Optimism, much less confidence, is not a feeling which comes naturally to most Burnley fans. Years of disappointment and near misses have conditioned within us a feeling that at any time when we appear on the brink of achieving success, the fates will find some way of conspiring against us to deny it.
It was odd, therefore that when sat on a mini-bus in a pub car park early in the morning of Sunday the 29th May 1994, the chap in the next seat turned to me and asked “Are we going to win?”, I replied swiftly and with certainty, “Yes”.
We were off to Wembley for the second division play-off final against Stockport County.
On the face of it, there wasn’t much justification for my confidence; Burnley had only just scraped into the play-offs in sixth place and had finished the regular season no fewer than twelve points behind a Stockport team who we had lost to, and drawn against in the two league meetings.
It had been Burnley’s home form which had nudged them into the play-offs; away from home they were frankly awful. So when the home leg of the semi-final against Plymouth Argyll had finished goalless, there wasn’t much cause for hope when Burnley went to Home Park for the second leg.
But Burnley re-discovered their mojo away from home that night, and ran out 3-1 winners, thanks to John Francis out-pacing the Plymouth defence to score two breakaway goals, and Warren Joyce tapping in a late third.
Maybe it was that performance which fuelled my confidence, but somehow, I just felt that the final was going to be our day and nothing – not even a tyre blow-out on the M1 (which actually afforded an opportunity to discharge into the adjacent grass verge the beer consumed en route) – could dispel that feeling.
Burnley’s previous trip to Wembley in the 1988 Sherpa Van Final had been a jolly day out; a welcome reward for the long-suffering supporters who had endured the agonies of the previous season. This time, though, there was much more at stake; this time promotion to the second tier was on the line; this time, it mattered.
It didn’t seem to matter to Stockport, though; the expanse of empty space at the opposite end of the stadium was in marked contrast to the end occupied by our fellow Burnley fans. This imbalance only compounded my optimism.
Even Stockport’s early goal could not disrupt the march to glory that my inner monologue had embarked upon, it would all work out in the end, I was sure of it.
In the two seasons since gaining promotion from the fourth division; Jimmy Mullen had set about re-modelling his team; Mike Conroy had moved on and Roger Eli was fighting a losing battle with injuries; so the goal-scoring duties had passed to David Eyres, a skilful and versatile striker from Blackpool and the diminutive and nippy Adrian “Inchy” Heath, formerly a title winner at Everton and still a high-class operator.
The goalkeeping issue had been solved with the acquisition of the excellent Marlon Beresford, Gary Parkinson and Les Thompson had taken over the full-back positions and the talented, much-travelled maverick, Ted McMinn joined to provide penetration down the wing.
It was McMinn who would have a direct influence on changing the course of the match. Scythed down near the touchline, he reacted angrily, a melee ensued and McMinn’s reaction earned him a yellow card – but the Stockport defender received a red one.
After half an hour, David Eyers cut in from the left wing; he slipped past one challenge, jinked past another, side-stepped a third and drilled a low shot into the corner of the net, a superb goal.
After that, Burnley assumed control and it seemed only a matter of time before they would score again.
Stockport, who were a team whose modus operandi was to apply intimidation through an overtly physical approach, lost a second player to a red card and it was gratifying to see Burnley stand up to the intimidation and allow their football (which on the day was superior) do the talking.
Shortly after the hour, Gary Parkinson carved himself an opening on the edge of the penalty area. His touch was a little heavy and as a result he had to stretch to hit his shot. Nevertheless, it carried sufficient weight to balloon into the goal after the Stockport keeper had got a hand to it.
Parkinson is now cruelly and tragically suffering from locked-in syndrome; and there is always a touch of poignancy, when his goal is shown before every Burnley home game, to see this athletic young man, at the zenith of his career, vaulting over the Wembley barrier to celebrate with a section of fans.
Stockport, reduced to nine men and now 2-1 down could not fashion a response which carried any sort of sustained threat, and in truth Burnley could, and maybe should, have added a couple more goals. But that is being picky, Burnley had won, they had secured the second promotion under Jimmy Mullen in a mere three seasons.
By the time I had returned home, a combination of the occasion, the travel, the tension, the lack of food and, yes, the beer, had given me a raging headache. I could do no more than sleep it off and awake in the certain knowledge that glorious times lay ahead. Right?
Dave Thornley continues to reminisce to beat those Claret & Blue “Lockdown Blues”. What a day out at Wembley this was! (TEC).