Derby a great source of local pride

icon cottonderby4 December ~ Newly installed Burnley manager Sean Dyche had his first experience of the Cotton Mill Derby against Blackburn Rovers on Sunday; a midday kick-off on a close-to-freezing December morning. I walked to the centre of town along the canal – there weren't many out that morning, two joggers and a dog-walker – wondering at the attention to detail that could inform me at one mile-post that I was 74 miles from Liverpool, 53 and a quarter from Leeds. More importantly, a helicopter was hovering overhead as I got closer to the cauldron of Turf Moor.

Inside, a sell-out crowd of 21,341 was raising the decibel level. The 3,347 Blackburn supporters sang their way to a 1-1 draw, silenced a little by Burnley's 89th minute equaliser. When Blackburn went ahead on 63 minutes, one Burnley fan almost beat himself to the ground in self-flagellating despair. The equalising goal produced an ecstatic roar of relief around three sides of the stadium.

Since the formation of the Football League in 1888 a few small-town Lancashire clubs have provided a soap-operatic series of local rivalries throughout a history of yo-yoing fortunes. Blackburn, Burnley and Bolton Wanderers, along with the initially dominant Preston North End and minnow Accrington, were founder members of the League. That four of these five clubs have been, uninterruptedly, full-time professional outfits since makes them treasured in their localities, a source of pride and identity.

The three founding Bs and Blackpool – accepted into the League's second division in 1896 – are all coping with post-Premier League financial problems, managerial instability and declining crowds of dissatisfied fans. But for this game Turf Moor was full. Burnley v Blackburn has become the most hyped of them all, helped by the infrequency of their encounters. Since beating Rovers in a Second Division match in April 1979, Burnley had not won in six league and three FA Cup encounters.  

Before the game busloads of Blackburn fans, attended by police outriders, were welcomed by chants of "Fuck off you Blackburn cunts". One Burnley fan sang "Let me take you by the hand and take you to the streets of Blackburn, I'll show you Ewood. It'll make you fucking sick". Police grinned rather than grimaced. Sean Dyche, asked about his experience of the whole day, said: "Fantastic. I absolutely loved it. I like these games". He wasn't close to the choruses of abuse traded by the fans on street and terrace but he'd talked to the players of their chance to make history. The victory didn't quite come but Dyche "thoroughly enjoyed it, and the fan reaction was outstanding". It's so pleasing, he added, that the team could "give the fans that goal at the end".

As I left the ground, I recalled regular matches between the clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, when rival fans could stand alongside each other and travelling fans weren't treated like cattle. And I smiled because, puffed up as it might be, the contemporary derby fires the passions of the fans in ways that can only be good for the future of the game. Alan Tomlinson

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