No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care
Growing up is hard to do, especially if you’re a fan of the town’s rival football team and insist on wearing the full kit at every opportunity.
Our chosen pitch was a large semi-circle of grass at the top of Montgomery Grove in Burnley where the road forked. It wasn’t ideal. The ground was uneven, sloping down one side. It was invariably laden with dog turds and tin cans in equal measure. There was a massive oak tree where the centre spot should have been and if the ball went out of play it meant a mad dash down the road to get it before a car did. We chose Montgomery Grove because it was close to home. It was safe.
It was also quite well equipped. Each side had one half of a goal; on the left a battered sapling stood depressed and on the right a neglected signpost threatening irresponsible dog owners with a £50 fine. With two jumpers thrown at either end, we were ready to play.
On this turf, my best friend Stuart and I played re-runs of the same game over and over again. We were data mining, trying to predict the results of the 2000/2001 Division One season’s most important game: The East Lancashire Derby. I was always Burnley in my big brother’s baggy kit and Stuart, though a Burnley lad by birth, was forever Rovers in pristine blue and white Uhlsport togs.
Our mini derby often attracted unwanted attention. Stuart’s blue and white kit was a dog whistle to certain lads in the neighbourhood who saw his loyalty to Rovers as a personal insult. A few times, they came and just loitered, kicking the ball away or tackling us when they had the chance. Things escalated when they started chasing us from the pitch. Each time this happened we’d abandon the match, sprinting home in our studs often forgetting the football.
This continued for weeks and wherever we went to play, they followed. As time passed, their group got larger, more threatening and our escapes more precarious. We’d bolt through gaps in fences and into strangers’ gardens, knocking on doors of homes that weren’t our own in search of an adult who could get them to leave us alone. Our fixtures, much like the East Lancashire Derby itself, had become an occasion for farce and pointless violence.
Before the start of the 2000/2001 season, it had been 17 years since the sides had met in the league. Rovers had been relegated from the top flight but retained the prestige of a multi-millionaire owner and a Premier League title. They had a decent stadium in Ewood Park and a roster of slick, international players.
Burnley, promoted with Stan Ternent, lacked the glamour of Blackburn Rovers. Burnley’s ground, Turf Moor is the oldest still in continuous use in the country and with its wooden seats and unheated pitch was a throwback for the Rovers fans. The Burnley team was filled with mercenaries, hard nuts and cast-offs. The kind of blokes you might find fighting in the French Foreign Legion.
The two clubs were a mismatch in almost every way and the animosity shared between them and their fans boiled down, ultimately, to snobbery. At this time, the Burnley fans saw Blackburn Rovers as a club that had effectively bought its Premier League title with the proceeds from Jack Walker’s steel company. They were a team with a false sense of entitlement and their fans were a clan of braggarts and smug bastards.
On the other hand, the Blackburn fans saw Burnley as a backward town home to a small-minded club with small-minded fans. The Burnley crowd was violent and unruly with a masochistic habit of trashing their own town centre. They were the underclass, extended members of Emmerdale’s Dingle family and the residents of Royston Vasey. It is strange to think that a derby borne out of an industrial rivalry in the 1890s between two ultra-competitive mill towns had morphed into a pseudo class-conflict, but then football and indeed the two towns and their clubs had changed immensely in that time. Incidentally, Burnley were soundly beaten over both fixtures, 7-0 on aggregate. Though if you ask any Burnley fan, Kevin Ball’s thunderous tackle on David Dunn was consolation enough. You might be able to see why if you search for it on YouTube.
Hailing from Burnley, it would be easy to forget that there is such thing as a derby game outside of East Lancashire. But there is. It seems wherever there is a football pitch, two teams and at least a dozen people willing to watch, there is likely to be a rivalry. Throw in some social or political discord and it might even make Sky Sports 1.
Perhaps the most widely venerated club in the country is Manchester United. They’re as disliked in the UK as it is possible for a football club to be. They’re the pantomime villains, booed and hissed at wherever they go. Over the spiny Pennines in Leeds, there is a longstanding hatred of the Red Devils.
As with the East Lancashire Derby, the Industrial Revolution was the incubator for what would become a fiercely fought fixture. In the 1970s, the clubs and their respective firms clashed violently. The Revie and Busby era was one of torn shirts, black eyes and bloody noses both on and off the field. In more recent years, the taste for hooliganism has dissipated and fans have found alternative ways to aggravate each other.
Graham McDonnell, a former barman at The Original Oak in Headingley was an exiled United fan living in Leeds in the early 2000s. He explained to me that some Leeds fans had taken to coming into the pub to watch Manchester United play, regardless of their opponents. Seeing the televised fixture chalked on the sandwich board outside, they would come in to sing for the other team with the kind of devotion you might expect from a long time season ticket holder. One minute they were Leeds, the next Stoke City or Liverpool. It didn’t matter. For these fans, their enemy’s enemy was deemed a friend.
Graham worked at the pub for years and recalls that once this crowd of floating fans caught wind of his Mancunian accent, their support became more regular and even more raucous. Picture it, the punter with a knowing smirk cajoling, “how shite are Manchester United playing at the moment, Graham!” as he is handed a pint of mild.
Football rivalries and derby games are, for the large part, totally illogical affairs. The Industrial Revolution is now only alive in the history books. The dockers, ship-builders and miners have long since been dismissed yet the football rivalries these industries created persist. It has been over 125 years since two milling towns competed for contracts in East Lancashire and still the fans sing “No nay never!” with an operatic vigour every week. Why can’t people just move on?
I believe the rivalries are alive today because people want them to be. Perhaps even need them to be because hating another side of town even just for 90 minutes makes us feel like we belong.
Isn’t that what football is about? All the mythmaking, the stunts, the violence, the abusive chanting and derogation is a strange bonding exercise. Holding a common enemy is known to bring groups together and the derby game is this in action.
Football plays to people’s dogmatism and, like religion or politics, it can make normally sane people do some ridiculous things.
Words by Rich Cunningham
Illustration by Raj Dhunna