During the 1990’s Jack Walker invested considerable amounts of his vast fortune into his home town club, Blackburn Rovers, with the express intention of putting them in a position to challenge the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool for the domestic game’s major honours.
To achieve this, he hired Kenny Dalglish as manager and signed cheques for eye-watering amounts of money to secure the services of, amongst others, Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Graham LeSaux and David Batty.
This policy was successful enough for Blackburn to win the Premier League in the 1994-95 season.
Meanwhile, down the road in Burnley, Jimmy Mullen’s newly-promoted Burnley were enduring an awful season in what had now become known as the First Division and were sliding meekly towards an inevitable relegation.
This should have come as no surprise; Burnley had achieved promotion through the play-offs having been able to finish no higher than sixth in the second division the previous season. Injuries to key players and a desperate, scatter-gun approach to player retention and acquisition all combined to produce a season lacking direction, focus or momentum.
This miserable campaign was made all the harder to endure for Clarets fans when the club’s bitterest rivals were on a pathway to glory; this was truly Burnley’s annus horribilis.
The rules of engagement regarding local rivalry dictate that no opportunity to lord it over the other team’s supporters should be missed; and true to form, Blackburn fans wasted no time in aiming their jibes, their insults and their braggadocio at any Burnley fan who crossed their path. We Clarets had no ammunition with which to retaliate, we had no alternative other than to suck it up.
The Burnley/Blackburn rivalry is unlike most others in that down the years they have played each other so infrequently. Only occasionally and, it seems, fleetingly do they inhabit the same division. This means that grudges are harboured and perceived injustices dwelt upon for far longer than with other such rivalries.
If Liverpool lose to Manchester United or Everton, their fans know that the chance to set the record straight will come along in just a few months. But after the 1995 season, Burnley had to endure the slings and arrows of (Jack Walker’s) outrageous fortune for decades.
It has become a rivalry which often – too often – spills over into sickeningly distasteful volleys of abuse and even violence; when the hard-of-learning, the rabble-rousers and the fundamentalist zealots take matters into their own hands.
In the excellent Amazon fly-on-the-wall documentary, “The Test”, the coach of the Australian cricket team, Justin Langer, goes to great pains to explain to his players the difference between banter and abuse. The borderline is a marginal one and all too easily crossed.
There are a number of Blackburn fans where I work (my company’s recruitment policies clearly need looking at, but that’s another issue) many of them are personable chaps and a bit of light-heated back and forth is a welcome sidebar in a day’s work. But it should not and must not, spill over into anger, abuse and vitriol.
Jack Walker’s splurge to create a title winning team in Blackburn formed the template for the likes of Roman Abramovich and the Oil Sheiks whose money fuels (pun intended) Manchester City. I have often wondered how I would feel if such riches were to be lavished on Burnley.
You see, I am enormously proud of what my club has achieved since those dark days of 1995 through their own efforts and their own resources; resources which were, down the years, regularly stretched beyond the point where it was comfortable, or even sustainable.
There is a nobility to the fact that Burnley have successfully battled against odds that sometimes seemed insurmountable, keeping true to their faith through every setback and keeping the club going without recourse to football’s equivalent of a lottery win.
Accepting the largesse of a wealthy benefactor is to enter into a Faustian pact offering up the very soul of the club as collateral. It often ends badly; for every Abramovich, every Khaldoon Al Mubarak, and every Fenway Sports; there is a Mike Ashley, an Ellis Short or a Venkys.
Relegation in 1995 pretty much spelt the end of Jimmy Mullen’s time as Burnley manager. The fans, the media and an increasingly disorientated dressing room all seemed to turn against him and it was a sad conclusion to the tenure of one of Burnley’s better managers, one who had brought success and displayed before us some thrilling football.
Back in the third tier, Adrian Heath, whose playing days were drawing to a close, assumed the role of manager, and for a couple of seasons he looked as though he was making progress. He came across as a bright and busy manager and a ninth place finish in 1997 hinted at a promising season ahead.
But Heath left to re-join his old manager, Howard Kendall at his old club, Everton, and Burnley decided to replace him with a famous player looking to cut his teeth in coaching.
The Chris Waddle experiment proved to be a disaster. Sadly he had little idea of how to fashion an effective team out of the players at his disposal, or coach improvements into players who were not as gifted as those he had spent his playing career alongside or indeed as he himself had been.
In the penultimate game of the 1997-98 season, Burnley led 3-1 away at Oldham with less that quarter of an hour to play; but they allowed Oldham to pull level and I was convinced that those two squandered points would see Burnley back into the basement division.
The last match was at home to Plymouth, and the equation was a simple one; a win would see Burnley safe and relegate Plymouth, any other result and Clarets would be down.
It was arguably the second most important match in the club’s history; it would have been hard to see Burnley surviving the quagmire of the fourth – now re-named the third – division for a second time. But as with the Orient match in 1987, when it mattered most, the team came through, winning 2-1 courtesy of two Andy Cooke goals.
Waddle left Burnley after that season, he hasn’t managed at league level since and he probably concluded that management wasn’t for him. Unlike Mullen, he had left Burnley in a worse position than he had found them in.
Week twelve of the "Lockdown Claret & Blues" and Dave Thornley continues to reminisce about his experiences and recollections of supporting Burnley Football Club. Thanks Dave, it's the only thing I have to look forward too at present! (TEC.)