by anger, pokes his head through a small window from his mode of transport and screams: “Get a bath”. There’s further abuse from fans of both sexes and all ages, before their transport is parked behind the 8,000 seat Darwen End and the fans click through the turnstiles in the damp air. Their allocation has been restricted, allowing them to place their flags, including one stating “Ole, Ole, Ole, Andre!” in honour of crowd favourite Andre Grey, in the empty seats at the front. The police operation has been a success so far.

Despite their economic hardships, both clubs (and four-tier Accrington Stanley located between the pair) have enjoyed varying degrees of success in recent decades. With the millions from steel magnet Jack Walker, Blackburn embarked on a run in the early ‘90s which saw them promoted to the Premier League, a league they won in 1994/95. Ewood Park was transformed from an archetypal northern English football ground hemmed in by terraced houses, to a modern top-flight stadium with 30,000 seats.

The terraces closest to the ground were bought and demolished, but Ewood is still surrounded by terraced housing and low level factories, its brilliant white steelwork (supplied by Jack’s contacts, you’d assume) dominates the southern end of the town, an incongruous giant space ship in its retro northern setting, one improved by the rich autumnal shades in the trees overlooking the Riverside stand.

Both clubs have a rich pedigree stretching back 125 years.

Blackburn were formed in 1875, seven years before Burnley. When the clubs first met in a friendly, Blackburn won 10-0 and by the time the Football League was formed in 1888, they had won the FA Cup three times. When Burnley finally beat Blackburn for the first time, in the Lancashire Cup final of 1890, their victorious players were carried back through the town on a wagonette. They were proclaimed best team in Lancashire — which to the locals was a synonym for the best team in the world.

The enmity flourished. A game between the two clubs at the end of the 19th century had to be stopped because of crowd violence. Though the rivalry between the clubs defies a rational, geographical explanation, and has waxed and waned over the decades. Blackburn could just have easily crossed swords with Preston North End to the west and Bolton Wanderers to the south.

For Burnley the choice was simple. With the neighbouring county of Yorkshire to east and the Pennine hills to the north and south, they had to direct their invective squarely west towards Blackburn.

Both were founder members of the Football League and both have been champions of England, Burnley as recently as 1960. The Clarets played in the top division until 1976, before they slid down the divisions and almost out of the Football League in 1987. Blackburn often played in a lower league than Burnley and for a time the two clubs co-existed, even attracting the same fans, until the climate underwent a sharp change in the 70s.

In 1991, Rovers were moving away from struggling Burnley, but the enmity remained and someone hired an aeroplane trailing the message: “U R Stayin down 4 ever, luv Rovers — ha, ha, ha,” which flew over Turf Moor as Burnley struggled to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Torquay United in the second leg of the fourth division play-offs semi-final.

Most Burnley fans think that someone was the former Blackburn striker Simon Garner. Garner denies this in his autobiography, but his status as a Blackburn idol means he’s loathed in Burnley anyway.

Garner has never been popular with Burnley fans, not even when he met them on the inside following a 1996 stretch for contempt of court during divorce proceedings. He served his four-week sentence at Kirkham open prison in Lancashire. “It wasn’t far from Blackburn and there was a split in the prison between Blackburn and Burnley fans,” Garner said. “Luckily I had Blackburn fans to look after me. I was looked after by people who the Burnley fans knew were not to be messed with.”

As the game kicks off, a crowd of only 19,897 means there are still 10,000 empty seats inside Ewood Park. Blackburn’s average attendances slipped from 25,428 in 2010 to under 15,000 when they were relegated from the Premier League in 2012. Burnley have twice been promoted to the Premier League since 2009 and while they were relegated immediately both times, they are now the better supported of the two clubs. The figures are influenced by the current league form and adversity which Rovers have faced since being taken over by an Indian consortium in 2010.

Blackburn have won only two of 13 league games this season and sit 18th, while Burnley’s 1-0 victory at Ewood was their seventh league win and lifted them to third in the table, level on points with fellow relegated side Hull City in second.

Sean Dyche’s side may have sold their best players Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, but they remain a good bet for an immediate return to the top flight. They have retained players like Scott Arfield, whose superb goal was the difference between the two sides on Saturday. Gary Bowyer, the Blackburn manager, called it a “sucker punch”.

Blackburn had their chances in an entertaining game, the best from Tom Lawrence, one of six former Manchester United youngsters on the pitch for the two sides at kick off.

Promotion is not on the agenda for a Blackburn side who are still under a transfer embargo. They’ve held onto their best player, striker Jordan Rhodes, but fans are expecting another tough season. Despite their team losing, they sing ‘One Jack Walker!’ defiantly in honour of the man who made their dreams come true. They glory in the past, as Burnley fans had to do for so long, because the present is less edifying.

The Blackburn fans are mostly long gone by the time their Burnley opposites are escorted back out of the ground, onto the buses for the escorted return east to Burnley, where they can finally relax and celebrate.


Updated: October 25, 2015 04:00 AM