You could be forgiven for finding Burnley somewhat of a ghost town when the Clarets are playing at home. That is because a capacity crowd at their Turf Moor stadium makes up roughly one third of the population of Burnley town, the highest ratio anywhere in England’s football league.
That is remarkable considering there are two football league clubs on the doorstep – Blackburn and Accrington – and the Manchester giants are close by too. Indeed, it is very easy to make the day trip to Burnley from Manchester, or Leeds.
So what is special about Burnley? Footballing heritage. A visit to this part of East Lancashire is a journey back to the heart and soul of the game. This is where it all began, back in 1888, when Burnley, alongside Accrington, Blackburn, Preston and others, competed in the very first league.
Burnley’s traditional bright claret colours associate themselves nicely with that history. Their long-time home, Turf Moor, is a just a ten-minute walk from the town centre and is set against the backdrop of the hills and moors of East Lancashire. Next door is Burnley Cricket Ground. Over the road there’s a pub and, a little further down, a church. You could be nowhere else but in England, and nowhere else but in a northern former industrial mill town.
It’s great to see that Burnley have managed to retain their long-standing stadium and redevelop it so it’s fit for Premier League football in the 21st Century. The past decade or so has seen two new stands go up, the James Hargreaves Stand on one side and the Jimmy McIlroy Stand at one end, both on two tiers with large upper sections.
The Bob Lord Stand on Harry Potts Way is older, with the David Fishwick Stand at the cricket ground end split between home and away fans. It’s the liveliest end of the ground, with the wooden seats largely unused as everyone chooses to stand.
These are heady times at Turf Moor. Burnley are on a third trip into the Premier League in less than a decade. Each promotion has been more impressive than the last, achieved over bigger clubs with better resources and more money. And although they haven’t yet managed to stay up for more than a season I suspect this year they have their best chance yet of changing that.
Burnley’s history is long and proud. From that first season in the fledging Football League, their first major honour came months before the start of the First World War when a 1-0 win over Liverpool saw them lift the FA Cup.
Burnley were league runners-up in 1920, then went 30 games unbeaten to finally win the title a year later. It was an unbeaten record that stood until Arsenal’s Invincibles toppled it in 2004.
Memories of the vintage Clarets of the late 50s and early 60s will be more familiar to some. On the final day of the 1959-60 campaign a 2-1 victory at Manchester City earned them a coveted second league title, with goals from Brian Pilkington and Trevor Meredith.
From there the Burnley story takes a bad turn. They slipped into the Fourth Division by 1985 – less than a decade after leaving the First Division. At the end of 1987 Burnley’s league existence was threatened as there was a real chance they would finish bottom. It all went down to an unforgettable day at Turf Moor, now known by Clarets fans simply as ‘the Orient game’. They beat Orient 2-1, a result that sent Lincoln City down instead.
Surely the only way was up. In 1992 a Fourth Division title saw them follow Wolverhampton as only the second club to win all four divisional titles. Then in 2007 Owen Coyle took over at the helm, and within two years they reached the promised land via a play-off final at Wembley to arrive back in the Premier League.
Sean Dyche arrived in 2012 and so began more golden years. In his first season they finished 11th, and the year after saw them promoted as runners-up. The battle for Premier League survival was gallant, yet ultimately once again unsuccessful. However the club stuck with Dyche, they knew he was the man to do the job. And he delivered, as Burnley marched straight back with the Championship title.
The town of Burnley of 2016 is a vastly different place to 100 or even 50 years ago. This proud mill town was once a bustling world centre of cotton cloth manufacturing. The machines may have long fallen silent but the landscape, still dotted by the odd chimney reminiscent of a Lowry painting, still conjure up images of those bygone days.
In a post-industrial age it’s sadly fair to say Burnley has had its problems, with a population that’s dropped by at least a quarter over the past 100 years. But Burnley has reinvented itself. A number of the glorious town centre buildings of the past remain, including the Town Hall and Mechanics theatre venue.
Burnley is easy to reach from other major cities. The town now has direct hourly train services to Manchester (50 minutes) and Leeds (1hour 10 minutes) while a journey from London with a change at Preston takes just three hours.
For a 3-star hotel in Manchester with double room (including breakfast) and your match ticket, the price per person (excluding flight) is from SEK 1 995/ GBP 171.
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This is an extract from a 10-page feature on Burnley by Jim Stewart in Football Weekends magazine, a fan’s guide to watching football around Europe. To order a copy visit www.footballweekends.co.uk