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Of all the football clubs in the world, there is only one that I truly despise. That club is Blackburn Rovers. Otherwise known as Bastard Rovers, or just Bastards for short. Being only ten miles away, they’re our local rivals. And they’re fucking Bastards.

I’ve been brought up with this mindset and everything that has happened since has reinforced those views. The Blackburn badge and blue-and-white halves are symbols of pure evil. I can barely look at them. I played in a corporate five-a-side in Belfast a couple of years ago – one lad on the other team was wearing a Rovers shirt – a legacy of 95 I suspect – glory hunter – purely because he was wearing that I hit him hard first clip and he spent the rest of the game hobbling about. He deserved it.

Of course there was a time when I didn’t even know the rivalry existed. My first memory of realising there was something a bit off with this lot was in August 1988. The venue was McDonalds in Burnley town centre. I was there with my dad and brother having a pre-match meal before a pre-season friendly against Blackburn Rovers at Turf Moor. Back then, Burnley were in the old Division Four, and Rovers Division Two. We didn’t play each other very often.

So, as we’re sat there with our Burnley shirts and scarves on, eating our cheeseburgers, a lad (maybe 17 or 18 years old) and his girlfriend approached us. He had a scarf tied around his waist. It was white with blue-and-red trim, with the words BLACKBURN ROVERS in blue visible across the back. I remember thinking that the way this guy was wearing a scarf was so cool. Then again, I thought those kids on Home & Away who wore jeans with their school uniform were cool as well.

The lad asked my Dad for directions to the ground. That’s all he did. To my surprise, my Dad initially refused to tell him, and only after winding the lad up did he let him know to come out of McDonalds, turn left and go straight. I asked my dad why he’d said he wouldn’t tell him, and the answer was, ‘Because he’s a Blackburn fan.’ As I would later learn, he was one brave lad to even be in Burnley town centre with that monstrosity around his waist, and my dad’s response (by the way, he probably hand-picked us) was by far the best he could have hoped for.

In the next couple of years Jack Walker arrived at Ewood with his cheque book, and after acquiring the services of Kenny Dalglish Rovers were on the up. As Burnley clambered out of the old Division Four, enjoying a revival under Jimmy Mullen, the Bastards were heading for the new Premier League at the start of 1992/93. The gulf between the teams got bigger, the squad and stands at Ewood were being transformed; Burnley were still run on a shoestring in a decaying (but still beautiful) stadium. That only added to the rivalry. And the Bastards didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t earnt. It was Jack Walker and his money.

I then had my own flirtation with the dark side. I couldn’t help it. I was asked and I couldn’t say no. The invitation was to the Blackburn Rovers Centre of Excellence. They were a Premier League club, and they’d asked me to attend.  I was a mad keen footballer, I couldn’t refuse. I told myself it’s not about playing for Blackburn, it’s about me using Blackburn to make me a better player (not for them, for me). My grandad didn’t agree.

I got free tickets to all Blackburn games; I confess that I even went twice during the 1993/94 season, against Liverpool and Swindon. I still had my Burnley season ticket (Burnley and Rovers don’t play home games at the same time), but I just went along because it was free. Twenty years later I still feel as though I need to explain / justify my actions. I remember at one of those games a fat lad (a year or two older than me) was sat on the row behind and kept flicking my head and pretending he hadn’t. He was that funny. Prick. He was a good footballer though. He could have been a legend had he not been such a fat bastard.  His name was David Dunn but they called him Dunny.

Burnley’s revival continued and at the end of 1993/94 we somehow squeezed into the play-offs and won another promotion, into Division One. Rovers, though, had a superb season, finishing third in the Premier League, and going into 1994/95 they were title contenders.

1994/95 was when it all fell apart and cemented forever my hatred of the Bastards. Partway through the season I received a letter from Blackburn Rovers which said that due to FA regulations they had too many players registered and needed to reduce their numbers; they would be monitoring performance over the next few weeks. Not long after that I was asked to play in a match against Blackpool – the one and only time I represented Blackburn Rovers and the only time I have ever worn a blue-and-white halved shirt. It was basically a trial match to assess which players they were keeping and which they weren’t. Rovers had a squad of about 25, and they were constantly making changes to give everybody similar game time. I played about 30 minutes at left-back and that was the end of my Blackburn Rovers career. I wasn’t too bothered – two nights a week to not enjoy football was not something I was that fond of.

Burnley were out of their depth that year and were relegated straight back down to Division Two. It had looked likely for most of the season.

