This evening’s Championship play-off semi-final between Reading and Burnley was a battle between old and new. In the blue corner were Reading, snatched from the jaws of obscurity by John Madjeski, who dropped them into a brand new stadium and gave them the means to challenge for a place in the Premier League. In the claret corner, representing “old football”, were Burnley. In many respects, Burnley are the anti-Reading. Stoically northern (it’s almost impossible to even say “Burnley” without lapsing into a cod-Lancastrian accent), they still play at the pleasingly onomatopoeic Turf Moor, which is one of the oldest football grounds in English football and which seems to almost sit overlooking the town as a reminder of glory days gone by. They are a club with a rich and deep history who, should they get promotion into the Premier League through the play-offs, would be taking their place in the top division of English football for the first time since 1976.
Founder members of the Football League in 1888, they are one of just three clubs to have spent their entire history playing in that competition (with Preston North End and Notts County – one of the original twelve, Accrington, folded and was replaced while all of the others have managed at least one season in the Premier League). Every defining characteristic of the traditional football club is present and correct – the autocratic chairman (and in Bob Lord they arguably had the most autocratic of the lot), the distinctive colours, the occasional financial crises and championship winning sides, Burnley have had the lot. Twice league champions (in 1921 and 1960), they even reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup before losing to SV Hamburg in 1961.
When they reached their lowest point, they played out a dramatic escape from what was widely expected be oblivion. Automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the Football Conference was being introduced in 1987, and Burnley went into their final match of the season against Orient needing a win to stay up. A crowd of almost 16,000 packed Turf Moor out and Burnley won the match 2-1. This result, coupled with a defeat for Lincoln City, meant that Lincoln (whose two successive relegations in 1986 and 1987 could be partly be attributed to the after-effects of their involvement as the opposition at Valley Parade on the day of the Bradford Fire in 1985) became the first team to be automatically relegated from the Football League.
Since then, Burnley’s fortunes have improved. They were beaten at Wembley in the final of the 1988 Sherpa Vans Trophy (now the Johnstones Paint Trophy) by Wolverhampton Wanderers, but the 80,000 crowd remains the biggest crowd ever for a match between two Fourth Divisions and was a potent symbol of the two clubs’ latent potential. Unlike Wolves (their sparring partners during the two clubs’ last truly great days during the late 1950s), however, they haven’t yet made it into the Premier League. They narrowly missed out on the play-offs in 2001 and 2002, but have spent much of the last four or five years keeping their heads above water in the Championship.
The signs of their potential this season have been there for anyone willing to look closely enough. They knocked both Chelsea and Arsenal out of the League Cup and were moments from a Wembley final against Manchester United before Spurs nicked it from under their noses. In the league, they came into form at just the right time, losing just one of their eleven matches to finish in fifth place. In some respects, they were fortunate to be playing Reading in the semi-finals. Reading had looked like shoo-ins for an automatic promotion place throughout much of the winter but had stumbled in the spring and missed out in favour of Birmingham City on the last day of the season.
Burnley won the first leg 1-0 at Turf Moor last week, which might have appeared rather too slender a lead to take to Reading for the second leg, but Reading’s home form – they were without a home win since beating Wolves 1-0 at the end of January – seemed to indicate that Burnley had a great chance of getting through, and so it turned out. Two goals in seven second half minutes this evening were enough to wrap the result up for Burnley, who will now play Sheffield United at Wembley for a place in the Premier League on Bank Holiday Monday. Manager Owen Coyle deserves all credit for dragging his team up from mid-table and giving them a great chance of making the Premier League for the first time.
If they do make it into the Premier League next season, it will mean that seven of the founding members of the Football League – Aston Villa, Wolves, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Everton and Burnley – will be in the top division of English football, 121 years after the formation of the Football League. Even merely the continuing existence of the founding fathers of English football should be a cause for celebration. The fact that a market town with a population of 75,000 people can challenge for a place amongst the English football’s elite remains a testament to the strength in depth of English football. And who – apart from Sheffield United supporters – wouldn’t want to see Burnley vs Wolves in the Premier League next season?