This story is over 5 years old.


The Death of Ian Britton and the Rebirth of Burnley Football Club

Ian Britton, one of the most important figures in Burnley's post-war history, died in March. The town's football team have recently secured a return to the Premier League, but the chances are they wouldn't exist were it not for Britton.

Ian Britton died of cancer at the end of March, aged 61. He didn't have the most glittering career, playing 263 times for a deeply underwhelming mid-seventies Chelsea as they bungeed between the First and Second Divisions, before traipsing round Dundee, Arbroath, Blackpool, Burnley and Morecambe, then a final hurrah managing Lancashire side Nelson FC. Show me a kid who grew up dreaming of managing Nelson and I'll show you a case for Childline; nobody should have expectations that low.


Ian Britton, though, is one of the most important figures in Burnley's post-war history. He is central in the foundation myth of the club as it is now, an East Lancashire rewrite of Batman Begins, starring The Abstract Concept Of Northern Post-Industrial Decline as Liam Neeson.

On the Friday before the final game of the 1986-87 season, my dad was at home in Corbridge with my mum, Sue. Meanwhile, Burnley Football Club – the side he'd watched winning the First Division in 1960 while growing up in Nelson – sat in the morgue, a corpse waiting to be carved up for spare parts and dumped into a pauper's grave. "I fretted all week about it. I had this sense of disloyalty in not being at the Turf," he remembers. A vignette on Burnley's plight featured on the BBC's Nine O'Clock News.

"It was the usual piece: smoking chimneys, smoking old folk, lamentations, etc. I told Sue I had to be there. This was my football team they were writing them off. Sue said she had to come too, as she wasn't sure what state I'd be in for driving home."

By the 86-87 campaign, a slow decline had turned into an outright farce. We lost 3-0 to non-league Telford in the first round of the FA Cup. We lost 6-0 at home to Hereford United, for God's sake – Hereford bloody United. Going into the final day, we needed to win against play-off-chasing Leyton Orient and hope that one of Lincoln City or Torquay United lost. We were a bit fucked, basically.


"They'd been absolutely abysmal all season," says Chris Boden, now chief football writer for the Burnley Express. "I can remember the funeral march being sung at home games. It was proper gallows humour. It was awful."

Ray Simpson, now the club historian, was on the old Longside Stand that day, too. "We just felt that our day had gone; it was all over, bar the shouting. All we could do was just do our best on the day, and even that might not have been enough. Everybody was anxious. All the media turned up, because they were expecting the coffin lid to slam shut on what had been one of football's biggest names."

READ MORE: Baying for Claret at Blackburn vs. Burnley

"Hearsay at the time was that if they had gone down they would've ceased to exist," says Chris. "I don't think they'd have taken their place in the Conference. It'd be a carpet factory or summat now, Turf Moor."

Chris says of the club, "there was no money there, and it was just withering away and dying," and the same could apply to the town itself. The journalist Matthew Engel visited in 1988, observing that the Fourth Division at the time was "like a repository of the Britain left behind in the 1980s: uneconomic, dated, provincial, and kept going out of unfashionable sentiment". He continued: "If their football clubs go, some of the towns may vanish from the national consciousness completely."

Chris is more blunt: "They didn't have a pot to piss in, basically."


The three things that industrial Burnley had defined itself by were its cotton, its coal, and its football. In the 1920s, there had been 100,000 looms and 100,000 people in the town, but the last deep coal mine shut in 1981 and the final steam-powered mill went in 1982. Now Burnley FC was in danger of dying on its arse too, collapsing a year short of its centenary. 99 years of existence would be the final indignity. Frantic, staring into the void, the board hurriedly sent a plea for clemency to the Football League and the local press. The gist was that, as founder members of the Football League, it was unthinkable – in fact, downright ungrateful – that Burnley could ever be kicked out of their own party. Even the other clubs in the relegation scrap backed the idea, they said. No dice, replied the League; play better football, and try not to get relegated.

More than that, the monopoly that the club had held over locals' affections was disintegrating. Colne Dynamoes, despite sounding like a short-lived Grange Hill spin-off, were clambering up the league pyramid nearby and had a chairman who wanted Turf Moor for his own. Since 46,000 saw Burnley beat Hamburg 3-1 in the first leg of the 1961 European Cup quarter-final, attendances had collapsed to scarcely 2,000.

