On the Cusp

Before the game things were by no means certain; the worst could happen, Derby could win all five remaining games and Burnley could somehow contrive to lose all five. The cruellest things can happen in this game. There were plenty of folk on the messageboards playing around with the possible points totals and comparing Derby and Burnley’s final games. Yet how could we not fall victim to conjecture and imagination? The point that was salvaged with just four minutes remaining at Watford and the three points gleaned at Barnsley; these were things that made us almost sure that the finishing line was within one outstretched hand. And not only that, but Leicester’s defeat opened up the absurd possibility that even first place was not impossible. You wondered too what the players were thinking the night before. The day that lay ahead of them might make them heroes at Burnley Football Club, with their names in the history books forever.

Scott Arfield relaxing with his guitar?

Scott Arfield might well have been relaxing with his guitar. Michael Kightly talked about how he felt he was playing better. He still wasn’t satisfied; still felt he wasn’t at his best. Playing was all about confidence, he said. It’s simple, he added, the more confident you are, the better you play. Junior Stanislas was aware that he would be looking for a new contract at the end of the season but for now he was concentrating on the matter in hand, winning and helping the team. He would like to stay. He was settled. He was happy in the area with his young family. But it begged the age-old question; what happens to the fringe players at the end of a season like this. They have helped bring about something special but they face the axe if promotion is won and the manager decides he must release players in order to attract new ones. This is a player good enough to find a contract elsewhere but he could be forgiven for worrying that he is dispensable. Where’s the security in that when you have toddler twins to clothe and feed?  David Edgar at the end of the Watford game stood and looked at the cheering Burnley fans for an age. I’m sure I saw the question in his face; will I be here next season? Triumph and reward for some might be bittersweet for others.

The inevitable comparisons appeared with triumphant teams of previous seasons. Comments such as, ‘This is the best Burnley team I have seen,’ were common. But perhaps the most intriguing was the mention of the team of 1947; the team that lost the Cup Final at Wembley on a sweltering day, but won promotion to Division One. It was the team of Alan Brown and Harry Potts with the nigh-on impregnable iron-curtain defence. It was a team that could win a game handsomely but if during such a game a goal was conceded, long inquests were held and even arguments, not at the manner of the win, but how and why just one single goal had been given away. The thought occurred that Alan Brown and Sean Dyche would have got on well, both firmly believing in the team, the group with a one for all and all for one mentality. If Harry Potts was D’Artagnan back then, then maybe this season it has been Big Sam. Didn’t Sean Dyche say something quite profound that was wasn’t really picked up on at the time in an interview; that his players must buy into the group mentality, if not they must be moved on. Quite simply they must be willing to fit in.

So many people were agreed. This was a season no-one wanted to end. ‘This is the best season ever, even better than ‘72/73,’ said one guy coming down the stairs after the last gasp equaliser at Watford. But yet, the little warnings voices would not go away. Nothing was settled. Nothing was certain. Be it horseracing or athletics there have been plenty of instances when the leader of the field with the winning line so close, have fallen or pulled up.

So: at Turf Moor, in Burnley, in places the length and breadth of the country, or far away overseas, no-one was taking anything for granted. The word ‘if’ was the word of the moment, and usually in capital letters. There was still trepidation mixed with anxiety. ‘Can we really do it?’ the question most often heard.   

Two days before the game I’d wandered around the 1914 FA Cup exhibition at Towneley Hall. Communing with history you might say, wondering what thoughts went through those players’ heads on the morning of the game. They wouldn’t have been about money, that’s for sure. 100 years separates that team, from todays. But wouldn’t both teams have been thinking about the possible achievement in front of them, the sheer wonder of it along with the pride and triumph. 100 years ago the season had begun with nothing special in prospect, so what they had done was immense. Today’s team began in much the same way, with the smallest this, the smallest that, so that the final victory in prospect was just the equal of the team of 100 years ago. And both teams had a manager that uncompromisingly drove them on, John Haworth back in 1914, Sean Dyche today.

The underdogs: both teams, unfashionable, under-estimated, the little team from the little northern town that some southern folk still think is the back of beyond, that some still think is all mill chimneys and cobbled streets, cloth caps and whippets. The common bond: both were teams that no-one expected much of at the beginning of the season.

The comparisons could go on, with the lists of similarities and the lists of differences, the boots, the footballs, the shirts, the haircuts, and the money. But Sean Dyche said something fascinating about handling today’s players, that each one is a sort of mini-company, each with its own individual needs, with their agents and lawyers and complicated contracts. Handling players today is so hugely different but once on that green grass it all boils down to the same thing, winning. Tommy Boyle might recognise that bit but the rest he might just shake his head with both wonder and bewilderment.

