FLASHBACK: Blez’s ton puts end to Cinderella tag

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FIRST published by Charles Perrault in 1697, the folk tale Cinderella embodies a myth-element of unjust oppression translating to triumphant reward.

The term “Cinderella” has, by analogy, come to mean one whose attributes are unrecognised, or one who unexpectedly achieves recognition or success after a period of obscurity and neglect.

Representatives, officials and players of Lowerhouse had been burdened with the tag of perennial Cinderella club for many decades. The club, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, went without a carriage, Prince Charming, Fairy Godmother, glass slipper or any other clichéd apparatus of literature for a staggering 142 years, until their unwavering misfortune suddenly changed to remarkable fortune.

Former England Test team captain, Sir Ian Botham OBE, was once quoted saying: “To me, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Sport is all about playing and competing. Whatever you do in cricket and sport, enjoy it, be positive and try to win.”

For almost a century-and-a-half the West Enders competed, remained positive and tried to win; but to no avail. The Lancashire League outfit, one of the founder members in 1892, boasted a dubious distinction at the turn of the Millennium - the absence of silverware in the trophy cabinet at Liverpool Road.

They had never won the league, finishing runners-up in 1910 and 1982, and coming close to winning it on the last day in 1997. And they had never won the cup since its inception in 1919, featuring in only one final in 1980 at East Lancashire.

But that all changed, and history was made on Sunday, August 8th, 2004, when skipper Matt Hope guided the club to Worsley Cup glory with victory over Haslingden in front of a bumper crowd. Phil Simpson and Chris Boden reported proceedings for the Burnley Express on a historic day in the West End.

As the tie culminated Phil wrote: The way the game was brought to its conclusion summed up all the hard graft that is forever going on behind the scenes. With just 10 runs required for victory, stalwart Chris Bleazard was joined at the crease by teenage sensation - and nephew - Ben Heap. Heap had already been a catalyst for an upturn in fortunes in the first innings, as he sent the Haslingden dangermen packing. But Bleazard - then on 89 - not only had the winning runs in his sights, but a deserved century. A top-edged six over his own head brought their goal even nearer, and when Heap took a single to level the scores, Bleazard was on 97.

His words to Heap - “You stay where you are, you’re not running” - signalled his intent. No prizes for guessing where the next ball was heading. I’m not sure his smashed four through the covers ever made it to the boundary. But such was the ferocity of the effort, had the entire fanbase not descended on to the pitch in celebration, it clearly would have reached its target. That solitary shot sparked delirium among the players, supporters, and anyone else who had just witnessed this historic event.

He went on: For every Best In Show there is a Best Supporting Role, and Charlie Cottam grabbed that accolade with both hands. When he came to the crease to partner Bleazard in the 21st over, Lowerhouse were 70-3 chasing 232 for victory. To get 162 runs in 28 overs, with your professional (Peter Fulton) sitting in the pavilion, is a big ask - let alone in a final.

It was another mesmeric chase. That had battled against the odds to overcome Enfield’s 310-run total in the semi-final, and showed courage and tenacity, while maintaining their discipline, to fight back and beat Haslingden to claim the club’s first ever piece of silverware. All those years without success could be banished to the archives.

Chairman David Wren said to Chris: “I just think about people like Jack Hayes and Ken Smalley who absolutely loved this place - there’s been a few tears. But it was the perfect script.”

Professional Peter Fulton said: “The crowd, the whole atmosphere of the day, and the reaction of the players after the game - it doesn’t matter who you play for, New Zealand or whatever, you are not going to see anything better than that. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my career so far. To come from New Zealand and win the club’s first trophy is just amazing.”

Captain Matt Hope said: “I’ve never felt anything like that ever - I can’t put it into words. It’s been a long wait but it’s been worth it. I hope it’s the first of many for the club. It’s been fantastic.”

The names Matt Hope, Joe Beneduce, Chris Bleazard, Jez Hope, Vishal Tripathi, Jon Finch, Charlie Cottam, Chris Benbow, Ben Heap, Saeed Riaz and professional Peter Fulton will be inscribed in to Liverpool Road’s coveted Hall of Fame for their efforts on that pivotal day. But characters such as Phil Astin, Stan Heaton, Keith Fairclough and Frank Entwistle, among many others, will also have praise bestowed on them for their significant contributions.

Eight years on, hero Bleazard (pictured being chaired off the pitch) told the Express: “It’s still firmly in my memory even though we’ve won the league twice since. The first time you win anything is a fantastic achievement. We had put a lot of effort in to the semi-final so to get to the final and win it was great. Everybody involved with the club helped put the day together and put in a lot of effort to make the occasion what it was. I’ve never seen the ground as full. It was the first time in the modern era that the ground was jam-packed with people, marquees and all the facilities that went with it.

“It was the first time in my career that I had been to a final; Lowerhouse had only been there once before. We had never even gone close to winning the league either so it was our first chance of success. The opportunity to become the first men to win silverware for Lowerhouse Cricket Club was fantastic.”

Bleazard added: “Lots of people I meet around still talk about it, non players and even non cricket fans. But they had still turned up on the day to support the club. And what a following it was. They, and I, look back on that day with very fond memories.

“People always told me that I’d regretting not moving on, not winning anything. They said I should consider moving on and moving up because I would look back with regret. It was a great piece of personal pride to win that cup. It was an outstanding feeling and a good way to put those doubters to rest. It was a day of justification.

“I can’t believe it’s almost eight years ago. Looking back it was great to hit those winning runs and to get a century. But I’d have given up those personal milestones just to have won the cup. To perform under pressure is always a benchmark of how good a player or team you are. To do what we did in the semi-final and final was unbelievable. It was great from a personal point of view to get 100 in both those games and that all the hard work paid off in those two performances.”

The cup win undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for future success. Lowerhouse were crowned Lancashire League champions for the first time the following year and 2012, the club’s 150th year, will see them fight to retain last year’s title.

“The year after we won the league, and we did it quite convincingly,” said Bleazard. “That was a fantastic boost and it showed that we are a decent side. I thought we had the best side with one of the best pros. We went in to 2011 without much expectation and with a young side. In all honesty I think that championship win was a better achievement than 2005. The cup win was a super day and I’ll always remember it.”