Burnley, Ian Britton & The Many Faces of Heroism

by | Apr 1, 2016

When we close our eyes at night and imagine what we might do or might have done as professional footballers, we surrender to a world of glory. Scoring the winning goal to win a league title, perhaps, or drinking champagne from a silver cup that we have just played a crucial role in winning. Football, however, is a game with a multitude of faces, and there are exactly as many losers as there are winners of matches, and considerably smaller numbers of winners of trophies and medals than there are those who never win anything at all.

We call them “journeymen”, of course. The players who don’t necessarily scale incredible heights, who are the ballast of our game. To describe them as such may sound derogatory in nature, but it absolutely isn’t meant to be. It can be a hard life and frequently a thankless one, with the constant, anxiety-causing background hum of the possibility of career-ending injury or contracts not being renewed, but without them our game – and this is particularly the case in England, with its deep, deep pyramid system – most likely wouldn’t be able to function.

Sometimes, however, heroism can manifest itself in the strangest of ways in this game of ours. Ian Britton, a Scottish-born midfield player, died today at the age of sixty-one. He played for ten years for Chelsea, a regular fixture who held his place in a club that was spiraling into a debt-fuelled decline, and while he will undoubtedly be mourned by those who turned out over the course of that decade at Stamford Bridge, it will be a couple of hundred miles north of London that he is surely the most fondly remembered.

Burnley were one of the founder members of the Football League in 1888, but by the beginning of the 1980s the clubs was unwittingly entering a period of deep decline. In 1980, the club – which had been the champions of England twice – was relegated into the Third Division for the first time. The club was promoted back two years later, but this stay turned out to be a brief one, lasting just the one season before relegation’s sweet kiss brushed against its cheek again, and this time there was no quick route back, with a further relegation into Division Four following in 1985 as financial largesse exhibited earlier in the decade started to take a significant toll on the club against a background of rapidly falling attendances.

Ian Britton, meanwhile, had headed back to Scotland after his years at Chelsea, playing a minor role in Dundee United’s 1983 Scottish Premier League title role before a very brief spell at Arbroath and a return to England to play for Blackpool. He stayed at Bloomfield Road for three years, getting promoted from the Fourth Division to the Third Division in 1985  and therefore passing Burnley, who were travelling in the opposite direction, on the way. The following year, he moved to Turf Moor at the age of thirty-two.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Football League, something significant had changed. 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.

Turkeys being unlikely to vote for Christmas, of course, it wasn’t particularly commonplace for clubs to get voted out, and only thirteen clubs were voted out of the Football League subsequent to the formation of the Third Division North and South – which were later nationalised into the Third and Fourth Divisions – in 1920. Hartlepool United had to apply for re-election on fourteen separate occasions, but were never voted out. By the middle of the 1980s, however, it was clear that something had to change. Attendances were at their lowest point ever and clubs at the bottom end of Division Four were largely in disastrous financial conditions. In May 1986, the Football League voted to introduce automatic promotion and relegation from the end of the 1986/87 season.

This single vote 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 – and admittedly more meritocratic – system changed everything. The club was still in deep financial trouble, and it had finished the 1985/86 season in fourteenth place in the Fourth Division, ten places from the very bottom. Six years earlier, and for a multitude of different reasons, the idea of Burnley being at risk of becoming a non-league club would have been inconceivable to most. As the team kicked off the 1986/87 season at Torquay United, however, it must have seemed like a very real possibility.

Any Burnley supporters who had concerns at the start of the season were right to have them. In front of crowds that seldom rose much above 2,000 – and bottomed out on the first Saturday of November, when just 1,696 people turned out to see the team beat Colchester United by two goals to one – the team slid towards the bottom of the table, one of just seven league wins between then and the last Saturday of the season. On that penultimate Saturday of the season, there were five teams – Lincoln City, Torquay United, Tranmere Rovers, Burnley and bottom of the table Rochdale – who could still finish bottom of the table. 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. They 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 and knowing that even this might not be enough if other results didn’t go their way.

By this time, it was a three-horse race to the bottom, with the other two clubs in trouble being Lincoln City, who needed a point and were away at Swansea City, and Torquay United, who were at home against Crewe Alexandra and needed a win, although a point may be enough if results elsewhere went their way. If both Lincoln and Torquay won, Burnley were down regardless of their result against Orient. The severity of the position finally seemed to hit home with a local support that had drifted away from the club over previous years, 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 been 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, highlights of which are available here:

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 the club in 1989 and, after a brief spell playing non-league football, retiring.

That day has been described as the day that Burnley Football Club was reborn, and on the day that Ian Britton died the club announced a profit for the last financial year of £30.1m, an amount of money that would have seemed some distance beyond fanciful to the club three decades ago. It was reasonably common knowledge at the time that Burnley would have been unable to survive in the non-league game, such were was dreadful state of the club’s finances. It has also since been revealed by a former Burnley director, however, 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 last year 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. The later experience of Wimbledon FC would seem to suggest that the response may well not have been negative, so it may even be possible that supporters of Cardiff City owe a small debt of gratitude to Ian Britton as well. Where their club might have ended up without his intervention is anybody’s guess, and thankfully, we’ll never know.

Heroism, then, can take many different guises, and many of them are not readily apparent. Those Burnley supporters who have raised a glass to Ian Britton today have touched on a fundamental truth, not only about football but about the world in a more general sense. The butterfly effect is a well-known phenomenon, and just as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world, so can a lower division footballer’s goal set in motion the rebirth of one club and quite possibly the salvation of another. It’s not the sort of idle fantasy that we drift off towards when daydreaming out of the window whilst at work, but it’s valuable in its own right, as supporters of Burnley may well wish to consider as their club continues its push back towards the Premier League and even greater profitability.

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