1987 and nearly the abyss
1987: we’d lost two parents by now, my father and Mrs T’s father. The latter succumbed to the indignity of Parkinson’s and Dementia, my own father to a sudden heart attack, a family thing. It was the day after Boxing Day ’86 and quite unexpected. Funny the things you remember. On Boxing Day that year Burnley drew 2–2 away at Wrexham and the day after beat Crewe 4–0 at home. It made them a comfortable 16th in the table. No-one could have thought what lay ahead by the end of the season.
When something like this happens with such swiftness it emphasises just how fragile and fleeting life is. There one minute, gone the next. But, with father in law it was quite different; a merciful release for him and us from the slow, lingering deterioration. Father in law’s death was far more draining.
For me, I can’t say the loss of my father was particularly difficult or traumatic. There’d never been that much communication and closeness. He’d been a distant, stern figure when I was a boy, so that as I grew up the gap grew wider. It’s true to say that the only conversations we ever had or moments of close contact were to do with football and the games we saw at Burnley. I should be grateful for that I suppose. To this day I still have an image of journeys in the car on a Sunday to see relations in Newton Le Willows and I’d read him the report of the match as we drove along.
The ashes were scattered (eventually) in a small graveyard up on the hills at Mankinholes (pictured). The old chapel had been demolished and all that remained was half an acre of worn and weathered headstones. What was once the Sunday School was now a private house. We added his name to that of my grandparents on the family headstone. The hamlet of Mankinholes is a remnant of a long-gone age when a small collection of stone cottages would endure harsh winters and the moorland winds that swept the hills. Traders brought their line of ponies laden with goods along the pack horse tracks and carried away the cloth that the villagers had produced on their simple hand looms. My great and great, great grandparents had endured a similar life on the opposite side of the valley at Blackshawhead. This was not quite Wuthering Heights but almost, a wild and windswept place where, when the wind howled and the rain came out of black and thunderous skies, you struggled to see your hand in front of your face. But, on a beautiful, blue-sky summer’s day with skylarks singing overhead and curlews in the fields, there was nowhere quite as beautiful.
The ashes in fact had remained in the back of the car for several weeks until we had the headstone finally sorted. It felt quite strange with him in the back and there was one day when I put the urn on a cushion on the front seat next to me so that he could see better. He always did enjoy car journeys. I did the same with the skeletons once that I used to borrow from the School’s Museum Service in Leeds. This was a place deep in the bowels of one of the civic buildings that was crammed with models and stuffed things that could be used in schools. I had a couple of members of staff that I would love to have seen stuffed. Anyway, I used to borrow a life-sized skeleton (plastic) every now and then and always enjoyed driving through Leeds with it on the front seat of the car. Sometimes I put a Burnley scarf round its neck. There was always somebody, when I stopped at traffic lights or a pedestrian-crossing, whose mouth would drop wide open and nudge the person next to them when they saw it. I’d watch people on buses who could see into the car and the looks on their faces.
By now we’d shared the house in Headingley with the in laws for nearly 20 years. They were downstairs in their apartment and we were above, all self-contained. Together we’d looked after nearly half an acre of garden. I guess I was closer to him than my own father. The indignity of his final year was made even more poignant by the fact that he had been a university professor, a man who was the top of his field in textile physics and known in universities around the globe. But his demise was belittling. Dementia is appallingly cruel. Now it was just mother in law down below.
When we journeyed back to Todmorden having received the phone call from a neighbour that my own father was dead, we arrived to find him in his chair by the fire with holiday brochures at his feet. He had been deputy head of Castle Hill Junior School for Lord knows how long and this was the only school where he had ever worked; he was well known in Todmorden and his death came as a shock to many. The town was filled with people he had taught. That’s the thing about being a teacher or a Head I suppose that separates it from other jobs. You leave your mark on so many people in their developing and impressionable years, and many remember you for long afterwards. I think most if not all of us remember our teachers, or certainly the ones who influenced us.