Towneley was vibrant, the grassy areas newly cut, the smell of the mown grass filling the air; families strolled around, children played; the Stables restaurant was full. The day was fine and warm. In the exhibition hall there were all manner of things, the medals, the replica FA Cup, newspapers, programmes, photographs, postcards, framed pictures, actual shirts, menus and tickets; an absolute treasure trove of exhibits, the prize perhaps being the congratulatory letter from His Majesty the King,  and everything all beautifully lit and put together. Down the bottom end was the hugely enlarged almost life size photograph of the team. Slowly you walked towards it, but before it you came to the life-sized figure of goal-scorer Bert Freeman. Nor was he a stripling, it could have been Sam Vokes such was the resemblance. 100 years ago, then and now, history, tradition; this is a club where there is so much of it, so much to be proud of, identify with and feel part of. This has been a season where there really has been what Sean Dyche has advocated all season, a one-club mentality. In 1914 the town of Burnley was well and truly placed on the map; the whole town was united in its pride. It was repeated in 1921, ’47, ’60, and in all the subsequent occasions of triumph that followed, the last one being 2009.

Wandering round the Long Gallery I wondered if 2014 would be the next, exactly 100 years since the first. The ghosts of Bert Freeman, Billy Nesbitt, Tommy Boyle and all the rest would surely look down and be as proud as the rest of us.

 I looked with especial wistfulness at the images of Billy Nesbitt, ‘Little’ Billy Nesbitt who weighed just seven and a half stones and was profoundly deaf. He was from Todmorden so there was the link between us. On a train to London to see the Cup Final in 1962 I met him, though I didn’t realise who he was at the time. He would have been 70. He must have heard us talking about the game because he spoke to us and said he’d once played in a Cup Final and pulling back his jacket he showed us a medal he wore on a chain that hung from his waistcoat. But Ed and I were only 15 and in what must have seemed to him to have been rude indifference, took barely any notice. A few moments polite acknowledgement and that was it. We never chatted to him or asked him questions about his day playing for Burnley. He must have been so proud travelling down and yet we as good as ignored him. To us he was just an old man. And now I’m nearly 70 and it embarrasses me still, to think about it.

At the Turf it was Ladies Day. I went to Beverley races one Ladies’ Day and vowed never to go again. Never have so many drunk so much, fallen over so much, been carried out so much and behaved so outrageously. Some of the horses refused to go to the finishing line. At the Turf it’s the day that all the lasses and mums get dolled up and set out for one thing only – to have a good time. Last year we caught fleeting glimpses of them through the large windows. Some of them ventured out into the seating areas in their frillies and fineries. You wonder if some of the young ‘uns think they might snag a footballer if any of them are ‘on duty’ guesting in there.  Alastair Campbell was once a celebrity guest and said he’d never had his bottom felt so much. It was difficult to tell whether he was shocked or delighted.

The Middlesbrough manager, Aitor Karanka was complimentary about Burnley. ‘Every team can learn from Burnley. ‘The coach has made a very good team. I don’t want to say Burnley don’t have good players but I think they are the best in the league as a team.’ Sean Dyche lauded his players again. ‘They have been relentless in their nature.’

We were reminded too of the bell that hangs in one of the main corridors of the club in a glass cabinet. It was locked in there never to be rung until Burnley were in the Premier League again. It was Jimmy McIlroy and then manager Eddie Howe who locked it in. Later in the week supporter Tony Scholes bumped into Jimmy in Tesco and mentioned the bell.

‘I think I’ll have to live another 80 years before I hear that bell ring,’ said Jimmy laughing. We probably all thought the same.

Andy Lochhead has lived in Burnley for decades. He has seen so many managers come and go. He played for several at Burnley, Leicester, Aston Villa and Oldham Athletic. He is still a Burnley matchday host and knows his football inside out. He could still give master-classes on how to attack and head a football.

Andy was pinching himself still unsure as to the reality of what he was seeing. One of Burnley’s greatest ever centre-forwards during the 60s, a superb header of the ball with no little skill in his feet, his partnership with Willie Irvine was one of the best seen at the club. He saw a whole town that was buoyant, united with the club, with a manager that in less than two seasons had cracked the problem of aligning everybody. Everybody was living the dream, Lochhead said; what was happening was no fluke and the manager was the man who had done it. People had bought into everything he had said, he was immaculate on the touchline, but with the right passion that everyone wanted to see in a manager.

‘He was a manager I could have played for, no nonsense, straight talking, telling his players what he wants them to do and always expecting hard work. He has done a good job with existing players. You only have to look at the transformation of Sam Vokes to appreciate that. There are plenty of others who have improved under his watch. He keeps his messages to his players simple. You can get bogged down with information if you are bombarded with it. All you want to do is your job and do it well.’

Kick-off was at 3.07 for this game in memory of the 96 spectators who lost their lives at Hillsborough. It was the 25th anniversary. 25 years down the line, the families of those who died or were injured were still fighting for truth and justice.

And at 3.07 Burnley Football Club, if all went well, was just one game and 90 minutes away from football glory and an achievement that would rate as one of the greatest ever; that could elevate them in the opinion of so many people to team of the year and Sean Dyche to manager of the year. 

‘Clarets are almost there!’ headlined the Burnley Express.

And then Middlesbrough came. And won. And everything was back on hold. And all of us filed out wondering how on earth we had lost that game.