It really was a fairy-tale; especially the last few weeks of the season when the realisation grew that something special might just happen. Who in their right mind could ever have predicted or been confident that this little club, with its tiny squad and tiny budget would sustain the challenge, find the rainbow’s end and the pot of gold. Much was made of the squad numbering just 23 but in truth it was just 17 or 18 of them that carried the season in game after game.
Burnley showed that romance did indeed still exist in football in season 2008/09, by and large a world of greed, multi-million budgets, pampered superstars and Premiership clubs millions in debt, over-stretched, struggling and ending up as first Leeds United did, and then Newcastle. A football world where Real Madrid signed first Kaka for 65£million and then that preening peacock Ronaldo for £85million; the total enough to wipe out the debt of a couple of small African nations, or for sure could have been better used where really needed somewhere in an impoverished world. And this is before we even mention the Abramovich millions and the money-no-object Arab spending sprees at Manchester City, or the comment at Birmingham City by Karen Brady that what they spent there on countless players seemed at least to have helped solve the city’s unemployment problems. Meanwhile, back in the real world, whilst Real Madrid spent £150million, Accrington Stanley struggled to pay a £300k tax bill.
Sadly there is little humour in the world of football at league level. Where humour does exist it comes from the fans. In Scotland, for example, there was the story that Rangers fans had a cunning plan to get tickets to see their side win the SPL after the away allocation quickly sold out. A poster on a Rangers message-board wrote: “Phone up Dundee United and ask to buy a pair of Dundee United socks. Don’t even mention Saturday. They might become suspicious. Then when they take in your sock order, personal details and process your payment, you are stored on their system. Phone up again and order your home tickets for the Rangers match. You will be on their system and will get your match tickets. It’s perfect.”
Well: not quite perfect. There was no such database resulting in Rangers fans with no match tickets but hundreds of pairs of Dundee United socks. The poster was a Celtic fan out to cause mischief. Thank God for the humour that does still exist.
The word miracle is over-used but really there was no other to describe what Burnley did. Struggling to pay their bills, crowds averaging only just over 13,000, dependant on directors’ loans, it was not commonly known at the time that in the final weeks of the season in April, that without one final input of cash provided by four of those directors, Messrs Kilby, Griffiths, Garlick and Sullivan, administration beckoned and that without that final input, the wages might well have gone unpaid. Earlier, a transfer embargo had been placed on the club because payments had not been met for two players.
A draw at Southampton had made things uncertain up there in the top six. Only a win on the final day of the season, with Preston North End just two points behind, would see the play-offs reached. Those directors gambled, held their breathe, crossed their fingers, and spent sleepless nights; they had precious little left to give. It was in effect a last shake of the dice and nothing less than a six would do. At Wembley the six came out but Ray Griffiths did not see it, he was in a hospital bed very ill. That win should be dedicated to him and a plaque erected to all those four guys for the risk they took with their own money.
Looking back, now, everything clearly fitted into place. Paterson who hadn’t scored for weeks scored the solitary goal at Turf Moor that beat Sheffield United in one of the final league games. A penalty set us on the road to victory in the must-win game on the final day against Bristol City, itself a team not without talent and threat. A second penalty as good as sealed the game. A penalty against Reading in the first play-off game won that game with just minutes to go and Bikey’s extraordinary behaviour saw him banned from the next game. Two wonder strikes in the second-leg at Reading, the sort of goals a striker scores once in ten years, decided that outcome. A different referee might have sent Jensen off during that game when he charged out of his goal and the ball struck his hand. That’s how the referee saw it; the ball struck his hand. Another referee might have interpreted it differently. Sometimes the gods are on your side. It was Burnley’s night and the end for a dejected Steve Coppell. And somehow, a defence that leaked goals all season, tightened up, played out of their skins and kept six clean sheets in the last eight games.
And then at Wembley there were two penalty appeals against Burnley. Both were turned down by Mike Dean. A different referee might have given at least one of them. If winning games hinges on decisions going your way, then this was just such a game, although in truth Burnley might have scored at least three more goals. Last ditch tackles and defending saved Sheffield on numerous occasions. Then there was Elliot’s winning goal, the one single goal that won the debt-solving £60m jackpot, the marvellous 25-yard strike that was worthy of goal-of-the-season taking into account the stunning run at pace Elliot made from deep inside his own half to set up the goal.
If only we had known before these games that Burnley were destined to succeed, how much more we would have enjoyed them.
If there was one blemish it was the distraction immediately afterwards provided by the attempt to lure Owen Coyle to Celtic. “Distraction” was Chairman Barry Kilby’s understated word. For sure it spoiled the party afterwards and the slight feelings of worry were not helped by Owen Coyle’s initial reaction to the one question put to him both in TV interviews and on the steps of the Town Hall during the never-to-be-forgotten parade round the town. If he had said an immediate emphatic; “I will not be leaving Burnley for Celtic under any circumstances,” we might have slept a little easier. In truth it was a week before the cloud of uncertainty was lifted.
But that distraction aside they were heady days back in May and early June as we played our recordings over and again, re-read the reports, and played the games again in our heads. A friend mailed me his impressions of the reception the town gave them as they paraded in open top coaches round Burnley, and thousands and thousands of people lined the streets.