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A review of Still There! by Dave Burnley

There can’t be many Burnley supporters these days who don’t know who Dave Burnley is, and that very fact is an indication of how much has changed in the period covered in Still There!, Dave’s second volume of memoirs that account for the years between 1987 and 2017.

db book 1The publication of the first volume – Got To Be There! – not only coincided with Burnley’s return to the top flight of English football in 2009 but added to its romanticism, given that it was a fan’s perspective of a terrible and near-terminal decline from the European football in the mid-60s that Dave remembers from his childhood to the near-relegation from the Football League itself, which he endures in his mid-30s.

The story picks up from where the last one finished – the near-death experience of the Orient game – and in this sense Still There! is something of a companion piece to Tim Quelch’s From Orient to the Emirates. Both cover the 1987-2017 era but from very different perspectives. While Tim’s is something approaching an official history, Dave’s book is from his own perspective as a Burnley supporter determined to attend every match, a pledge made in January 1969 and maintained to the present day with the exception of one game in 1974.

In some respects, the years don’t seem to have mellowed Dave, and for one very good reason: the things that always irritated him about football – remote administrators, glory hunters, the embourgeoisment of the game, the armies of replica-shirted, armchair ‘supporters’ who never pass through a turnstile – have not only been magnified in the Premier League era, but have now become entrenched as a business model from whose realities there appears to be no escape. So the tenor of the book is informed by these developments – it’s a sharp, opinionated but reasoned autobiographical reflection, not just of a period following Burnley FC as the club recovers from 1987 and undergoes successive cycles of progress and retrenchment, but also of watching a game being slowly prised away from its communitarian origins. Pre-2009, Dave experiences this more acutely on his many summer excursions to follow England, but once Burnley reach the heights of the Premier League, he experiences week in week out the odd, parallel universe of the EPL, with its hyperventilating PR and soporific stadiums.

Rather unusually for anything connected with small-town Lancastrian life, Burnley’s latter-day ascension makes for something approaching a Hollywood ending, but Dave picks up his story at a point where Hollywood endings seem absurd to contemplate. It really isn’t much fun to be a Claret in the mid-80s, but there are some small, interesting shifts in the tectonic plates of the game itself. Having suffered tragedies at Heysel and Bradford, English football was unloved and highly vulnerable. This was a point in time where the man on the terrace could be characterised as a boorish thug – cf. Martin Amis’ smug aphorism that “the average football fan has the odour and complexion of a cheese-and-onion crisp.” Attempting to restore some balance to the debate were the fans themselves, with the emergence of the Football Supporters’ Association, a precursor to today’s Football Supporters’ Federation.

You get hints of this emergence of supporter-consciousness in Dave’s response to Hillsborough. He travels to Sheffield and leaves a wreath at the Leppings Lane End. The message he writes is: Divided through loyalty, united through grief. Note that first bit – loyalty to club will come first, but this doesn’t preclude an understanding of the bigger picture, the idea of supporters on the terraces joining together with a singular voice for the benefit of all. The post-Hillsborough move towards all-seater stadia caught up with Burnley in 1995, and this highly significant reform was the subject of a very early piece by Dave – A Longside Epitaph – originally written for the Clarets Archive web site in 1996 and reproduced here in an updated form. His perspective is that the Taylor Report was a misguided, top-down attempt to socially cleanse the game, eradicating the things that made the match-day experience so special for supporters like him. It’s effectively a lament for lost times:

Basic as the Longside was, it retained an elegance in its vastness. It looked out over our very own venue of legends. There are no more mass migrations to the Bee Hole End as the game draws to a close… no more traditional Longside goal celebrations, the terrific surge down the terracing and the male bonding as you embrace someone you’ve only just met but who shares your hopes and aspirations for the club. All this has gone, and the orgasmic reaction from the terrace has been substituted by a standing ovation akin to a call for an encore at an opera house.

It has to be said also that the case made by Taylor was underpinned by the popular assumptions, enthusiastically fanned by the tabloid press, about the behaviour of football fans. It speaks volumes for the likes of the FSA and FSF that, as Dave lays down his pen in 2017, many of these assumptions have simply lost all credibility, to the point that the case for the return of terraces to top flight English grounds is now being seriously considered.

