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'The Orient Game'

By Kev Robinson
August 28 2006

Kev Robinson looks back at the day our great football club nearly died. On 9th May 1987 Burnley Football Club were just one game from relegation to the Conference. Thankfully, a 2-1 victory over Orient meant that Burnley FC could breathe again.

'The Orient Game'

Relief: Burnley fans invade the pitch after escaping relegation to the Conference.


After a 1-0 Monday night defeat at Crewe Alexandra Burnley sit bottom of the Division Four table and with the next game being against promotion chasing Leyton Orient things were looking bleak for Brian Millers men - could Burnley be about to follow in the steps of Accrington FC, fellow founders of the Football League, and disappear?


The 1986/87 season would be the first that would see the team that finished bottom of the Fourth Division automatically replaced by the Champions of the Conference, but Burnley fans had high hopes for the season and the thought of being the first victims of this new rule never even crossed the mind of supporters, players or anyone connected with the club.  But as the season dragged on, despite a promising start, the nightmare was looking like becoming a reality.  Far from the First Division Championship win in 1960, our famous team were now one game away from dropping out of the Football League in which had encountered ecstasy and pain for the past 99 years.


The matchday programmeWe started the season well, losing just one game in our first seven, propelling us into 5th in the table and fans were dreaming that this would be the year that Burnley began their climb back up the leagues - we are too big to the Fourth Division. 


The next seven games were not as fruitful, and just one win and one draw meant the Clarets dropped down to 17th with 16 points- 19 short of Northampton Town who led the league, and just 10 points off rock-bottom Stockport with a measly 6 points from the first 13 games.


Burnley ended the 1986 calendar year in 16th place but things were looking up after a 4-0 thrashing of Crewe Alexandra- was this the turning point in the season? There was a general feeling that Burnley could still go for a late push for the playoffs.  The hope would be short lived, however. After finishing the previous year in the best possible way, the Clarets opened the new one with a 3-0 home defeat to Rochdale, which started a disastrous run of ten games without a single win.  The first win of the year came on the most unlikely of dates in March - Friday the 13th, but even after the 1-0 win over Stockport County the Clarets were in big trouble - sitting in 20th place with 35 points - just 11 more than Rochdale who occupied 24th place but had an incredible 5 games in hand.


When Burnley travelled to Rochdale in April, they were still bottom of the table with just one game in hand, but Burnley were just one place above them and a Rochdale win would send Burnley to the foot of the table for the first time.  Burnley won 2-0 that day and moved a place up the table.  But in reality, it was just delaying the unavoidable, and when it was a Crewe Alexandra player that scored the only goal of the match in the Clarets penultimate game of the season the Clarets were bottom of the league and set up for the biggest game in the history of Burnley Football Club where only a win and other results going their way would ensure that the Clarets would not be the first club to suffer automatic relegation from the Football League.


Going into the final week of the season there were five teams with a chance of being relegated - ourselves, Lincoln, Tranmere, Torquay and Rochdale, who still had a game in hand.  Rochdale won their game in hand, leaving them safe of relegation.  Tranmere played their final game a day earlier than the rest of us and their win ensured that there would be just three teams in it come the final Saturday of the Division Four calendar.


There are, of course, two teams in every game and Leyton Orient arrived at Turf Moor with high hopes of reaching the playoffs and like Burnley, needed a win.  It seemed like an easy route into the playoffs for Orient fans looking at the table and seeing their opponents Burnley sitting rock bottom - Orient would win this without any effort.  Maybe, just maybe, that over confident attitude would spill over to the players.


There was much enthusiasm in both the local and national press in the build up to the game.  How could the Football League let this happen to one of their founder members?  Would he let it happen?  There were rumours going around that should Burnley finish bottom, the Football League would step in and rescue the Clarets - rumours that were denied by the Football League.


The day arrived.  A season that had been played with crowds of little more than two or three thousand was about to finish in front of 17,600, 1,500 of whom had travelled with the hope that their beloved Orient could secure a place in the playoffs.  Many fans simply could not go to the game due to the nerves; the ones that did turn up explained of how they could not sleep for eat in the build up to the game. The players could not have been blamed for not being aware of the away supporters - the noise that the home fans created was immense - one Orient fan admitted that he had never before or since seen such magnificent support for a team.  The Burnley fans had come out not to mourn the passing away of a terminally ill club, but to reinvigorate a very sick but healable Burnley FC.


One thing that stood out was the atmosphere.  Many fans noted the previous Turf Moor game against Southend where the atmosphere and mood resembled a funeral.  There was a man stood outside the ground that day selling ‘John Bond is a Bastard’ t-shirts.


The whole of the media world had travelled to Turf Moor, the media section at the ground which had been gathering dust for years was now overflowing with representatives from national newspapers and radio stations - one fan told me of how he listened to the game on a mini radio on BBC World Service in Tanzania.  Many of the media that turned up that day were criticised for coming to bury Burnley FC.


We all know what happened in the next 90 minutes.  Neil Grewcock and Ian Britton scored to put the Clarets into a 2-0 lead, and despite Alan Comfort’s goal for the visitors, a goal which left Turf Moor silent for a whole minute while the home fans sat in shock, when the referee blew the final whistle of the game and news trickled through of Lincoln and Torquay’s defeats, incredible scenes of pure emotion were displayed at the Turf - BURNLEY WERE NOT RELEGATED!


In the end it was Lincoln who became the first team to automatically be replaced by the winner of the Conference - the same Lincoln that were 7th in the table following their win over Burnley in January during that disastrous ten game win-less spell.


The last 35 minutes of the Orient game must have seemed like 35 days.  After Comfort brought the score back to 2-1 Orient were back in the game, one more Orient goal could mean Burnley were relegated.  Burnley fans sat, twitching, intolerably tense, but the Burnley players, made aware of other scores going Burnley’s way by the crowd, held onto their slim lead.


The pitch was a sea of Claret and Blue as fans flooded from the stands - creating fantastic scenes of thousands bouncing around, singing, shouting, crying and waving their claret and blue scarves and flags with pride.  Both teams were given a standing ovation by travelling Orient fans and it was a fitting tribute to the twelve Clarets that will forever be known as heroes in the history archives of Burnley Football Club.


The team on that fantastic day, 9th May 1987, was: Joe Neenan, Peter Leebrook, Peter Hampton, Billy Rodaway, Joe Gallagher, Ray Deakin, Neil Grewcock, Phil Malley, Leighton James, Phil Devaney, Ian Britton. Sub: Ashley Hoskin.



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