Baying for Claret: Blackburn and Burnley's Bitter Local Rivalry

As fellow founder members of the Football League, the rivalry between Blackburn Rovers and Burnley is almost as old as the sport itself. More than a century later, their relationship is as bitter as ever.

by Marcus Raymond
11 March 2016, 12:55pm

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It's 10am on a Saturday in Blackburn and the roads around Ewood Park are awash with groups of football supporters getting tanked up. As cans are downed and chants belted out, a Blackburn Rovers fan darts out of his taxi and down an alley shouting, "We're Blackburn Rovers, we'll piss where we want!" Suddenly, he goes quiet. Emerging seconds later, he cuts a relieved figure: "Shit," he exclaims, "I pissed me pants then. Thought t'dibble were looking at me."

Like the other Rovers fans this morning, he is waiting for a bus to take him to Burnley for the Championship sides' meeting at Turf Moor. It's the only way to get to the game – when Blackburn and Burnley meet, away supporters have no option but to travel in a herd of police-escorted coaches. Match tickets are only sold with bus tickets; there is no other way in or out.

The draconian travel arrangements for away fans in the East Lancashire derby speak volumes about relations between the teams. An outsider would be right to infer that these measures are in place to stop the widespread disorder that would otherwise be inevitable. The police operation is huge, but not excessive.

This is the story of a tribal and sometimes vulgar football experience, where the match itself is just part of a murky cocktail of angst. Chants about the dead, grown men feigning throat-slitting, sick comments shouted at passers-by through bus windows – people truly can turn into animals on derby day.

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As fellow founder members of the Football League, this rivalry is almost as old as the sport itself. A late 19th century fixture was stopped due to violence amongst fans, the animosity reportedly caused by Rovers complaining to the authorities that Burnley had an illegal number of Scottish players. Blackburn winning a cotton contract ahead of their neighbours further intensified the rivalry between the towns, and this spilled on to the pitch.

Relations have not always been this bitter, however. Before the 1970s, the two sets of fans co-existed and would sometimes watch each other's home games. But, as hooliganism took hold of the British game, fixtures between the two descended into violence and chaos, including ambushes, running battles, and trains being bricked.

Although Burnley had often played in a higher league than Blackburn – competing in the top flight from 1947 through mid-seventies – they eventually nose-dived, and in 1987 almost dropped out of the Football League altogether. In the nineties, a decade that saw Blackburn win the Premier League, it became Rovers' turn to enjoy local bragging rights.

In 1991, after Burnley lost a promotion play-off against Torquay, a plane flew over Turf Moor pulling a banner that read: "Staying down 4 ever luv Rovers Ha Ha Ha." This is rumoured to have been bankrolled by Blackburn legend Simon Garner. Garner once emerged from the Turf Moor dressing room, having scored against Burnley, to a home fan brandishing a meat cleaver.

These contrasting fortunes meant the teams didn't meet in the league between 1983 and 2000. But, if anything, this only served to intensify the hatred. When they finally played again in 2000, a 2-0 win for Blackburn led Burnley fans to take out their frustrations on their own town centre, something Rovers supporters still crow about today. Millions of BBC viewers witnessed three pitch invasions in a 2005 FA Cup meeting between the two, including a 42-year-old Burnley hooligan squaring up to Blackburn's Robbie Savage before assaulting two police officers.

And in 2010 – despite the security operation being ramped up to full East Lancashire Police State levels – fans ripped out seats and tried their luck at surging through police lines for a scrap. So, while there was an initial sense of awe at the police operation in place this year, the potted history of clashes between the sides makes it easier to process the madness.

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By 10.30 fans had boarded the 36 buses ready to leave. 20 minutes later, still waiting to move, the passengers were getting uptight. "For fucks sake, set 'em off. Pricks. We could be fucking there by now!"

In droves, fans started getting back off and running to piss against fences – seal already broken – or have another cheeky fag, before jumping back on board. "We'll be frustrated to fuck by the time we actually get there. This is a ploy," someone groaned.

To pass the time, people started to hand out dust-masks, part of a pre-organised plan to suggest that Burnley is a disease-ridden hovel. "We'll fucking need these where we're going lads!"

Then talk of violence began: "If I was one-on-one with Porter right now, I'd have him." This referred to notorious Burnley hooligan Andrew Porter, who starred in Danny Dyer's Real Football Factories. Porter was jailed for organising a violent incident after a match against Rovers in 2011. This was despite his taxi getting lost, taking him to the station (Blackburn railway) instead of The Station (a Blackburn pub), causing him to miss the action.

