Following the dramatic last-gasp escape from relegation to the Conference in 1987, Burnley spent the next three seasons meandering around the middle of the fourth division table. The most notable feature of what was an otherwise mundane period was a thrilling semi-final win at Deepdale against Preston North End in 1988, which rewarded the Clarets’ long-suffering supporters with a trip to Wembley for the final of the Sherpa Van Trophy.
On the day, Wolves –runaway fourth division champions that season – were too strong and ran out comfortable 2-0 winners; but no matter, we had deserved our day out and it was surely a signpost to successful times ahead.
Frank Casper replaced Brian Miller as manager for the second time, this time it would seem rather more amicably than in 1983, but the new manager was initially unable to spark a sustained revival and back-to-back 16th place finishes suggested a team continuing to stagnate.
But in the 1990-91 season Burnley, under Casper, sprang into life, reaching the play-offs and only missing out by one point on automatic promotion.
The play-offs though went badly; Burnley lost the first leg against Torquay United 2-0 on the Devon Coast. The second leg at Turf Moor a few days later would always be an uphill task; a fact not lost on supporters of Blackburn Rovers who chartered a light aircraft to fly over the stadium before the kick off with the message “Staying Down 4 Ever, Love Rovers” trailing from its rear – what cheeky little scamps they were and still are!
Burnley huffed and puffed but could do no better than a single scrambled goal which came too late in the game to provide any sort of momentum.
In the close season, Casper made two signings which would have a huge bearing on the outcome of the 1991-92 season; firstly Scottish striker Mike Conroy was brought in from Reading; then Steve Davis, a central defender who had impressed on a previous loan spell, arrived on a permanent basis from Southampton.
Steve Harper, a neat and tidy winger with a turn of pace, also joined the club, replacing Neill Grewcock, the last remaining member of the team from that Orient game, for whom injuries had taken their toll.
Optimism at the start of the season however was replaced with misery amongst the supporters when Burnley slumped the three consecutive defeats, the third of these – a particularly drab display away to Scarborough – would cost Casper his job, somewhat unfairly.
Casper’s assistant, Jimmy Mullen was handed the job initially on a caretaker basis; but promptly reeled off nine straight wins to remove any doubt that he would have the job on a permanent basis.
Mullen always gave the impression of being an intense, slightly grumpy, individual, watching his team from the bench always seemed to be agony for him, even when they were going well, as they invariably were that season. Some of the football he would inspire was crisp, fluent high-energy attacking play. It really was a joy to watch.
Graham Lancashire provided some initial impetus with a scoring run of eight in seven games, including a hat-trick in the 6-2 drubbing of Wrexham; but after that he faded almost as quickly as he had arrived, and a promising career rather fizzled out.
The goal-scoring responsibilities were thereafter taken up by Conroy, Roger Eli and the lightening quick John Francis, who combined to form a potent striking trio, Francis often the prompter and supplier, Conroy and Eli the clinical finishers.
At the back, Davis formed a solid defensive partnership with John Pender and the former’s composure and vision quickly marked him down as the finest player in the whole of the Fourth Division. He would go on to feature in three Burnley promotion seasons, a feat only matched (as far as I am aware) by another centre back of Clarets legend, Michael Duff.
The goalkeeping spot however was less predictable; Andy Marriott impressed on a loan spell from Nottingham Forest and there was widespread consternation when Brian Clough recalled him to the City Ground; Nicky Walker, from Hearts, was a similarly successful loanee, but Mark Kendall (who had kept goal for Wolves in that Sherpa Van final) had a reckless side to his play which made us fans rather nervous.
In the end, the likably jovial Chris Pearce resumed the custodian duties he had held in previous seasons; he was a decent keeper but not a great one, nevertheless he was good enough in a team that by this time were the dominant force in their division.
After that nine game winning run, Burnley maintained a tight grip on the division; the odd set-back, such as a home Boxing Day defeat to Rotherham and a 5-2 reverse at Blackpool were quickly corrected and were not allowed to disrupt their momentum.
A 3-1 home win against Cardiff City afforded Burnley the luxury of no fewer than four games in which to obtain the one further victory required to secure promotion.
The first of those four, away to Carlisle, ended in a draw, so off we all trouped to the second, a mid-week fixture against York City. The Burnley contingent crammed themselves tightly into York’s tiny Bootham Crescent ground and saw their team fall a goal behind. We all hoped the dreaded nerves were not creeping in so close to the finishing line?
John Deary, who had an outstanding season providing drive and aggression in midfield, equalised on the hour and then, as the clocked ticked down into the last minute, John Francis thumped the ball home from close range and our fourth division nightmare was over, hopefully for good.
Behind us were fixtures against teams from leafy suburbia; quaint historic market towns and out-of-season seaside resorts; ahead was the chance to mix it once again with clubs of weight, power and tradition and to resume our rightful place amongst them.
There have been better Burnley teams than the 1991-92 Fourth Division Champions, but few are remembered with as much fondness by Clarets fans, both for what they achieved and for the thrills and delight they brought whilst doing so.
Dave Thornley continues to soothe those “Lockdown Claret & Blues” with a recollection of a Burnley team which put the Clarets back on the road to glory and finally eased us out of the bargain-basement of English football. (TEC).