When the Football League was formed in 1888 it consisted of 12 clubs. Five were from the Midlands and seven from the North-West in the county of Lancashire. Burnley were one of the original teams, and are one of only four of them who are currently in the top flight of English football, the others being Everton, Stoke and West Brom. Without counting I suspect that Lancashire houses more football league clubs than any other county, at least it did when I was growing up. Now, many teams that were considered to be in that county have a Greater Manchester address. Burnley was also one of the answers in a pub quiz I participated in where the question was asked, “Name the five football clubs who have finished as champions in all four divisions of English football.” The answer is at the end of this preview.
As I began taking an interest in football in the late 1950s, Burnley were a major force in England and were champions of Division One (that is equivalent to the modern day Premier League) in 1959-60, and reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup the following season. In 1961-62, they were runners-up in the league (to Ipswich), and lost in the FA Cup final to Tottenham. It just goes to show how the balance of power has shifted at the top in football when you consider that the top eight clubs in order that season were Ipswich, Burnley, Tottenham, Everton, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, and then West Ham. Arsenal were mid-table, the two Manchester clubs were in the bottom half, and Chelsea finished bottom and were relegated. Liverpool won the Division 2 title that season.
I’ve never been to Burnley, although I have a mental image of what the town might look like. I can remember many games against the Clarets over the years and two have so far been included in my favourite games series, the 1964 FA Cup quarter final victory over them, and the 5-0 demolition early on in the 1968-69 season. One game I can remember clearly took place at Upton Park on 6 October 1973. It was not a favourite game by any means; my recollection is based solely on the fact that I got engaged to be married that weekend.
We went into that game next to bottom in the table, not having won any of our first nine league games. Burnley were third from top, having only lost one of their opening nine games. They beat us 1-0 that day and went on to finish sixth. Our non-winning run continued for another fortnight until we won our first game of the season at the 12th attempt, 1-0 at Coventry. We continued with our miserable run in the league for a further six games without winning, before our second victory in the 19th game (2-1 v Manchester City), which was our first home win of the season.
Support was falling at the time, and only just over 16,000 were at Upton Park when we lost at home to Stoke on the Saturday before Christmas when we fell to the bottom of the table. But we completed a remarkable escape with a ten game unbeaten run, mainly inspired by our new captain, Billy Bonds, playing in midfield at the time. The return fixture at Turf Moor was one of the games in that unbeaten run, and a Graham Paddon goal helped us to a 1-1 draw. Improved performances and results led to bigger crowds in the second half of that season with several over 30,000, and a season high of over 38,000 when we defeated Leeds, the eventual champions, 3-1 in March.
After then Burnley went into a slow decline culminating in the final game of the 1986-87 season (just 30 years ago) when they needed to win the last game of the season to remain in the Football League and not be relegated to the Conference (now the Vanarama). They duly beat Leyton Orient and were also saved by Lincoln City, who were then automatically relegated when losing their final game. In the season just ended of course, Leyton Orient have been relegated from the Football League and Lincoln City have won promotion as Vanarama champions.
Burnley began to ascend again from that time, and in the last few years have yo-yoed between the Championship and the Premier League. This is their third time since 2009 in the top flight, with 2009-10 and 2014-15 being stays of one season only. But they have been more successful this time, and have avoided relegation despite being one of the favourites to go down at the beginning of the season. They currently sit in 15th place on 40 points with just the one game left. We are 12th on 42, so defeat would mean that they overtake us.
As 11th are playing 10th (Leicester v Bournemouth), the highest we can possibly finish is 11th, and we are guaranteed at least 12th if we win. Looking at the fixtures of the teams below us, I would predict that as long as we don’t lose to Burnley we will remain in 12th place. But this won’t be an easy game for us. Burnley have a magnificent home record where they have attained 33 of their 40 points this season with 10 wins and 3 draws, and they have lost just 5 times. Their defeats came at the hands of Swansea on the opening day of the season, and then to 4 of the sides currently in the top six, the two North London clubs and the two Manchester teams. Away from home they have only won once (at Palace), but at home they are a different proposition, and we will do well to get something out of the game there, especially considering the performance last Sunday, and our increasingly lengthy injury list.
Considering their illustrious past, our head to head record against Burnley is a surprisingly positive one, and we’ve won slightly more games than we’ve lost. That is mainly as a result of more recent history, and since that 1973 defeat that I referred to earlier, we have played them 24 times in league and cup matches, winning 16, drawing 4, and losing just 4. They haven’t beaten us since December 2011 when Sam Vokes scored the winner to complete a 2-1 comeback win for them. Sam Vokes is still there and is their leading goalscorer this season.
Predicting the outcome of final day games of the season with nothing (except prize money and final league position) to play for is tricky. You are never quite sure how many players are already on the beach. With many factors going against us it is hard to see a win, but I reckon a score draw is the likely outcome of the claret and blue derby that finishes our season.
(Pub quiz answer – Portsmouth, Wolves, Sheffield United, Preston.)