When the bus set off at 11 the chanting began, the convoy moving slowly in single-file along the M65. "We're heading towards the anal gland of Lancashire!" someone shouted. We passed Junction 7 for Accrington, a buffer-zone town that former Burnley boss Stan Ternent described as "a Berlin Wall of terraced houses." Off at Junction 9, we entered Burnley. Excited chatter mellowed into subdued anticipation.

Someone broke the silence when we passed a graveyard: "That's my favourite thing: dead Dingles [a reference to the socially inept Emmerdale characters]." Laugher ensued, a catalyst for things to turn more sinister. The majority of the top deck rose to their feet, scanning nearby houses for any sign of "them inbreds". Some locals appeared at windows and on the streets, goading the buses.

Rovers fans duly obliged by smashing on the bus windows, returning V-signs like a modern day Battle of Agincourt. "Fuck off you six-fingered bastard!" someone shouted. "Bloody hell, he was only walking the dog," another interjected. Some Burnley fans spat at the buses.

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At the ground, signs informed us that anyone found with a mask would be taken back to Blackburn. Cue a large pile developing before the turnstiles, as searches took place. "What's that?" asked a security guard, patting my dad's top pocket. "A meat pie," he replied. "Thank God. Thought it was one of them masks."

Come kick-off at 12.30, and the trivial matter of the match itself, Burnley took the lead through Andre Gray's 16th minute penalty. "Long live the Venkys, Jack Walker is dead!" snarled the Burnley support.

In the 20th minute applause rang out for life-long Clarets fan Daniel Redman, who died suddenly last month, aged 20. Some Blackburn fans disgraced this, airing the 'wanker' sign, though far more joined Burnley's tribute.

But was anyone actually watching the game? It was hard to tell, though insults were certainly traded throughout: one Blackburn supporter spent the entire 90 minutes stood on his seat facing the Burnley fans, directing an enduring torrent of abuse. He picked out individuals from afar, pointing, mouthing threats. "Twat me? You fucking won't though will you, you soft cunt!"

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Despite Rovers' strong second half they couldn't salvage anything against the league leaders. It was 1-0 at full time and, after a 34-year period without a defeat to Burnley, Blackburn have now lost their last three against the Clarets.

Joey Barton, leaving the field after relentless chants about "shagging his mum", gave a sarcastic wave to the travellers, stoking the fire further. Fans of both sides remained post-match, slinging insults for over 20 minutes. Blackburn supporters again ripped wooden seats out, some raising them aloft like trophies.

On the way out, Rovers fans suddenly began turning and running back into the concourse. For a few seconds I thought Burnley had breached the impenetrable 10-foot metal fences and got in, and a free-for-all ruck was about to ensue. My fists clenched, ready to defend myself, but it turned out to be stewards charging someone. Tensions calmed as they barged through; a fan had supposedly tried to take his seat home, although another rumour suggested a knife was involved.

Marcus Raymond

Blackburn fans trudged back to the buses. One window had been smashed; a lone blue and white scarf hung out of it. The atmosphere on the way back was different. At first it was quiet – the opposition's jibes had worn us down. But as we snaked out of Burnley, some Clarets remained on the streets to have a last laugh. Cars beeped, V-signs emerged from behind curtains.

One Rovers fan lost it and stood up, opening a bus window. "Go and shag your son, you cunt!" he roared at a dad-and-lad who taunted us roadside. We then passed a girl on the street, not even looking at the buses. "You fucking fat slag!" More abuse was directed at other random women, before the bloke returned to his seat next to his young son. "That's how you do it, kidder," he grinned. People laughed.

I used to relish this derby and the intense partisanship of a game that means the world to people from our unfashionable towns. But witnessing unprovoked abuse at this away fixture – and not for the first time – I suddenly felt a bit sick.

Rowdy insult-trading at football matches is fine. If the other fans are giving it, by all means give it back, but this was something more sinister. Dead people can't defend themselves, and with the laughter of his peers endorsing his vitriol, it feels inevitable that the son of the bloke on the bus will follow his vulgar footsteps, under the pretence of football fandom.

No derby day should begin and end with a police escort. This was the malicious side of the beautiful game coming out to play once more.