Thursday, 11 May 2017

Who can remember the first flyby at the football match back in 1991?

An old piece that still brings a chuckle...

‘A masterpiece in one-upmanship.’ 

Burnley 1 Torquay United 0

If you reside more than, say, 10 miles from either town, it is unlikely that the intense and embittered rivalry between fellow Lancastrian Football League founder members Blackburn Rovers and Burnley will have touched you.

Rangers – Celtic, United – City, Liverpool – Everton, Madrid – Barca: Everyone who holds football close to their heart knows of the traditional enmity between certain clubs and their supporters.

But the people of the two East Lancashire one-time cotton mill towns will tell you that, while less well-documented, the rancour between their respective camps is as fierce, tribal and at times downright nasty as any other.

Hoary tales of long-bygone eras purport to pinpoint the origins – was it a game in the 1890’s when Blackburn fans were said to have stoned the horse-drawn carriage that was transporting the visitors, who were said to have played roughly, back to the town’s railway station a few miles from Ewood Park?

Or was it the time the Blackburn players with the exception of their keeper rather tamely deserted the pitch protesting that sub-zero conditions were inhuman for continued play? The Rovers goalkeeper eventually forced an abandonment by repeatedly claiming successfully for offside, they say!

Certainly, by the 1960’s, relationships between the two camps had become strained.
Rovers had denied the Clarets a likely “double” in 1960 when in an FA Cup 6th Round tie at Turf Moor watched by more than 51,000 Red Rose men they came back from three down to force a replay, which they won 2-0 against the First Division Champions elect.

As the swinging sixties dawned, football was often a brutal spectacle and few games produced more controversy and sendings-off than the East Lancashire hotpots which took place in England’s top division.

Just as England were preparing to lift the World Cup in 1966, Blackburn slipped dismally out of the highest echelon, not to return there for another 26 years when hometown boy made good Jack Walker put his virtually limitless funds at the club’s disposal. Their fortunes were to get considerably worse before they got better with relegation to the Third Division for the first time in their history until Gordon Lee revived the ailing club in 1974-75.

Burnley were relegated to the old Division Two five years after Rovers, got promoted back in 1973 but in 1976,  as Viv Richards announced himself to the British public and Elton and Kiki vowed not to break one another’s hearts, the proud Clarets lost their top division status and have never won it back again since.

The clubs had met in a friendly in 1973, at the height of the hooligan culture boom, which saw rioting along the unsegregated Riverside terraces at Ewood which supporters were free to amble down before choosing which goal they would stand massed behind for any particular half. Ewood was promptly segregated from that day on with visiting fans put under the crumbling Darwen End roof.

The one consolation which fans, lamenting the loss of past glories, had to console themselves with during that unforgettably scorching 76 summer was the prospect of two league meetings between the teams for the first time in more than a decade.
For three seasons these uncompromising clashes took place at Christmas and Easter, often before above-average divisional crowds of 20,000 plus, many of them hell-bent on “aggro” and generally misbehaving.

Hostilities ended abruptly as Rovers again fell into the Third tier in 1979 but resumed infamously in 1979-80. Rovers had bounced straight back under Howard Kendall as Burnley found themselves out of the top two leagues for the first time in their illustrious history, then won their way back as Third Division champions under Brian Miller in 1982.

Rovers won the 1982 Boxing Day game at Turf Moor with the home side’s Bete Noire Simon Garner scoring the winner. There was rioting and fighting as Blackburn fans, whose section of the ground was filled early on, sneaked into the home sections only to reveal their leanings as Garner’s early winner found the net.

But those shenanigans were nothing compared to the events at Ewood on Easter Monday, 4 April 1983. Burnley arrived in serious relegation danger and with a sizeable following. It did nothing to lighten their mood when Rovers took the lead from a penalty – Garner inevitably the scorer – in the first half.

After the break, with fires already sporadically breaking out – a local newspaper had perhaps ill-advisedly issued a big match special edition to give away – the anguished Burnley hordes found it too much to bear when Rovers were awarded another spot-kick at the end they were gathered behind.

Garner missed his first effort but was given a second chance because of his encroachment and duly netted. That was the signal for the less rational but more agile Burnley supporters to begin to climb up the ancient rusting frame of the stand. Insanely carrying their ad-hoc torches, they set fire to parts of the roof and pilled huge pieces down, some of which were hurled at the home fans.

With disorder and madness clearly in the air, the entire and considerable ranks of the Lancashire Constabulary stationed around the ground and outside swiftly convened outside the ground on Nuttall Street and decided, unwisely in many views, on a baton charge to strike a modicum of fear into those leading the uprising.

The exit gates were opened and a phalanx of shielded officers sprinted in, some, it was claimed striking indiscriminately at young, old, females and completely innocent male fans as their actions eventually panicked even the wildest travelling Clarets to calm down – all of course to the huge delight of the Blackburn fans who were egging the law on with every step and every bringing-down of their batons onto a Burnley bonce, deserved or otherwise.

