IT’S difficult to digest the fact that a quarter-of-a-century ago, Burnley Football Club stared possible extinction in its hideous and unwelcoming face.
With 90 minutes remaining of the 1986/87 campaign, the Clarets were rooted to the bottom of the old Fourth Division, meaning the most symbolic, paramount and defining fixture of the club’s history - against play-off hopefuls Orient - awaited them.
One of the founder members of the Football League in 1888, a club that had been crowned English champions in 1920/21 and 1959/60, was locked in the jaws of relegation following a 1-0 loss to Crewe Alexandra on the penultimate fixture of the season, though four teams, namely Tranmere Rovers, Rochdale, Torquay United and Lincoln City were still in reach.
Clarets hero Ian Britton remembers the day that the town’s Mecca, Turf Moor, became a more prominent feature in Burnley’s landscape than ever before.
“Obviously it’s always in your mind,” he said. “I really can’t believe that it was 25 years ago, it doesn’t seem that long. It’s a good memory to have because it was such a great and significant occasion in the history of Burnley Football Club.”
Britton added: “The day still resonates now because it was a time when one of the biggest clubs, with an established history, could have dropped out of the Football League. I was just so elated that they didn’t go down and since then the club has gone from strength to strength.
“It was a great occasion and it’s nice that it’s still remembered and celebrated. It’s nice that people still mention it. It’s a great feeling and I’m proud to have been involved. It’s 25 years ago and some still remember it like it was yesterday.”
Congestion outside the ground - the attendance eventually confirmed as 17,600 - forced referee George Courtney to delay the fixture for 15 minutes. And it took until first half injury time for the deadlock to be broken as Neil Grewcock beat David Cass with a stinging 20-yard drive.
But the most valuable goal in the club’s illustrious history arrived in the second half when Britton headed home Grewcock’s measured set-piece to double the advantage.
“The day wasn’t just about my goal, it was about Neil’s goal as well and it was a team performance,” declared Britton. “It was a big effort from everyone on the biggest day of the club’s history because if we’d have gone out of the league then the club wouldn’t have recovered.”
He added: “I’d like to think it got the ball rolling, that it acted as a springboard to get the club back on its feet. I can still see my header now. Neil put the cross in and I’ve reacted quicker than the Orient defender.
“I was the smallest man on the pitch and I scored with a header. It was the biggest goal of my career because it meant so much to so many. I still dream about it every now and again.”
Granville Shackleton had accurately encapsulated the cocktail of emotions that swept through the stadium on May 9th for the Burnley Express. The apprehension and fear prior to kick-off, the jubilation after taking a 2-0 lead, the despair as Allan Comfort halved the deficit, the unbearable tension as the clock ticked down, and the ecstasy and relief at the sound of the full-time whistle as the Clarets retained their Football League status.
And those varying sensations were also shared by Britton. “We went 2-0 up but then Alan Comfort scored and the tension kicked in,” said the former Clarets striker. “Nerves had crept in from the start as well when the kick-off was delayed but at the end there was jubilation and it was a great day for the fans, players, directors and everyone associated with Burnley FC.
“The other results rallied through and to find out that we had stayed up was a great achievement for us. We’d had a superb run in our final three games which ultimately kept us in the Football League.”
Brian Miller’s side, captained by Ray Deakin, avoided being swallowed in to the lower echelons of football after climbing to 22nd; Torquay dropped below with a 2-2 draw at home to Crewe though it was Lincoln City who dropped out of the league on goal difference courtesy of a 2-0 loss to Swansea at the Vetch Field.