18 October 2009 ~ It may be watched by fewer than El Clásico but to the people of East Lancashire, today's first top-level Blackburn v Burnley derby since the Sixties means just as much. Two incidents this week illustrate the depth of local feeling. Burnley fans dressed the Jack Walker memorial statue outside Ewood Park in a Burnley strip, flag and comedy wig and posted pictures of themselves doing it on YouTube. It upset Rovers fans enough for them to spray-paint "BRFC" on the Turf Moor club shop and local Burnley pub The Forresters, and dress up a traffic cone in a Rovers kit outside their ground. It is difficult, however, to justify the reaction of local police who have declared virtual martial law this weekend.
The police have threatened local pubs daring to open early with the withdrawal of their licences, and forced all away fans on to an escorted coach convoy setting off at 9.30am. Admittedly there has been some terrible thuggery at past matches and temperatures were raised in 1991 when Blackburn fans hired a plane to fly over Turf Moor with the message "Staying Down Forever" while Burnley were failing to get past Torquay in a fourth-level play-off. But the last trouble of any note at Ewood was the post-match protest against chairman and fruiterer Bill Fox quelled by a couple of special constables. The only recent large-scale derby violence saw Burnley fans trashing their own town centre after the last League home defeat.
Despite a long history of loathing between supporters the clubs have maintained a friendly working relationship but even this has been tested in the build-up to the game. Owen Coyle, fed up having team talks drowned out by a stand full of away supporters, urged his chairman to get more Burnley followers into the ground. Splitting the Cricket Field Stand in half to allow more home fans in a stadium with a limited 22,400 capacity and reducing away tickets to a couple of thousand probably sounds reasonable. Less so in the context of a derby game which usually sees the Clarets given the entire 7,500 seats of Ewood Park's Darwen End and Rovers a reciprocal 4,000.
As soon as Burnley chairman Barry Kilby announced the changes Blackburn fans bombarded Ewood with emails demanding ticket parity. Rovers, now making positive strides at reclaiming lost supporters, are particularly sensitive to a fan backlash and desperate to be seen to be acting on their behalf. So, when it came to talks between the clubs and police over derby planning, a normally simple discussion turned as fractious as negotiations between North and South Korea. After weeks of haggling the solution sees 3,000 Clarets in a split Darwen End restricted to season ticketed Rovers fans, with hundreds of empty seats and both sets of supporters unhappy.
Mixed messages from both clubs and media aren't helping calm things down. Local newspaper the Lancashire Telegraph, which prints different sports editions for the towns and separate match reports for derby games, is a case in point. For weeks it has been running stories proclaiming the match to be the most heated outside of Glasgow, stoking passions on both sides while at the same time running appeals for calm from a mixture of ex-players and D-list celebrity fans. Both clubs are asking supporters to respect each other on the day while running a fine line between hyping up the match and inflaming tensions. Among the various bits of memorabilia released recently is Rovers' “Bring on the Clarets” package which includes a DVD of recent derby matches and a T-shirt emblazoned with the 5-0 scoreline from the last League meeting at Ewood.
Traditionally on these occasions the half-time draw is made by one of a number of players who have represented both sides in order not to further poison the atmosphere. Today's choice of Simon Garner, the Blackburn striker rumoured to have funded the Burnley aeroplane prank, suggests that it's the clubs and the police who need to see sense rather than the supporters. Bruce Wilkinson