They won the Premier League, pipping Man United (and nearly losing it – Andy Cole). As Jack Walker and friends cried their tears of joy on the pitch at Anfield, I was in my living room watching Sky crying different tears. Pure agony.

We remained two divisions apart from 1995 until 2000. Miraculously, Burnley were promoted under Stan Ternent into the Championship (second tier), and Rovers, managed by Brian Kidd, were relegated into it only five years after winning the Premier League title. That set up the first league meetings between the sides in years. The problem was Rovers were still on a different level. They beat us 2-0 at the Turf when Kevin Ball got a red for literally going through Dunny (yes, the fat bastard I mentioned earlier) as the anger and frustration spilled over from the fans onto the players. I wasn’t the only Burnley fan to take pleasure in that tackle. The away match at Ewood was not fun – we got hammered 5-0. That latter meeting is best remembered for being the longest-ever short journey. At the insistence of the police, all Burnley fans had to travel by official coach. The word ‘coach’ has been used quite liberally, these must have been a collection of 50 or so of the crappiest buses they could get their hands on. I’m sure retired Burnley & Pendle buses destined for the scrapyard came out of retirement for that one. So, for a 12 noon kick off, the coaches were leaving Turf around 9am and we were in the top tier of the Darwen End by 10am. At least they were serving.

Rovers bounced back to the Premier League that season, 2000/01, and we wouldn’t meet them again until we drew them in the FA Cup in 2005. A 0-0 draw at the Turf meant a replay at Ewood (which I didn’t quite make it to), which we lost 2-1 in Extra Time.

We had one season in the Premier League in 2009/10 when they beat us twice – 3-2 at Ewood and 1-0 at the Turf.

Luckily, Rovers were relegated again at the end of 2011/12 and we had another two attempts to finally beat them last season. But we didn’t – we drew both games – 1-1 at the Turf and 1-1 at Ewood when Dunny popped up with a late equalizer.

Earlier this season we drew with them yet again, 1-1 at the Turf after we’d gone one up and then Jordan Rhodes (their big money signing – cost more than the entire Burnley squad) equalized shortly after. Every player or manager who joins Rovers automatically becomes a Bastard the moment they sign. A lot of them remain a Bastard forevermore, long after they’ve moved on. Kenny Dalglish and Alan Shearer are two good examples. They’ll always be Bastards in the eyes of Burnley fans. ‘You’ll always be a Bastard,’ even though you’re a ‘Bastard reject’. Unless you later sign for Burnley that is, if that happens you’re redeemed – there’s been a few recently – David May, Andy Cole (although when we signed him he’d converted to Andrew Cole) and current midfielder David Jones.

So it’s been a long time, never in my lifetime have we beaten Blackburn (April 1979 is the last Burnley win), so a win today at Ewood would mean everything. To beat them just once, in their own back yard as well. And the thing is, we’re above them in the table. We’re better than them at the moment. They’ve spent some money on individuals like Rhodes, but Dyche is building something special at Burnley – we’re a proper team. Relentless, we don’t say die, and we give maximum effort as a minimum.  We can do these fuckers we really can. It would mean the fucking world. And if this cancer is the price I need to pay to get a victory against them then it might well be worth it. I keep having thoughts like that, like I’m having a private conversation with God – ‘okay God, you got me with the cancer, now hey, lad, how’s about, to even it out, you make (yes force it with your magical powers) Burnley win today? Then we’re about straight? How about it? Is that what you had in mind anyway? Is this all part of the masterplan? If so, fair dos.’

Luckily, the game is on Sky. Well probably not luck, it’s a big derby in the Championship and Burnley are second in the table so it was always going to be on – if I’d still been living in Burnley all the TV games would be doing my head in me, but for an exile with cancer it’s perfect.

During the 1988/89 season we started going to away games more regularly. I used to love an away day watching Burnley; we always brought a good number of fans and quite often outnumbered the home supporters. There was something tribal appealing to me about going to another teams’ town and bringing so many fans. Like an invasion. Claret and blue everywhere, in places where it shouldn’t be naturally. Like we’re conquering the town.

An away trip to Darlington sticks in the memory, though. It was one of the first away games I’d been to. The ground itself was a strange one – Feethams. Like Burnley, it had a cricket ground next door. It was a large sprawling site, but pretty decrepit. You had to pay an admission price to get into the ground and then walk for what seemed an age to get to the stadium, and then when you got there, you could watch from the terraces or pay extra to sit in the stand. The away fans were given a full side of the ground, which comprised a small stand on the halfway line flanked by two banks of terracing on either side. I don’t remember a great deal about the game. A young couple who had arrived with a baby, literally a really young baby, almost a newborn, argued with the stewards because they wanted to get into the stand without paying anything extra. One Burnley fan, who was in hindsight clearly hammered, climbed all the way to the top of a floodlight pylon. And we found a Burnley pin badge on the terracing after the end of the game. I’ve no idea what the score was.