By now I was 43 and I’d been head teacher at Thorpe village school for almost 3 years. This was no leafy lane village. It was a remnant of the days when there were coal mines and railway yards nearby. The school was single storey, built from red brick. It was shabby and neglected. These were not easy kids and not easy parents. But I hadn’t gone grey, hadn’t lost weight, and I hadn’t lost any more hair; which kind of meant I suppose that it wasn’t too desperately bad and I must have been doing something right. The school had had a procession of heads before me including the retiring head, a head who had a nervous breakdown, a supply head who couldn’t stand it and lasted a few days, a supply head who sorted out a few things but went on to a permanent headship, and then a supply head who wanted the job permanently and mistakenly saw the place as a nice gentle end to his remaining few years in the job. All that in the space of about 15 months was the background to what I took over, including a heating system that didn’t work, a deputy head ready for retirement with a Bobby Charlton comb over, a secretary who was a lovely lady but was deaf in one ear and couldn’t type.
On my first day I did what the book said about how to be a new head said I should do. I stood on the top of the steps and said good morning to the mums as they came in…. until… one of them said: “and ‘ow fuckin’ long will you be ‘ere then.” It was at that point I realised I had my work cut out and threw away the book that told me how to be a new head. This, I thought, is not what it says on the tin.
Across the cul de sac road in front of the school there were a dozen or more allotments. On one of them the guy kept pigs. Several of the guys kept rabbits. Hens frequently crossed the road and on some days hopped up the steps into school. On the other side of the allotments was the motorway. A bridge across the motorway connected Dolphin Lane (our lane) to the path to the village. This was no picture postcard village. It was shabby, worn and neglected. Most folk here hadn’t got two pence to rub together.
For sure it was a school where the oddest things happened. There were plenty of open fields around, several filled with cabbages or potatoes. The farmer always planted an extra row round the edge because he knew the locals would help themselves. On another side of the school field there were some stables. On occasions the horses got out and you’d suddenly turn the corner to meet a horse standing in the middle of the road. Then there was the day there was the sound of pattering tiny hooves coming across the hall floor.
That morning it was only about 8.00 and all was quiet and I was pottering in the office. The sound of hooves got closer and then the sound of little boys’ voices: “You tell ‘im… no you tell ‘im… you knock… no you knock.” I opened the door and there was a goat on the end of a piece of string that had left puddles all over the polished hall floor, and two boys looking at me. “We found this goat outside on the road,” said one of them. This was a real test for an embryonic headship.
To cut a long story short news got around and eventually an old guy turned up in a battered old car and pushed the goat onto the back seat. As he was doing this another car approached and it was an LEA adviser who stared and looked agog at what was going on. It was that kind of school. You never quite knew what to expect or what each new day would bring. There was a day when the mums had a sit down demonstration in the hall because I’d taken a couple of gypsy kids in; the day the deputy head collapsed with a heart attack; and the Christmas when Father Christmas got plastered eating all the chocolate liqueurs. What happened was that the mums had got these chocolates cheap from the market for Santa to give to the kids when they went in the grotto they’d made. They didn’t know they were liqueurs until kids came out saying they tasted horrible and Santa‘s speech became more and more slurred. Then there were the days when the office was converted into a dentist room because the dentist who used to look at the kids’ teeth noticed how bad the parents’ were. Some of those mums had their first dental treatment for years. One lad called David had the habit of running out of the classroom and going to sit on the shed roof. I could never persuade him it would be much easier if he ran home. Sports Days were fun too. The races we had for parents were eventually stopped owing to the fight two dads had one year because they both said they’d won. There was as yet no national curriculum. It was the one consolation.
It was quite ironic that this little school out in the semi-rural boondocks, but with Leeds just a few miles away, produced the only eventual professional footballer that I ever had in a school team. His name was Dean West and even at the age of just 10 and then 11 he snapped and snarled and launched into tackles and ran every game that he played in. We had so few lads to choose from we had a girl as goalkeeper long before it was ever fashionable and pc. If you could kick a ball you were in the team but this motley bunch of ragamuffins were second in the local Wakefield League playing against schools that were often 4 times the size of Thorpe. That was down to Dean West who covered every blade of grass on the pitch. But what stood out was his complete and utter fearlessness and competitiveness. After one outstanding game that we won 1–0 against a crack school I jokingly said to him: “I’ll get you a trial at Burnley one day.” He went on to sign as a youth at Leeds, eventually played for Stan Ternent’s promotion winning side at Bury, and then when Stan joined Burnley he brought Dean along with him. Lo and behold Deano did indeed play for Burnley. Funny that.