Perhaps mercifully, that was to be the last real meeting, save a couple of pre-season tournaments, between the sides until, 2000 by which time stadium alterations, policing and perhaps even the attitudes of people attending football matches were a little more sophisticated, peaceful and safe.

But in 1991, any suggestion that the rivalry was long-forgotten was put emphatically to bed as a trio of Rovers fans pulled off a stroke that put the banter between the clubs into the national spotlight and is still talked about today as a masterpiece in one-upmanship.

Blackburn fan Jim Wilkinson explains: “During the 1980’s neither side was enjoying its finest hours but Rovers, under the excellent stewardship of then-chairman Bill Fox, had stabilised their situation rather better.

“From 1980 we had been a well-established Second Division side, missing out on goal difference on going up to the top league under Howard Kendall and generally having a shout for part of most seasons under his successor Bob Saxton.

“For Burnley, things had seldom been worse. They were relegated to Division Four in 85 and only avoided relegation to the Conference on the last day of the 86-87 season. We had a loyal five or six thousand but their gates had dropped below 2,000 on many an occasion – unthinkable, really.

“In 1986-87 the Play-Offs were introduced but we were far from concerned about them that year as we just about staved off relegation, although we did win the Full Members’ Cup at Wembley under Don Mackay, who had just replaced Saxton and pulled off one of the greatest coups ever by signing Colin Hendry, an utter talisman for Rovers in two spells over the next decade.

“So even in a bad season we had something to shout about – a cup win at Wembley, albeit a Mickey Mouse one, and Burnley almost going into the non-league!

“The following season Mackay brought in Steve Archibald and we had a good, good side – one of the best I ever saw at Ewood with Scott Sellars, Chris Price, Hendry, Simon Garner in his prime – we should really have gone up automatically.

“Things went a bit awry when Mackay brought Ossy Ardiles in loan. Don’t get me wrong, it was a brilliant, creative bit of management – a World Cup winner signing for Blackburn, come on? But Ardiles got nobbled in his first game and that seemed to knock the stuffing out of us.

“We stumbled to the end of the season and just about made the Play-Offs – courtesy of a 4-1 win at Millwall, whose players had patently been over-celebrating their own automatic promotion sealed a week earlier.

“We ended up playing Chelsea. Third bottom in the First Division – remember that was how it worked then – and in truth, they completely outclassed us both games, 2-0 at Ewood, 4-1 down there.

“That was the first time Burnley fans had had something to cheer them up from our end for years and they went to town! One lad I knew, who worked for a printers, had some spoof invitation cards made up.

“They said: “You are invited to Blackburn’s Not-Going-Up Party. Mr Elvis Costello will entertain guests by singing: “I Do’t Want to Go to Chelsea.

“It was all beautifully done in a fancy font with a coloured border and gold embossed edges. It rankled, but you had to give them their due they had waited a long time to have a pop and they made the most of it.

“Unbelievably, next season we made the Play-Offs again. Mackay had shipped Archibald and Ardiles out but somehow managed to get the likes of Garner and Sellars to do even better and he got an annus mirabilis out of Howard Gayle, a player who had been everywhere without really fulfilling his potential, but he had a sensational spell at Ewood.

“We played Watford in a two-legged semi and got through on an away goal after two draws. The finals weren’t at Wembley then, it was two-legged home and away again.

“We pulverised Palace at Ewood – we were two up but Howard missed a penalty to complete his hat-trick. Eddie McGoldrick made it 2-1 but Garner got another late on so we were so confident this was it, our time had come.

“But Palace were a good side – Wright and Bright, remember. We went to Selhurst Park in major good spirits but it all fell apart. We hadn’t failed to score for months but never looked like scoring on the day.

“The only hope was holding out. But referee George Courtney gave them a dodgy pen just after half-time and you just knew we were going to blow it.

“Even players 100 yards away, you could see the colour had drained from their faces. Terry Gennoe was a brilliant keeper but he was dropping balls he would have caught with one hand as a rule, like a bloke trying to pick a live fish up.

“We lost 3-0 in the most horrible manner – extra-time, their fans virtually surrounding the touchline ready to run on and all around on our end, blokes you had grown up with in tears as they realised that was it, gone, the biggest chance ever since 66 to get back crushed.

“I’d been going since I was 7 or 8 and I came off that ground convinced I’d never see my team play at Highbury, Anfield or Old Trafford except in a cup, I was 29 and just thought, that’s it, it’s Walsall or Barnsley or Shrewsbury or worse forever. And everywhere there were blokes twice my age saying they couldn’t face going again, I knew just how they felt.”

Wilkinson’s dark mood and that of his fellow enthusiasts was not going to be rued as a missed opportunity by the gleeful populace of the town 10 miles down the M65.

“Again, the fancy cards were circulated – bigger, better and funnier, all ‘You are invited to the Palace’ and so on. I probably still have a couple somewhere.