The special moment had already happened, much earlier in the day. We’d got to Darlington quite early and, for whatever reason, I don’t know whether it was pre-planned or not, my dad had decided to take us to some sort of train museum first. We’d no real connection to trains, my dad wasn’t a trainspotting type, so I’ve no idea of the rationale, and come to think of it this bit might be dream, but I’m sure trains were involved. But anyway the special moment wasn’t train related.

It was after the train museum. We were somewhere in Darlington, but away from the ground. Maybe near the trains? It was a park, or a square, some place with grass and park benches but still built up, perhaps in the town centre. We were sat on a park bench.  There were roads that went around the square.

My dad spotted it first because he recognised Jones Executive as a Burnley brand. Burnley’s brand of executive buses. It was the Burnley team coach stopped at the traffic lights right next to park/grass square where we were sat. In a flash I was off on my feet sprinting to the coach, my Burnley shirt complemented by the scarf I was waving above my head.

The first Burnley player on the coach to see me was Steve Gardner. He smiled right at me, or more like grinned, then pointed at me, beckoning other players to have a look, and in a second there were four or five players with Steven Gardner in the centre, waving at me. The lights turned green and they were off. My brother and Dad caught up with me. They missed out.

Steven Gardner smiled at me, pointed at me, waved at me. I was over the moon. Steve Gardner had signed for Burnley in 1987 aged 19, after being released by Manchester United without breaking into the first team. He made over 100 appearances in three years at Turf Moor, before being released in 1990. He played 14 times for Bradford and just once for Bury before quitting professional football in 1992 aged just 24. Football creates heroes. They come in all guises and shapes and sizes. Steve Gardner is one of mine.

We start okay, it’s a bit tight and tense, but go a goal down in the middle of the first half. Rhodes again. We just keep going as we are – there’s no panic, no rush. There’s a discipline about this Burnley team that Dyche has instilled – we don’t lose our heads. As half-time nears I get into that thought process of ‘please just keep it to one until half-time, don’t let another in now and give ourselves a harder task’. We never look like we’re going to and it remains 1-0 to the Bastards at half-time. Sean’s got this in hand – he will be measured – he won’t get carried away – there’s not a lot we’re doing wrong really. I feel strangely confident. We’ve not beaten them for 35 years and we’re 1-0 down away from home. But I think we’ll win.

We come out for the second half searching for an equaliser – time ticks by but I’m certain we’re going to score, and once we get one we’ll have all that momentum, shooting towards the 5,000 Burnley fans in the Darwen End, then we’ll surely get another. I just know it. This is what Dyche has done to us this season – we’re not stressing, just an absolute belief that we can do it and not accept defeat.

With just under 20 minutes left, we get the breakthrough as Jason Shackell heads in from a corner for 1-1. I’m now dancing around my living room and the kids wonder what the hell I’m doing. Even though I’m watching on TV, I don’t sit down – I watch standing up, about three yards from the screen. It’s got to be done. Get well and truly worked up. Only for Burnley matches, I sit down for games in which I’m a neutral (and when England are playing I normally do something else like change the batteries in my torch and have it on just as a bit of background noise).

Six minutes later we’re in dreamland as Danny Ings taps in to put us 2-1 up. We’re winning. At Ewood. Against the Bastards. Now then Burnley, don’t fucking blow it now. Hang on. I need not worry. We stand resolute and win 2-1.

Fuck me. We’ve done it. We’ve beaten the Bastards. God, you work in mysterious ways and the cancer wasn’t ideal, but thank you for this glorious moment. Despite Walker’s millions and acquiring the Premier League title, we’re above you, and we’ve beaten you. Because we’re better. Because we’re Burnley. So fuck you Jack Walker and Kenny Bastard.  And fuck you Dunny.

And as for cancer, well then my friend, since I was diagnosed we’ve won three games on the spin so you can fuck off too. Burnley 3 Cancer 0.

 

This is an extract from the book Football Cancer Life Death (published by Pitch), written by Burnley supporter Michael Heinicke who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2014. His book is an unconventional real-life account of his experience with cancer, interspersed with 25 years of exhilarating and heartening memories of life as a Burnley FC supporter.

The book, described as an uplifting story of one Burnley fan’s personal battle amid Premier League promotion was written in 2019 and is available on AMAZON priced at £12.99.

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