Until the shackles of national curriculum ruined everything (and nothing has ever convinced me that it has ever raised standards) we’d set off on nature walks when the sun shone, sit out in a field somewhere and sketch and draw, and sometimes just stand on the motorway bridge and see where the lorries were going or coming from. When I eventually got a school minibus, shared with two other local schools, we’d drive off to museums and parks or as far as the Dales. Bretton Park and Cannon Hall were close by and the Yorkshire Mining Museum. If we went to Bretton I’d buy the kids bacon sandwiches from the van that was always parked near the car park. If we went to Goldenacre Park I’d bring the dog we had; a lovely placid, amiable Retriever that ambled along with us. The kids vied to hold his lead. No doubt today that would break all health and safety rules. In fact I doubt we’d ever have gone anywhere then if we’d had to fill out the same lengthy risk assessment reports that teachers have to do today before they set off anywhere. I remember when I’d finished teaching that Mrs T had to fill one in to take the kids to the local post office, just a couple of hundred yards round the corner from her school, to post the cards they’d written to Santa.
1987 was a year when so many things went wrong. Terry Waite was taken hostage in Beirut. The ferry Herald of Free Enterprise suddenly capsized as it left Zeebrugge harbour and almost 200 people drowned. Later in the year the UK was devastated by the horrendous gales that flattened half the south of England. Michael Fish was the weather forecaster and announced there wasn’t a hurricane on the way just a few strong winds. We drove down to Sussex only a few days after and saw mile on mile of uprooted trees and damaged buildings. In November the IRA bombed the Enniskillen Remembrance Day parade and a few days later a fire at King’s Cross underground station killed 31 people. The stock market collapsed that year but that didn’t stop someone paying £24million for Van Vogh’s painting of The Sunflowers. In Russia, Gorbachev introduced widespread reforms and we learned words like glasnost and perestroika, whilst Russia and the USA began to dismantle their stocks of missiles. Michael Ryan killed 14 people in Hungerford and wounded 15 others. Such massacres happened in the USA but not in the UK we thought. Now they did and it stunned us all.
Enid Blyton’s publishers decided that all future editions of the Noddy books would have black golliwogs removed and replaced by gnomes. Mary Whitehouse launched a furious attack on EastEnders saying that “it put the nation in moral peril.” The Duchess of Windsor sold her jewels for £31million. Star jockey Lester Piggott was jailed for 3 years for tax evasion. A huge sonar search failed to find the Loch Ness monster and the nation was really disappointed. I think all of us really wanted there to be a real dinosaur in the lake.
On TV we watched Inspector Morse and the last appearance of Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street. Doctor Who was going strong along with Emmerdale and Top of the Pops. Fireman Sam appeared for the first time. Last of the Summer Wine, The Bill, Blankety Blank, Bergerac and ‘Allo ‘Allo were all great favourites. There was Crossroads, Jackanory; Jim’ll Fix It, Grange Hill, Wogan, Brookside and Bob’s Full House.
At the cinema the top films were Three Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction, Good Morning Vietnam, Moonstruck, The Untouchables, Stakeout, Lethal Weapon and The Witches of Eastwick. The big stars were Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Tom Selleck, Michael Douglas, Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. Oscar for best picture went to the Last Emperor and best actor was Michael Douglas. Cher was best actress.
The top artists were Elton John, Donna Summer, Boy George, the Beastie Boys, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson; George Michael and Alice Cooper. Kylie Minogue started her career. There were albums from Simply Red, Style Council, Prince, Bryan Adams and Level 42. There was in fact no end of groups – Whitesnake, Fleetwood Mac, Slade, Deff Leppard, Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses, The Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and U2. I was never into any that stuff. It was Oscar Peterson and good jazz piano stuff.
Danny Kaye, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Lee Marvin, John Huston, Rudolf Hess and Eamonn Andrews, Liberace, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and all passed away.
Pat Cash and Martina Navratilova won the Wimbledon singles finals. In the cricket World Cup Final Australia beat England by 7 runs. Nick Faldo won the British Golf Open. Everton were Division One champions. Coventry won the FA Cup. And Burnley were within one game of relegation from the Football League.
