Monday 11 May ~
Reading fans might now want to hear it but I'm prepared to bet that a lot of viewers, especially those above a certain age, will want Burnley to prevail in tonight's Championship play-off semi-final. Football fans aged over 40 will remember Burnley as First Division regulars and I still tend to regard them, as whimsical as this may sound, as a top-level club fallen on hard times rather than the habitués of the bottom two divisions that they have been for most of the past 30 years. If either Burnley or Preston were to be promoted this season, there would be eight clubs from the north-west in the top level, the most there has been since 1960-61. At that time, Liverpool were in the seventh of their eight years as a Second Division club – and Burnley were reigning League champions.
In a football annual published that year, Burnley were compared to Stade de Reims, the French team that had been in two European Cup finals over the preceding five years. It wasn't a fanciful suggestion. Both clubs were from small towns with consequently modest home gates, and had built their success on a steady supply of talent from a well organised youth system – when Burnley acquired striker Frank Casper from Rotherham in 1967 it was the first time in seven years that they had paid a fee for a player. Not that their squad was staffed with locals – for a while the majority came from the north-east via Jack Hixon, the scout who later spotted Alan Shearer.
Reims' era ended with relegation in 1963-64. They returned to the first level subsequently but their only achievement of note since that time was to be runners-up in the French Cup in 1976. Like the other Lancashire town teams, Burnley were badly hit by the abolition of the maximum wage which led to players gravitating to the region's four biggest clubs in Liverpool and Manchester. They hung on longer than the others – after a brief spell in the Second, they finished in the top half of Division One in successive seasons between 1973 and 1975. But like Bolton, Preston and Blackpool they eventually spent time in the fourth level.
Now in a wholly different age for football, Preston and Burnley might meet at Wembley to contest a place in the First Division, from which Preston have been absent since going down in 1961. Some people, and not just Blackburn fans, would be wholly unimpressed with the notion of someone feeling a sentimental attachment to either of these clubs. But football's history can't simply be brushed away, however much effort is put into divorcing the modern game from its past, with regular talk of records set "since the Premier League began". Anyhow, this is as much about the present as the past. Forza Lancashire. Carl Hawkins