As Bad As Things Got: Burnley, 9th May 1987
1976 had started badly for Burnley, with the departure of manager Jimmy Adamson, who’d played for the club from 1947 to 1964, had been on the coaching staff for the next six years, and then the manager from 1970. This wasn’t just a manager leaving a football club – it was the departure of a club legend. Burnley finished one place off the bottom of the First Division table at the end of the 1975/76 season, five points – the equivalent of seven, today – from safety.
The Second Division, however, didn’t provide much respite for a club suffering a twin hit of rapidly dwindling attendances and rising debt. They failed to finish above mid-table in the next three seasons, and in 1980, exactly twenty years after they’d been the champions of England, they were relegated again, into the Third Division for the first time in their history. In 1976, Burnley’s average home attendance was 18,620. By 1980, it was 8,118.
On this occasion, though, there was a moment that signalled another direction. Under the managership of Brian Miller, they won the Third Division championship on goal difference from Carlisle United at the end of the 1981/82 season. There was brief talk of a revival in this corner of Lancashire, but nothing came of it. They were relegated straight back the end of the following season.
Burnley’s finances hadn’t improved. The average crowd for the title season was 6,936. Crowds were now falling right the way across the game in England, partly because of hooliganism, partly because of the broader state of the economy, partly because of a perception of negative football. There were a myriad different reasons for this slump, but it hit hard. By the 1984/85 season, when Burnley were relegated again, this time into the Fourth Division, their average home attendance had fallen to just 4,116.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Football League, something significant was changing. The Alliance Premier League – later the Football Conference and now the National League – had been founded in 1979, bringing together clubs from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League for the first time in a national non-league division. Since its formation, the Football League had existed as a closed shop – cynics might have called it a cartel – with an archaic system at the bottom of the Fourth Division whereby the bottom four clubs had to be voted back in, a process called “re-election” at the end of every season, with non-league clubs also entitled to apply to join.
It wasn’t particularly commonplace for clubs to get voted out, and only thirteen clubs were, subsequent to the formation of the Third Division North and South, in 1920. Hartlepool United had to apply on fourteen separate occasions, but were never voted out. It could be volatile, but with four clubs having to reapply every year and no more than a handful of clubs being replaced each decades, the odds were very much in favour of the Football League clubs.
By the middle of the 1980s, though, it was clear that something had to change. League attendances were at their lowest point ever and clubs at the bottom end of Division Four were largely in a disastrous financial condition. In May 1986, the Football League voted to introduce automatic promotion and relegation with the now-rebranded Football Conference from the end of the 1986/87 season. Burnley finished the 1985/86 season in fourteenth place in Division Four.
Thevote may well have sent a shiver down the spine of anybody connected with Burnley Football Club. It may have been considered inconceivable that other members of Football League would have voted Burnley, one of its founder members and Football League champions just a quarter of a century earlier, out from its ranks, but the arrival of this new system changed everything. Things were getting more meritocratic, and that didn’t suit this particular club, at the time.
Burnley kicked off the 1986/87 season at Torquay United, and any supporters who had concerns from the outset turned out to be right. In front of crowds that seldom rose much above 2,000 – they bottomed out in November 1986, when just 1,696 people turned up to witness a rare win, against Colchester United – Burnley slid towards the bottom of the table, with just one win from seven league matches leading up to the last Saturday of the season.
The week before the last day, there had been five teams – Lincoln City, Torquay United, Tranmere Rovers, Burnley and Rochdale – who could still finish bottom. That day, Burnley sprang a surprise, beating promotion-chasing Southend United, but on the following Tuesday night they lost to Crewe Alexandra whilst results elsewhere didn’t go their way, either.
By this time, and with Tranmere and Rochdale having done enough to secure their safety, it was a three-horse race to the bottom, with the other two clubs in trouble being Lincoln City, who needed a point away at Swansea City, and Torquay United, who were at home against Crewe Alexandra and needed a win, although a point could be enough if results elsewhere went their way.
Burnley went into the final day of the season in ninety-second place in the Football League, needing a win against an Orient team that needed a win to have a chance of securing a play-off place in order to stay up. If both Lincoln and Torquay won, Burnley were down regardless of their result against Orient, but this didn’t seem likely, considering that these were the bottom three teams in the division.