Dave’s voice in all of this is both authentic and compromised. Football, for him, is fundamentally tribal, and you don’t condemn your own without very good reason. He doesn’t encourage violence or unreasonable behaviour, but he can rationalise it. An early case in point – albeit a trivial one – is an account of a pie riot at Rochdale in 1988 when 2,000 Burnley fans turned up for a League Cup tie and quickly scoffed the meagre quota of pastried delicacies supplied by the host club, leaving many hundreds with nothing to eat. Here’s Dave’s take on the subsequent trashing of the pie van:

This peasant’s revolt style of protest couldn’t simply be dismissed as football yob behaviour. No, it was much deeper than that. It clearly underlined the importance to the ordinary working class man of the small but significant luxury of a simple match day pie.

This isn’t a common perspective these days. In our hyper-judgemental times, it’s those ‘ordinary working class’ folk who get it in the neck time and again. Tune into Channel 5 or read the Daily Mail any day of the week and those lads and lasses who used to enjoy themselves on the Longside after a working week in the warehouses, factories and offices of Burnley are now castigated as wasters and scroungers – never mind the wholesale loss of decent wages and conditions, not to mention the stress of zero-hours contracts. The only reason football is now distanced from this charge sheet is that minimum wages leave you too poor to afford a ticket.

Celebrating promotion in 2016

Celebrating promotion in 2016

But how far do you extend this familial toleration? I’d say that Dave pushes the boundaries here because of his insistence that a proper dedication to the Burnley cause is a virtue so substantial that it counterbalances other moral considerations. Take the case of Stephen ‘Kaiser’ Rimmer, described by Dave as someone who got into “a number of scrapes” because of the strength of his dedication to the Clarets. Kaiser made the headlines in 2002 when he was jailed in Japan whilst following England in the World Cup, accused of being involved in a counterfeit money scam. Some would have Kaiser down as an out-and-out troublemaker and would steer well clear, but Dave reproduces Kaiser’s Japanese testimony in full, and goes on to give short, potted histories of two other well-known Burnley hard men, including the late Norman Jones.

Now, whilst I am a firm believer that we are, for most of the time, rational beings, we all have a capacity for unfathomable rushes of emotion. On the face of it, our Burnley identity is just an accident of birth. You can’t choose whose womb you pop out of and where, so why put so much emphasis on place? And yet, and yet… scanning Norman Jones’ obituary in the paper, what was this sensation in my chest when I read that Jones, coming out of a Manhattan nightclub, had killed a knife-wielding hoodlum with his bare hands? Was it… surely not… a perverted sense of pride? Yeah, Bronx tough guy, think you can go around robbing people at knifepoint? Meet Norman from the Longside, Burnley…

So you have to say that we are all from time to time susceptible to the defiant parochialism that runs through Still There! and, furthermore, this sits alongside other, more defensible attributes, such as Dave’s extraordinary self-reliance. I wouldn’t say that he takes pride in his independence, because on many occasions he has reason to curse the barriers that confront him in getting to games, but he expects nothing from anyone. Yet, remarkably often, he finds generosity – people giving him lifts, taking him back to theirs for a meal, offering him a sofa for the night.

In this sense, Still There! can be genuinely heart-warming, and it helps that Dave has a considerable appetite for travel and conversation which lands him in some interesting situations, especially when on the road following England. In France for the 1998 World Cup, looking for a bar to watch the England vs. Colombia group game, Dave and his pal accidentally stumble across a football house party, whose host generously invites them in and with exceptional hospitality allows them to stay the night. How Dave subsequently manages to get into the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St. Etienne to see the England vs. Argentina last-16 game is a remarkable combination of quick-thinking, luck and audacity.

(I find myself beholden to mention one other thing about Dave’s France 98 caper. After describing his view of England’s luckless elimination in St. Etienne, the chapter then veers into quite unforeseen territory as Dave and his companion Weedy get lucky with two French lasses who take them to a strip club. Less surprisingly, Dave finds himself on stage where he has reason to rue the fact that he hadn’t changed his trollies. The only cultural reference I can refer you to is the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent (John Travolta) has to unexpectedly kick off his shoes to participate in a twist contest with Mia (Uma Thurman), revealing a threadbare pair of socks with a big toe protruding.)

Twelve years later, Dave finds himself in Addis Ababa en route to the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa, where he discovers, close to the hotel, a strip of bars all selling strong lagers and stouts for 25p a pint. “We developed a strong rapport with the patrons of the many bars,” he writes, which is surely legalese for having an uproarious time getting pissed up with the locals. Indeed, he probably wished he’d stayed there. After witnessing the sheer ineptitude of England’s first two performances in South Africa, he retreated to his Johannesburg base and watched the remainder of their truncated campaign on TV in local boozers.