I’d never have seen the final Orient Game at Burnley but for chance. My mother had been to stay with us in Leeds and I took her back home to Todmorden on the Saturday of the game. I suddenly realised that after I’d dropped her off I could get to the game if I left the three-year old with her and then collected him on the way home. These were the days when we kept our two kids apart as much as possible; one had ‘special needs’ and the other was fostered. Boy did we have problems so one of them stayed behind with Mrs T. I described it all in my diary. It was one of those true sporting events; maybe not a great sporting occasion, but it was certainly one of those unique sports events that people will proudly say years later that they were there. Living in Leeds and going to so few games, the immediacy and the emotion of the thing was never really apparent to me. Then, on the day, it suddenly hit me. This might well be the end of a once truly great club with so much of a wonderful history. It was unthinkable that this situation had happened. It was unthinkable, no impossible, that they could lose their Football League place. The whole notion seemed crazy but that was the stark reality; that it was indeed quite possible, in fact very likely.
Burnley just HAD to win today and one of the three teams above them HAD to lose. I was there by 2.00 and wandered round the surrounding streets taking in all the sights and sounds that are the beginning to any game before you even get inside the ground. They were the streets where we had parked so many times, usually Lebanon Street; a practice that dated back to the days of going to the game with my father. He would have been astonished at the situation the club were now in. I made the assumption that this might be the last ever visit and in truth there was a lump in my throat and disbelief in my head.
15,000 crowded in and kick-off was delayed to let the queues get in. Inside the tension and anticipation grew to something you could feel and almost touch. People spoke quietly, if they spoke at all. Many were wrapped in private thoughts, re-living a goal here, a win there, other games and great moments. When the teams came out the lump in my throat returned. There was the prospect of a great club disappearing in store. The reception the team got was stunning. The hairs rose on the back of your neck and goosebumps everywhere else. There were people from everywhere who had come especially for this one game. There were people like me who had not been to a game so far this season but the emotional pull dragged you back in the hope that some miracle might happen.
There was bright sun but it was not warm. There were cameramen, TV and radio people, the Press Box bulging with all the big names of reporting. For over 100 years this club had been in the League, one of the founder members; it was a club with tradition, history, had won titles and Cups, played in Europe and produced countless great players. But this was a day when all that counted for nothing. It was make or break, do or die, win or bust. There was no in-between.
On the one hand you felt that defeat and relegation was inevitable; that the previous years had been leading up to this. It was if it was all written in the stars and pre-determined like some Thomas Hardy novel where victims succumb to fate and circumstances beyond their control.
The first half was one long mass of noise and emotion. Walls of sound cascaded down from the Longside. I stood just outside it in the corner between the Longside and the Beehole End. There was a will and a desire for them to win that must have been felt by the players down there on the pitch. Sure they rode their luck at times but they eventually won 2–1. Even so, other results had to go their way, and they did just that so that Burnley survived in the Football League by the skin of their teeth.
The final 20 minutes were nerve-wracking, fingers nails were chewed to the finger ends, hands were clasped; eyes were hidden whenever Orient attacked. There were near misses and goalkeeper saves. At the end there was such an outpouring of joy, such a cacophony of noise, such scenes of jubilation that you thought they would never end. The pitch was immediately invaded as players too sank to their knees.
There cannot possibly ever have been such a demonstration of mass relief, ecstasy and unbridled joy. This was never a great football match, but it was without doubt a great sporting occasion. It was a football event like no other had ever been. This was not just a team, not just a club that had survived, but a town. This was half of my past that would have disappeared had they lost. Sheer willpower, passion, spirit and support won the day. The images and memories will remain with all of us who were there for years to come.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Orient, too, had all to play for, as they were in with a chance of a promotion place. But at the end, Burnley and Orient fans shook hands and danced together, the latter knowing full well they had been a small part of football history. Lincoln were the club that went down. It could so easily have been Burnley.
None of us were to know that day that more joy would come. Five years later there would be a wonderful night at York when Burnley at last won promotion to the next Division. In 1994 there would be a Wembley play-off win and another promotion. There would be another relegation to suffer, but then another promotion in 2000. And then in 2009 there would be that wonderful day at Wembley when Burnley won a place in the Premier League.
I doubt, though, I shall ever be able to decide which was the most emotional, 2009 at Wembley against Sheffield United, or that draining day in May ’87 when Burnley simply HAD to win.Share this page :