“You couldn’t blame the Burnley fans. In places between the towns like Accrington, Oswaldtwistle, Rishton, Great Harwood, Clitheroe the split was almost exactly 50-50. 
You worked together, drank together, went to the shop and met them.

“Of course a lot of it’s friendly but it has to be said, you hate them and they hate you.
If your team wins, and they win, on the same day, that’s OK.  But a really good day is you win, they lose – that’s the way it is.

“It’s all right people saying you should want all the local clubs to do well, but it’s bollocks. You want your team top of the pile and their lot bottom. Rivalry is unavoidable. You don’t expect Celtic fans to say, well, if we don’t win the League, we hope it’s our close friends and neighbours Rangers who triumph.

“They went to town on us, I don’t blame them, and we couldn’t do anything but sit there and take it.

“The next year, with a crap side really, we were in the Play-Offs again – third time on the bounce! But we got beat both legs in the semi by Swindon and to be honest nobody expected any different.

“I think even the Burnley fans had got tired of dogging us, we were so predictable.. I can’t particularly remember the invites coming out, I’m sure they did but I was past bothering.”

The jibes and taunts from the failed play-off campaigns still hurt intensely however and in an unlikely conclusion to the 1990-91 season, a fiendish plot was hatched.

Wilkinson: “Mackay had lost the plot by now and we were rubbish, total rubbish that season. We just about avoided relegation in the last couple of games.

“To make things worse, after five pitiful seasons in Division Four, Burnley were showing signs of a revival. They had a decent old season and made the Play-Offs for the first time in their history.”

Burnley faced Torquay United with the first leg at Plainmoor. It was hardly the most daunting of tasks but Burnley contrived to lose 2-0 in Devon and Wilkinson and his pair of cohorts seized their chance.

“From time to time, we had talked about what we could ever do to top their funny cards. If they ever suffered a crushing disappointment, how could we trump them at their own game? We wanted something that wouldn’t be seen by just a few mates of a mate of a mate, but get maximum exposure to them.

“We talked about ads in papers here and there, trying to get some cryptic message in the programme or something. But on the Monday morning before the second leg I got it. I’d seen these planes carrying banners fly over games, mostly congratulatory messages and I rang my mate John P who’s a Rovers fanatic, and he said: “Can it be done?

“Let’s do it then. Bugger what it costs; we may even get it back if we do something really funny. Another pal of mine, Ted Grant, was a real mischief maker and I called him with the idea and he loved it.

“I was sat in my office at The Gas Board at Blackburn having these conversations, I can distinctly remember them. My boss was a Preston fan and a bit of a card so he turned a blind eye.

“Ted said: “This can be done you know, Jim, in fact I know where to go to get it sorted.” And he did. 

“ There was a bit of a risk element because we had virtually decided that it was going to be a banner taunting them about getting beat and not going up, but the fact was they could well have been two up ten minutes in and the impact would be considerably reduced.

“In short, we risked making even bigger prats of ourselves than we were hoping to make of them.

“An elaborate session ensued in which Ted and I had to work out the wording because we’d been in touch with an “Aerial Advertising” firm at Blackpool Airport and the guy Brian said it had to be exactly 36 or less characters, including spaces.

“He was a complete nutter, assured us we weren’t breaking any laws, and we settled on STAYING DOWN 4 EVER LUV ROVERS HA HA HA.”

Grant trailed the plane from the ground on its route from the West Coast over Pendle, taking photographs, but Wilkinson and Pittard stayed out of the way – and the potential firing line.

Wilkinson: “There had been some suggestion we could even go up in it, but no way. Had it to come down anywhere near Burnley for an emergency, we knew we’d be lynched. I even went to another game that night in case it all went wrong. We’d tipped enough people off about it for there to be a sense of expectation but only a couple of Burnley fans I worked with had any clue something was afoot.”

As Burnley failed to reduce their deficit by half-time, the arrival of plane and banner over Turf Moor was perfectly-timed.

Pictures show spectators on the Bee Hole End demonstrating a mixture of befuddlement, rage and amusement at the mocking message.

Wilkinson and his cohorts tuned into radio and TV news channels and it became apparent, as the match finished an inadequate 1-0 to Burnley, that their elaborate practical gag had worked a treat.

Wilkinson: “I went into a pub in Haslingden after watching the Bolton v Bury play-off and a lad came back from Turf Moor.

“He described the plane and said if the Burnley fans found out who did it, they were dead. Me and my pal Paul were almost breaking our pint glasses in our hands trying not to laugh.”

Bizarrely, Rovers favourite Simon Garner was wrongly accredited with playing some part in the prank.

Wilkinson: “That was rubbish. His business partner was asked about it at a fancy Rovers 100 Club function the night after and he made some comments to the press about what a good jape it had been.

“Garner has been implicated by association ever since, to this day some Burnley supporters won’t believe any different.

“That was fine by us – it took any heat off us.”

It cost us £405 but we made it all back having souvenir t-shirts printed and selling them.

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