BURNLEY 0 LINCOLN CITY 1 (FA Cup) and yes you read that right.
The conditions on the day of the Chelsea game brought back to mind the curious expression ‘the matchday experience.’ Way back but not that long ago, when it was a bit of a test being a Burnley supporter; Stan Ternent was manager and then Steve Cotterill, and the club was struggling to find a shilling for the gas meter, plus the Jimmy Mac stand had this embarrassing void where there are now classrooms, bars and corporate areas. The CEO was Dave Edmundson and if memory serves it was Dave that coined the phrase back then of ‘improving the matchday experience.’
Up until then the matchday experience was frequently pretty grim in a ground that was often barely two thirds full and Dave wracked his brains to make it better, although many might argue he racked his brains. We always used to wonder just what was meant, in fact, by ‘the matchday experience,’ but whatever it was he didn’t have much success. At the end of the day there is only so much you can do. Brendan Flood tried parachutists and we all know how that ended and the Fancy Pants Dog Troupe simply inspired widespread derision. The Christmas Street Market that took place down Harry Potts Way was a great success but let’s be honest, the best-ever matchday experience was being witness to Bertie Bee upending the naked streaker.
The Chelsea matchday experience was defined by the weather. The image of the Chelsea subs sitting beneath layers of blankets will remain for a long time. My feet thawed out about midnight.
Be it SKY or Match of the Day, they just can’t help it. Fortress Turf Moor, but always the views of mill chimneys, terraced rows and wet rooftops beneath skies that are always grey. If the weather is bad, they love it even more. Stereotype is alive and well. But we all love a bit of praise; whenever Mrs T tells me I did a good job of the hoovering, life takes on a rosy glow. It’s the same when the spotlight falls on your football club and the compliments rain down, even if they are preceded by views of grimy streets.
The focus on Burnley both pre the Chelsea game and afterwards was inevitable. Dyche, ever the pragmatist, was filled with all the homespun wisdom that comes from grounded feet, not head in the clouds. ‘There are no gimmes at this club, we don’t bet the ranch; we have to work hard for everything we’ve got. The players know the value of that. We don’t do blind faith here.’ The game always eleven versus eleven so on any one day anything is possible and Burnley always have a chance.
Thus it turned out exactly so against Chelsea and whilst they were shivering in the weather and huddling beneath blankets, we were rubbing our hands telling ourselves that there was just a bit of a nip in the air, and that ‘aye, it were a bit parky.’
The one dissenting voice amongst the universal praise came from the Independent’s Jack Pitt-Brooke who observed of Burnley: ‘This was a physical bombardment, with plenty of tackles and elbows that are the far side of legal in 2017. Eden Hazard got his usual kicking while Ashley Barnes laid out Cesar Azpilicueta with an elbow which was not even punished with a booking.’ We can only assume that Pitt-Brooke is a Chelsea supporter.
Dyche was quite pithy about Conte’s confession that he had never heard of Barton. ’That surprises me. I thought everyone on earth knew about Joey Barton and if they don’t, he will make sure that they do.’ Kante certainly knows who Barton is after the thudding challenge that left him on the deck, so admirably described by Jamie Carragher as ‘a scouse kiss.’
Jim White in the Telegraph came up with perhaps the best one-liner: ‘This sub-zero Sunday lunchtime in Burnley, with sleet falling on the mill chimneys behind the Bob Lord stand, made a wet Wednesday in Stoke look tropical by comparison.’
Ex-footballer Pat Nevin was eloquent in his description of the afternoon as he imagined the Spanish and Brazilian players so used to having the sun on their backs in their native lands on warm summer evenings: ‘Then try to imagine how different that all feels to an absolutely freezing, wet, windy February day at Turf Moor, Burnley. With threatening, leaden, grey skies overhead and a gritty northern realism oppressively surrounding the entire occasion ; from the local skyline, to the opposition manager’s voice and his team’s harsh, unsentimental style of play.’
And just 24 hours later it was almost as if spring had arrived when the sun shone, a blue sky appeared and we could see how many snowdrops were appearing by the roadsides and daffodils were just starting to appear in the garden. It was Valentine’s Day too.
I hadn’t bought Mrs T a card on the grounds that every day is Valentine’s Day in our house. As spin goes, it’s a good line and if you average a decent card is £2 a time over the years, it’s saved me the best part of a hundred quid. But: I did take her out for a meal a couple of days later. We spent one Valentine’s in Brussels many years ago. They are all memorable and special but this one in Brussels was even more so. I don’t know why, there was just something about it, something different; maybe it was the candlelight, the romantic music, the soft pillows with the chocolate underneath, the ambience, the steaks. Or it might have been that we’d just signed Ian Wright.
Thanks to our friends who then had a travel business, it was Business Class on Eurostar with all the trimmings. It was a 5 star hotel in the centre of Brussels; it was splendid breakfasts and fine dining. It was seeing all the landmarks, shopping in the flea-markets and those very special Belgian Hot Chocolates. It was seeing lots of Eurocrats before they became arrogant Eurofatcats. All of these things made that Valentine’s weekend so memorable. But largely it was the signing of Ian Wright.
Funny the things you remember; the first evening meal we had in a charming little restaurant down a narrow, cobbled street was perfect. The second was defined by the most obsequious yet simultaneously haughty little waiter we’d ever clapped eyes on. He was terribly short yet did his best to look down on us. His crisp white starched apron alas came right down to the floor so you couldn’t see his feet and he seemed to just glide around the room as if he was on castors. He fawned but was sneering. He raised one eyebrow each time he spoke to us. He was attentive of course, yet managed to be condescending. All this was way back in February, 2000. All that time ago but I still remember it well. I’ll never forget it; we’d just signed Ian Wright.
