The first thing I heard about watching a game at Burnley FC was from a Sunderland fan – and it wasn’t completely positive.
I had just told her, during a game at The Stadium of Light, that I like the old grounds, such as Everton’s Goodison Park, and she said, “Yeah, that’s like going back in time, isn’t it? Now Burnley – that’s like going even further back in time!”
She said it with a noticeable shudder and shake of the head, but from that moment on, I could not wait to get to Burnley. My biggest regret in my love affair with English football is that I came along too late and missed so many of the old grounds like Highbury, Roker Park and Maine Road.
Getting to Know Burnley
First, for my American readers: What and where is Burnley? Well, it’s a city in Lancashire, just a little north of the middle of England, in an area of rolling grassy hills lined with stone walls and grazing sheep and cows. Burnley itself is a humble little town of about 75,000, with a two-track train station and a downtown that might remind you of, say, Eugene, Oregon. There’s a pedestrian area with discount shops and pubs and a fancy new mall, and the football ground is just on the edge of downtown and possesses a wonderful name: Turf Moor.
The Clarets, as they are called, were world-beaters just after the war, but they almost went out of business in the 80s before beginning a long climb back to the big time. They have just been promoted from the Championship to the Premier League, and if you want to know what that’s all about, click here. Or think of it this way: They finished second in Triple A last year and are now in the majors. Imagine Eugene being in the bigs!
But they’re in over their heads, haven’t won a game in eight tries, and currently sit “bottom of the table” facing relegation. In fact, the last time they “came up,” four years ago, they went right back down after one season. But they take great pride in their team, and days like this, when a big club like Everton come in to play, must be what it’s all about for them.
The newer grounds in England, such as at Sunderland and Stoke, are typically “bowls” with seats all around; they would look like any stadium in the US. But the older grounds are typically four separate “stands,” each with a roof, and some with multiple levels. So if you get a seat in one stand, you can’t get to the others. And many times there’s a designated stand for away fans – in part to keep them away from the home fans.
Turf Moor, as my neighbor at the game would say, is a “proper footballing ground.” It has wooden folding seats, and in the Bob Lord Stand, where I sat, you feel right on top of the action – close enough that the line-o can almost certainly hear you call him a wanker. It really does feel like visiting a Triple A, or even Double A, stadium, but with 21,000 people watching their team play the Orioles.
(If these references are lost on my English readers, you now know what it’s like to be a new American soccer fan!)
Me Match Day
(I thought I would write that header in the local dialect)
I had used loyalty points for a free Holiday Inn room, and as is often the case, I was out by the highway on the edge of town. When I asked how to walk to the stadium, I was told to look for the “canal bridge” and then take the main road down the hill and, as always, “follow the colors.”
I assumed I was looking for a bridge over a canal, but no – it’s a bridge with a canal on it, going over the expressway! I need to work out hos this came into being, as I assume the canal pre-dates the highway.
Anyway, it was a nice way to start the walk, and at the main road I spotted some Burnley shirts and followed them through the center of town.
Here are some shots of the ground, which really is wonderfully old-fashioned:
I had run into some hassles getting to town, so I was running a bit late. I just had time to get a coffee and a pie before the 1:30 p.m. kickoff.
And just after I sat down, the teams came out and we were ready to go. The announcer even said that the referee was “Mister Marriner,” which I just love.
It was just as the game started that I had one of those magical travel moments where everything fell into place, my mind quieted from the logistics and the worry, and I found myself just sitting there, on my wooden seat, eating my meat pie with my plastic fork, between a father and son on my left and a pair of old-timers on my right, one of them with a vest covered in Burnley badges, and all of us just enjoying a game of football. Other than the names on the advertising boards and the seats behind the goal and an American in attendance, it’s hard to know what has changed here over the decades, and I knew I was part of a very long and wonderful tradition.
The Game Itself
Another tradition, more recent: Burnley gave up a goal within just a few minutes. Everton wept down the left, Baines crossed it in, the defense focused on the giant Lukaku, and little Samuel Eto’o pounded a header into the net. Eto’o, in fact, had started the move and also touched the ball mid-way down the pitch. I turned to the son left of me and said, “That was too easy.” He said, “Much too easy,” and we were bonded in a way.
Burnley got one back, though, when Lukaku gave it away and Danny Ings (I really thought he said Ainge!) rounded the keeper to level, and then the ol’ Turf really came to life. They put their most ardent fans in the corner near the visitors, and there was much singing and warms outstretched and fingers pointing. It was brilliant! And then Everton went back down, got it to the giant Lukaku, and he just held onto it until he figured a way to blast it into the goal. We went into the half at 2-1 for Everton.
Here are the Eveton fans singing for Lukaku after his goal:
(For you Yanks, think back to our World Cup loss to Belgium. When it was tied and Belgium sent on a big dude late in the game, and he created some havoc just from being huge and fast, and it led to their winning goal … that was Romelu Lukaku. But here, he is Tim Howard’s teammate rather than nemesis.)
The rest of the game was just a matter of Everton being better. They applied enough pressure that Burnley tended to give it away in the midfield, and even when Burnley came forward, Everton were solid enough to hold them off. Burnley threatened here and there, but not intensely, and in the 85th minute Eto’o got it about 25 yards out, turned, and – as my old-timer neighbor put it – displayed the difference between a big club like Everton and a little one like Burnley. He curled one into the top corner, right in front of his own fans, and they were off their feet in celebration before the ball ht the net. 3-1, and game over for Everton. Me and the old-timers had to admit it was “a cracking goal.”
Here are the highlights:
I said my goodbyes to the son and the old-timers, and wished them luck in staying up. Then I went down to the front to take some pictures, and found myself talking with a crowd of Dutch ground-hoppers. They had been at Present North End the day before, and one of them had been every place in the Premier League except West Bromwich Albion. He’d been to 56 grounds in all, and they were all shooting for the full 92. Oh, to be an hour’s flight from London, and at European fares!
I would like to say that after the game I mixed it up with the locals at the pub, hearing grand tales of glory and misery past, but in reality I chatted with a couple of horse police officers who kind of chuckled when I asked what I should go see in town.
I would also like to say I discovered a fabulous little eatery with the best chicken balti in Lancashire, or maybe a hidden Italian gem like the one I’ve found in London, but the reality is I got a crappy Subway sandwich and walked back to the hotel. I couldn’t even get the Man U-Chelsea game on the telly!
I just had to settle for another nice walk along the canal, a quiet evening at the hotel catching up on emails and notes and sorting photos, and then a good sleep before my morning train to London. Tomorrow I have a date with the other team at the bottom of the Premier League table, Queens Park Rangers, at their tiny ground in West London.
And some day, when I feel up for a game with pleasant company at a proper footballing ground, I’ll come back to Burnley and their wonderful Turf Moor.