If just one single game of football could be said to represent the nadir of Burnley Football Club, then it must surely have taken place at Turf Moor on the 24th January 1987; for on that day fewer than two thousand supporters witnessed the Clarets lose 6-0 at the hands of Hereford United.
Burnley were a club with a crumbling stadium, dwindling support, no money and a team so poor as to concede six goals at home to Hereford United.
This was the first season in which automatic promotion from, and relegation to, the Conference had been initiated and the prospect that the first club to make the drop would be Burnley was looming ever larger.
Hope was fading fast, by the spring Burnley were in intensive care, with the Football League’s fingers hovering over the life support switch. But then, a faint pulse was detected; Burnley’s hitherto leaky defence began to stiffen; battling draws against Peterborough and Exeter were followed by back-to-back wins away to Stockport and at home to the eventual champions, Northampton Town.
A huge three points followed in a 2-0 victory at fellow strugglers Rochdale and a 2-1 home win over Southend meant that Burnley had at least placed their survival hopes in their own hands with two games remaining.
Defeat in the first of those games however (away to Crewe) had denied Burnley that luxury and with Tranmere having saved themselves the previous evening; the final Saturday of the season dawned with the Sword of Damocles dangling from the slenderest of threads over bottom placed Burnley.
If both Lincoln City and Torquay United were to match Burnley’s result, then the Clarets were doomed and that stark and inescapable fact drew over 15000 fans to Turf Moor to witness either the administering of the last rites, or an epic salvation.
Orient were the visitors, and it is worth recalling that they themselves would secure a play-off place with a win, Frank Clark’s team were by no means there to make up the numbers or disposed to doing Burnley any favours.
And so it was that on the 9th May 1987, the most important match in the history of Burnley Football Club was placed in the hands of perhaps their worst ever team.
But those players would respond magnificently to the task before them; they would ride the crest of the tidal wave of emotion that the crowd whipped up, whilst that same wave would engulf Orient.
Neill Grewcock’s stunning long range opening goal just before half time set Burnley on their way and when the shortest player on the field, the late Ian Britton (RIP), won a far post header to make it 2-0 then it seemed that the gods of football were casting their benevolence upon Burnley.
But Orient pulled a goal back shortly afterwards and the remainder of the game seemed to go on for hours as Burnley held Orient at bay, not always comfortably but well enough. With transistor radios clasped to many ears around the stadium anxious for news of Torquay and Lincoln (no smartphones or internet back then!) the torture would continue until the shrill blast of the final whistle brought forth a torrent of relief and an unprecedented outpouring of emotion.
Burnley had saved themselves, they would remain a league club. Points won off Lincoln back in the autumn, which seemed inconsequential at the time, assumed huge significance, as it was the Imps, and not Burnley who would suffer the drop.
Let’s take a moment to pay tribute to some of the players on that day: Leighton James and Billy Rodaway, reminders of better days in the seventies when Burnley were in the top flight; Ray Deakin, massive in defence and the player of the match; Joe Gallagher, whose battle-scarred body was pretty much held together with duct tape; Phil Malley, Peter Leebrook and Phil Devaney; youngsters whose careers would not develop into anything of significance, but who each put in a massive effort when it mattered the most.
Tributes too to Chairman Frank Teasdale and manager Brian Miller, who took on so monumental a task and saw it through, Clarets fans past, present and future owe them a debt.
There was still a long hard road to travel, with many obstacles on the way, but at the very least the attendance for the Orient game testified that the town could still be relied upon to get behind the team, the club had not been deserted by its supporters and that in itself was a pointer to better times ahead.
Our regular feature writer and uber Claret Dave Thornley reflects on the game that ultimately decided the fate of Burnley Football Club. Phew! (TEC).