Without looking it up I can still remember the score on the Saturday afternoon, Burnley 0 Wigan 0 and a crowd of 20,000. Some Valentine’s you just never forget. This was one of them. Cardiff fans won’t ever forget winning 4-3 at Derby on Valentine’s Day. ‘We’re only here ‘cos we’re single,’ they sang.
Sean D rotated the squad just a bit. In came Darikwa, Tarkowski, Gudmondsson and Flanagan. It was a strong cup team with Vokes and Gray up front. Lincoln had sold out all of their allocation, leaving the question just how many home fans would turn out, the club maximising the possibility that this might be the last home game for six weeks, unless the sixth round was another home tie. The FA Cup is great at this stage and we wondered if Fulham might beat Spurs, Millwall could upset Leicester, could Wolves surprise the Chelsea second X1? Surely Burnley would beat non-league Lincoln. Of course they were the underdogs, but we too remembered the times when Burnley had been in Division Three and Four and had been underdogs. These were the days when even Rochdale could stroll along and win.
It was another first for the club and in fact for any football club in the UK. Mascots for the game were pensioners organised by the Community Department. The jokes came out fast and furious. They’ll be setting off at 12.05 for a 12.30 kick-off. They won’t be holding hands with the players; they’ll be held up by the players. Zimmers were forbidden as they would damage the pitch. Wenger walks out with his players every week. Defibrillators would be positioned in each corner of the pitch. St John’s CPR medics would be on standby with one handily at the back of the line.
Much was made in the build-up of Lincoln’s centre forward Matt Rhead, very much portrayed as a human bulldozer on account of him once working for JCB. ‘He’s comin’ to get yer,’ was the basic message on the Lincoln messageboards. The puns rolled out – the JCB worker who wants to dump Burnley out, was one. The rest were even worse. Lincoln trained at Blackburn’s training centre at Brockhall and were allegedly exhorted by Blackburn players to spring a surprise result. We wondered if Anthony Stokes was one of them. According to press reports he had been fined 230,000 euros for head-butting an Elvis impersonator. Simon Jordon, once chairman of Crystal Palace, was quick to tweet: ‘That’s roughly what I paid Anthony Stokes for impersonating a footballer.’
When the two teams took to the field, those with a memory for history might have contemplated the year 1987. Burnley and Lincoln were lowly Division Four equals, had met that season twice, and at the very end it was Lincoln City that exited the Football League and not Burnley on the very last day of the season. It’s a year that is etched deeply and painfully into the psyche of the supporters of both clubs. One went down and one stayed, albeit by the skin of its teeth. 30 years on, one club is non-league again, but battling to return; the other is light years ahead, has progressed hugely, seen life in the Premier League three times, is wealthier than it ever dreamed it would be, and can pay £14million for a player. But none of that mattered one jot. On this day to our utter astonishment and embarrassment, Lincoln City won.
In truth Burnley were rank awful on the day. ‘A day to forget,’ said Dyche, with no positives. The first half was so dire that this could have been a throwback to 1987 and the football that Burnley played then. The pensioners that led out the team, and everyone else of a certain age, were disbelieving. We’d seen such a result once before in 1975 and never thought we’d see it again, a non-league side winning at Turf Moor against a side in the highest division. Both came with a game plan, both worked and Burnley just did not know how to cope, did not have the guile to cope, did not have the technical ability to cope, and on top of all that it was a day when too many individuals simply had a poor day. Nothing they tried worked as Burnley bumbled and fumbled for the entire first half. Tis true they created shots and odd chances but none were dangerous. Pat Nevin on BT was saying he was struggling to come up with new ways to describe it.
Of course Lincoln grew more confident, as they realised that they had the measure of a side that could do nothing right in the box and rarely able to get down the flanks at pace and behind the defence. Meanwhile Lincoln never once looked like scoring at the other end.
At last as the second half went by Burnley showed a tad more urgency as though it had just sunk in that they hadn’t actually scored yet, but the Lincoln ‘keeper, last ditch defending, hoofed no-nonsense clearances and sheer willpower, plus Burnley shots that placed spectators in more danger than the goal and a wild swing and miss when in a great position by Gray meant Burnley got absolutely nowhere. By now Barton seemed more and more wound up; whatever was going on, on the sly, was working. He and Rhead were at each other more and more: Rhead’s arm with Joey running under it, lightly touched Joey’s head, hardly enough to ruffle his hair. He went down like a sack of spuds. The scrimmage and ruckus that followed a later incident was the first real entertainment of the game, the only thing missing – half a dozen handbags. If JB was aiming to get Rhead sent off, who could blame him, Barton was the victim of a horrendous and quite brutal elbow in the face (the evidence on film on twitter). Make no mistake this was a red card offence. MOTD made no mention of this one, or the cynical foul on Gudmondsson that took him out of the game early on.
This brutal game in its death throes, the magnificent Lincoln hordes baying for the whistle: 0-0 seemed the inevitable result but then it was horror time with a shambles of a goal to concede. A deep corner went to a player in 10 feet of open space and he headed it back across the goal to the far post. Five defenders plus Heaton somehow allowed Raggett to head home, or at least clearly over the line. It was the last minute, so creating the classic fairytale for one team and nightmare for the other, a repeat of the scenario in the League Cup at Accrington early in the season. The luck of the Cup indeed: replays showed it was not a corner.
‘We dragged ‘em into a battle, that was the game plan,’ said the Bulldozer after the game, his elbows bruised and reddened. And so exited Burnley, beaten at their own game; once again in the record books, but alas for the wrong reason. We trudged away wearily, the matchday experience utterly forgettable, not best pleased as Lincoln enjoyed their revenge for the events of 30 years ago.