This is Burnley, a Football Club

Last updated : 02 October 2007 By Richard Oldroyd
It was of course Chico Time at Turf Moor, and it is fair to say that it was not a universal success. I was absent for his pre match efforts, but such was the reaction from the 10,000 or-so crowd at half time that I had to double check that John Bond hadn't entered the arena.

It was not, then, a vociferous minority who made their displeasure clear, but an overwhelming minority. Quite right too, because they had come, as surely most people had, for a football match, not a variety show.

We have to attract young fans. That is a given. And perhaps it is more difficult today than it ever was: it doesn't seem like much has changed since the end of the 90's, when the era of blanket, shiny Premiership coverage was well upon us; but it has at an almost imperceptible pace. The creeping development of 24-hour sports news channels, of dedicated sports supplements in the papers and a subtle shift towards the front pages; their coming may not have really registered, but no doubt their existence makes the Premiership ever more alluring for the young fan.

So therefore, we must work hard and find a way to go about encouraging young fans, that oft-talked about next generation. The club are right about that much. By all means, keep the men on stilts, Bertie Bee and the like - let's have more, get them out into the community and in and around the ground. People can opt out of them if they wish. But don't intrude upon the football, the crowd and the match day atmosphere. Whilst stilt men and mascots do not, Chico most certainly does.

I worry about this on so many levels. Firstly, because I don't like the idea that we are trying to induce the next generation with something that has nothing to do with the game itself. You do not outgrow football, you evolve from child fan to adult; yet pop acts entertainment aimed at kids is really entertainment aimed at a phase of life which does not endure. Secondly and thirdly, it bothers me because the game is no longer the sole attraction. Those miscellaneous, unrelated diversions both detract from the focus on the game itself; damagingly and unjustifiably, they create an environment in which some of those supporters we already have might not feel entirely comfortable.

I suppose I am, in one sense, one of the last dinosaurs; one of that last batch of fans to be introduced in the more traditional era before all-seated stadia and the Premiership took over and who have not yet got kids of our own to start introducing to the game and our club. There have been massive changes since I became a fan. But I wrote this, a few years back, when the prospect was raised that Burnley would cease to exist, about becoming a fan:

When I first went on the Turf, aged seven with my Dad, I became a Burnley supporter for so many different reasons. They were my Dad's team, the first team I went to watch, a team with a story behind them which appealed to me. But above all else was noise, the fact that people yelled and swore and showed the emotions people weren't supposed to in the real world. And through that emotion, there was a bond, a sense of belonging which appealed to me at an age when all kids need a gang.

In that tribalism, the raw emotion which football can inspire, lies the essence of being a football fan. It's why we support teams, rather than just watching the game as a neutral. Once you've been bitten by it, you can never shake it off. It might dull a bit over the years, but you will never lose it. Even if you stop going, you cannot completely shake it off; if you do venture on to a game again, you will find yourself caring passionately about the result. The truth of that lies in Orient.

Has the essence of the game changed so much since then, through the revolution and its subsequent entrenchment? Has it? If it has, forget all of this, because it is useless. But I don't believe it has, I can't believe it has, and the reaction of those fans who booed Chico on Saturday suggests to me that they don't believe it has either. And that is the mistake that Burnley are making: the things which hooked them and me transcend the eras. Whilst Burnley are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what they should really be doing is to dress it in new, more relevant, clothes.

We need to make ourselves stand out from the big city clubs who stand on our doorstep. Yet we aren't making ourselves stand out as a football club; we've given up on that. Whilst Chico is singing, I am not. That old progression from a sparsely populated ground, to a murmuring throng, the slow gathering of energy and, finally, the release as the players entered the tunnel, starting behind the goal and rippling round - that has no chance now, in a ground which supporters cannot own and shape until after the music has stopped at 3pm.

I see that Millwall have started marketing themselves to fans of Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham and the rest as a real, authentic football club which they can afford to watch, and I am told that it is working. I'm not surprised; I remember once being a somewhat smug school kid who delighted in meeting jibes about supporting a team no other kids in the Lake District had heard of with the riposte that I at least could and did go to watch my club. And the essence of Burnley's appeal ought to lie in mixing atmosphere and the small-town accessibility, to create a compelling counterpoint to the Premiership on TV. Of course, a bit of success wouldn't go amiss, but then that is the one thing you cannot control.

I started going because it was something my Dad did intermittently, because I wanted to be like him, to be grown up, and then because I loved the effect it had on me. And because I went with him, suddenly my sister wanted to get in on the act, and after a brief flirtation with Liverpool - that Premier League allure at work - she began to come too. That was three of us; the fourth, my mother, began to come eventually because she realised that if she wished to be included in conversations in our house she might as well join us. She enjoys it, I think, these days, and the rest of us get rather more pleasure - so from one occasional fan, Burnley got four, and a family audience at that.

It seems to me that that sense of bonding between family members is more relevant now than ever. Nick Hornby's tale in Fever Pitch started with a young lad searching for a point of contact with an estranged father, and such is the social fabric of Britain that the seed is one which exists in ever increasing numbers across the country. There is a large cast of people I've come across at different points in my life - fathers, sons, daughters and mothers who were once searching for a common identity to shape a fractured, perhaps distant, relationship and for whom football offered a shared passion and belonging to fill that void. It is a social function if you like, and one to which smaller, accessible, football clubs are perfectly positioned to fulfil.

We've got it the wrong way round at Burnley: it isn't really all about attracting the kids. It is about offering the backdrop to the relationships and the shared emotion of a goal or a win or even something more; the anthems which are recognisable as Burnley or whoever, the long dissection afterwards of everything and anything to do with the game. Be kid friendly yes, but don't make it all about the kids. Because if you do, you are taking something away from the other half of the equation; a half without which you have absolutely nothing at all.