Speaking to Dave recently, one thing he is loving about the current situation is the regeneration of the sense of community coherence that he experienced in his first visits to the Turf in the 1960s and which convinced him that Burnley was the club for him. This kind of sensibility is kept alive by the true believers in lean times, and we should remember for future reference the comradely lengths these people went to, like an emergency supply of rations to be drawn on for sustenance when our fortunes next take a turn for the worse. The best example Dave details goes back to the pre-mobile phone days of the mid-90s, a November afternoon, when he has arranged to be picked up from his works by the Accrington Clarets for an evening game at Bristol Rovers. The weather is atrocious, with snow, ice and high winds blocking many roads, and after an hour waiting, Dave assumes they haven’t made it through and flags a lift to the M6 to try and hitch his way to Bristol. But the Accy Clarets do battle through to his works, and figuring out what Dave must have done, they double back to the M6 and finally find him there on the southbound slip road, frozen and desperate, having stood in a blizzard for 90 minutes. It’s now 4.30pm, but they reach the Memorial Ground just after kick-off, together, as arranged. There is a lot of bullshit expended on the ‘family ethos’ of football clubs, but it does mean something in certain contexts, and the determination not to let Dave down that afternoon is as good a case in point as you will find.

On the pitch at Charlton

On the pitch at Charlton

I can’t end this review without mentioning the terrific sense of humour that pervades Dave’s writing. Whilst I don’t think he has quite matched the best bits of the first volume, such as the howlingly funny projectile-vomiting-in-a-Mini episode, there are nonetheless many moments to treasure in Still There! My favourite is when a logistically-easy end-of-season schedule tempts Dave to take on a potentially lucrative job as a rep for a tile company, the only problem being that they presumed (wrongly) that he had a car. Cue a mad tale of twilight hitch-hiking and dodgy expenses claims. The numerous conversations with the saintly Glenda from head office are precious. She thinks Dave’s a star as he battles his way round the country to far-flung, suburban DIY stores. In fact, Dave has no choice but to continually mislead her, although he has the deft touch of the politician in the way he avoids outright lying.

He also finds himself in some downright bizarre situations: trying to thumb a lift on Christmas Day on an obscure north-eastern A-road, startling Alastair Campbell in 10 Downing Street, giving Mark Lawrenson a well-deserved needling on live TV, and accidentally arranging a football firm set-to between Burnley’s Suicide Squad and Stoke’s Naughty Forties. Even more surreally, this last incident happened in a Mr Kipling factory while the protagonists made luxury Christmas cakes.

If all this strikes you as a very odd way for a sixty-odd year-old bloke to behave, you’d be right. Take the case of ‘the Bear’, an old sheepskin coat that kept Dave warm while travelling to and from games in the winter months. The coat was in a bad way when Dave acquired it in the late 80s, so by the time he decided to ‘retire’ the Bear in 2017, it was in a pitiable state. Now, I don’t know how a typical London Claret goes about disposing of his or her coats, but I’ll bet it doesn’t involve nailing it to a 10-foot cross and burning it by the side of a lake while you and your mates drink champagne. Well, that’s precisely how Dave sees off the Bear, like some weird, English, neo-Pagan ritual, straight out of a Ben Wheatley film.

Whilst you can occasionally hear Dave wondering out loud why he does all this, there’s little point in deconstructing it all now, approaching an incredible 44 years since he last wasn’t there to watch a competitive Burnley fixture. This is a life’s work, not a million miles away from Bill Drummond-like performance art, except that this is still going, and I’m not sure if Dave will ever stop.

This might one day mean a third volume of memoirs. For the time being, Still There! more than suffices. It’s a substantial volume of over 600 pages, and includes both colour and B&W photos. It stands tall as an honest, forthright and intensely personal piece of football writing. Furthermore, it’s an entirely independent effort, partly crowd-funded by Burnley fans and published by Dave’s own Ralphyburl imprint. Standard copies are in the club shop for a straight £15, while there are a small number of limited edition copies still available that will help Dave to cover the costs of publication:

Gold edition: gold cover, stamped as limited edition, signed by first team squad – £100
Silver edition: silver cover, stamped as limited edition, signed by first team squad – £50

These are available from Dave himself. He can be e-mailed at dburnleyextreme@gmail.com

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