The severity of the position finally seemed to hit home, across the country. The story received extensive local and national media coverage. It felt as though people had forgotten about Burnley. Eleven years earlier, they’d been a First Division club. Exactly twenty-five years earlier, they’d been playing in an FA Cup final against Spurs. Two years prior to that, they’d been the champions of England.
And on top of that, they were one of the twelve original founding members of the Football League. No founder member of the Football League had left it since Accrington, in the 1890s. This was the closest that a founder member had come to losing their Football League place since then.
A local support that had drifted away from the club remembered it again, and a crowd of 15,696 turned out at Turf Moor. The atmosphere was febrile – the Orient manager Frank Clark reportedly received a visit from a police officer warning about his players safety should they win – so would be entirely understandable if the players’ nerves were completely shredded as they took to the pitch.
Burnley’s players, however, eventually rose to the challenge. Shortly before half-time, Neil Grewcock cut in from the right-hand side and fired a diagonal shot across the penalty area and in. Just as importantly, other results were also going their way. Torquay were two goals down at home against Crewe, whilst Lincoln weren’t doing much better at Swansea.
And then three minutes into the second half, a Burnley corner from the right-hand side fell kindly for an unmarked Ian Britton, and his header from six yards out dropped into the bottom corner of the goal to double Burnley’s lead. An Orient goal turned the tension back up for the last half hour, but the Clarets held onto win the match.
Elsewhere, an even more unlikely set of circumstances were making for an incredible end to an extraordinary day. Crowd trouble at the Torquay match had led to police with dogs getting involved and with a couple of minutes left to play one of the dogs, in the heat – and over-excitement – of the moment, bit the Torquay United defender Jim McNichol, who had already pulled a goal back for his team with a deflected free-kick.
McNichol received three puncture wounds and required five minutes attention, as well as seventeen stitches after the match, and in the third minute of injury time following the bite, Paul Dobson scored an equaliser to send Lincoln, who had lost two-nil at Swansea, down on goal difference instead.
Ian Britton’s goal, which had given Burnley a two-goal cushion that the team had ended up needing to employ, had kept one of the founder members of the Football League in the Football League. It was his first goal for the club. He would go on to make one hundred and eight appearances for Burnley before leaving in 1989 and, after a brief spell playing non-league football, retiring.
It was reasonably common knowledge at the time that Burnley would have struggled to survive in the non-league game, such were was dreadful state of the club’s finances, and it has also since been revealed by a former Burnley director that the club’s position was such that it was considering purchasing another club, Cardiff City, and moving it lock, stock and barrel to Lancashire in the event of relegation.
Cardiff City were up for sale at the time, and the director concerned, Clive Holt, told the Burnley match-day programme in a 2014 interview that “We would have been the first franchise club had we lost our league status, because we felt we couldn’t survive in non-league.” He also stated that they never found out whether the Football League or Football Association would have ratified such an arrangement.
Burnley’s recovery took time. By the end of the 1980s, although never found themselves sucked into drama at the very foot of the table, they were still a bottom half of Division Four club. It took the intervention of Jimmy Mullen, to finally put some colour back into the club’s cheeks. Mullen had arrived at the club as assistant to manager Frank Casper, but when Casper resigned early in the 1991/92 season, it was a huge shock. Casper had taken the team to sixth place in Division Four in 1991, their highest league position since relegation six years earlier, and Mullen was suddenly thrust into the managerial position. Two years later, he took them up again. The club reached the Premier League in 2009.
Notts County became the first of the founding twelve Football League clubs to be relegated into the non-league game, in 2019, but Burnley going into the last game of the season needing a win to stay in the Football League was a different matter altogether. This was a club that had won the Football League Championship just 27 years earlier, enough for most adults to be able to remember, to some extent or other.
And on top of that, this was the first year of automatic promotion and relegation. The novelty of automatic promotion and relegation between the League and thhe Conference would have brought attention to whoever was involved, but a club like Burnley being involved gave the media a huge story, whatever happened at Turf Moor on the last day of the 1986/87 season. They would either go down or they would stay up and that would be a news story, whichever way it went. On this occasion it turned out to be a good news story, for Burnley supporters.