The afternoon of 9 May was spring-like in East Lancashire, warm and pleasant. My mum and dad arrived and were astonished to find that 16,000 people had come to pay their respects. The atmosphere was febrile. Impromptu chants of "You'll Never Walk Alone" broke out among fans with a less developed sense of irony. Referee George Courtney, who'd officiated at the World Cup a year earlier, delayed kick-off by 15 minutes so everyone could get in.


"It felt like everyone was turning up to a wake that day," says Chris. He was a 12-year-old on the Longside that day, frustrated that the programme vendors had sold out. "It was a souvenir of Burnley's last game in the Football League; maybe even their last game as a club full stop."

The team that day was an odd, ungainly mixture of experienced but washed-up pros, three 18-year-old kids, and bulked out with sawdust. There were some legit greats in there – 34-year-old Welsh international Leighton James, who'd made his Burnley debut 17 years earlier, and captain Ray 'Whooshy' Deakin (that makes him sound like a minor Wodehouse character, but my dad is adamant that was his actual nickname). That said, you don't end up bottom of the Fourth Division without being almost completely bollocks. The manager, Brian Miller, had been a wing-half for Burnley in our early sixties glory days, winning the First Division title and playing in the European Cup; now he was 90 minutes from watching his only club expire before his eyes.

The first half was, as you might expect, a bit edgy. Watching it now, the two teams look less like professional footballers and more like a collection Stan Laurels and Oliver Hardys, haring around frantically with a rough idea of what had to be done but short of the necessary skills. In the first minute, 18-year-old Peter Leebrook nodded Terry Howard's flicked header off the Burnley goal-line. Shortly after, Orient's Kevin Hales did the same from a Joe Gallagher header. When Gallagher then headed lamely back toward Joe Neenan, Burnley keeper Kevin Godfrey intercepted and his deflected shot swerved over the angle of post and crossbar.


That became the pattern of the game – panic, chance, scramble, counter, panic – until injury time in the first half. Neil Grewcock, signed from non-league Shepshed Charterhouse, picked up the ball on the right wing from Britton. He dived inside, skating past two defenders and whipping the ball into the far corner. 1-0 to Burnley; half-time came as a relief.

READ MORE: The Rapid Transformation of UK Football Coverage

Three minutes after the restart, the Clarets won a free kick on the right wing. Grewcock looped the ball in and at the far post Ian Britton – tiny, stocky Ian Britton, only really in the box to make up the numbers – nodded a free header into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.

Then, disaster. Neenan arrived about three days too late to meet a cross and got next to nothing on it. The Orient winger Alan Comfort stuck the loose ball. "He seemed almost reluctant, but he was unmarked at the far post and couldn't really miss," dad recalls. "He barely celebrated."

34 minutes remained. The Burnley players' exhausted legs turned to jelly. Britton screwed a chance wide. Orient hit the post. Word spread that Lincoln were losing, but nobody was sure. It was all too much for local journalist Keith McNee, who was slumped against a pillar in the press box having a coronary. His heart gave out for good just three weeks later.

Then, at last, Courtney called time. Dad launched himself out of his seat, smashing against my mum's thigh. The bruise it left was so deep that I'm not sure she's ever really forgiven him. "Then I wept," he says. "Burnley fans covered the pitch. I remember the Orient fans, who'd missed out on the play-offs, applauding us." A conga line broke out in front of the Longside. Poor old Lincoln City, two years after the Bradford City fire, were the first team to be relegated from the Football League altogether.


Mum was right: exhausted, elated and drained, dad was in no fit state to drive himself home. The next day he bought every newspaper he could lay his hands on and pored over the match reports.

"People, grown people, were bawling their eyes out," Chris remembers. "I think it took that day for everyone to realise what the club meant to them." A year later, Burnley played Wolves at Wembley in the Sherpa Van Trophy final. The teams each took 40,000 fans down, a record for the competition. We lost, but it didn't matter. Colne Dynamoes splintered in 1990. After that great spasm of collective panic, the club that had been clinically dead was moonwalking into a brighter future.

Since then, there have been ups (the time we had a blimp moored outside Turf Moor), downs (the time the blimp blew away), and creamy middles (the ultimately inconclusive blimp enquiry). But without Ian Britton, there probably wouldn't have been thousands of people coming to Burnley every Saturday and spending money in the town. The board almost certainly wouldn't be cashing an oversized novelty cheque for £100m, and our family get-togethers wouldn't have such a convenient conversational crux.

So, on behalf of the town, the fans, and the Boxing Day hours I'll never lose trying to mime "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit" during family Charades without traumatising my mum: cheers, Ian. All of Burnley owes you.