THE MOOR, THE MERRIER.

“It’s just down here. Ant. End of the street and left”.

I’m in Burnley, Lancashire. A proud town with a population of around 75,000 just off the M65. The drive from the M6 down the M65 is a scenic, lovely one, and one that I’ve done many times before. It passes and links towns such as Colne, Nelson, and Padiham – areas that Burnley FC draws some of its passionate support from……..

It’s fair to say that not a lot has changed since I first visited Burnley, thirty eight years ago. And that’s not a criticism. It’s not unlike Stoke-on-Trent in many ways: a proud, parochial area that has borne the brunt of the worst of British politics during my lifetime. I drive down the hill into town. I don’t need sat-nav as I go past the same buildings and streets as I’ve always done. Like other towns and cities hit by hard economics, you see pubs shut and businesses closed, but I’ve always seen Burnley as a warm welcoming town whenever I’ve visited. I’ve always felt far more in common with the good folk of the town than I do when visiting other Premier League grounds.

My late dad worked quite a bit in Burnley. He worked at Michelin on Campell Road in Stoke, and part of his job was visiting various Michelin sites around Britain: Glasgow, Belfast, Ballymena, Dundee, Aberdeen…..and Burnley. Strange how he always seemed to be working in Burnley and other places when the local team had a midweek home game, I used to think!

He made some great friends in Burnley. Especially in The Falcon. He loved a beer and loved his football, and being from Potteries working class stock with o airs or graces he was pretty much accepted by the locals In Burnley, where he often spent two or three nights on the trot.

It was no coincidence that my first ever away game was at Turf Moor. February 24th 1979 was the date. It was our promotion-wining 1978/79 season and second half goals from Crooks, Randall and O’Callaghan saw The Potters stroll to a comfortable 3-0 win in the Burnley mud. We had sat in the Bob Lord Stand – our carload probably the only Stokies in there – and dad celebrated each goal as if we’d won the cup.
I feared for my very being, but somehow we got zero mither – me being sat next to him probably being the sole reason for escaping with the points rather than a banjoing. That couldn’t be said outside, where my first ever away game ended with what seemed like World War Three taking part near the cricket club.

As stated before, I’ve been Burnley a dozen times or so since then, and whilst in can sometimes be an unwelcoming ground to visit as an away fan, I’ve never had a problem there and really enjoy talking football and cricket with Clarets fans over a pint. How it should be. So, whilst I don’t ‘do’ second clubs, I have always had a respect and soft spot for Burnley. And they also seem to buy loads of our players, too!

Burnley FC has a fiercely proud support. Walking around the town on a chilly, Spring Friday afternoon this year, there aren’t many people about. Like Hanley, yeah? But what is noticeable, is that all you see around are Burnley tops, scarves, car stickers etc……they’re proud of their team and their town, and again, it’s a little like how our city has become: where once we were in the minority when it came to kids wearing the strips of their favourite club, it is Stoke City shirts that you will have seen on the vast majority of Potteries kids since 2008. And that’s a key area for me, when it comes to relegation and its possible consequences.

The division we play in is nothing I can do about, and whilst I obviously want us dining at the top table, I’ll still be there even if we were non-league. But what will kill me is seeing local people and businesses suffering because 17 other teams managed to secure more points than us this season. Much of the Premier League leaves me cold to be honest, but this city and its people really needs a team in the top flight for financial, image and kudos reasons above anything else. Our kids and their kids need to grow up as Stoke City fans.

And whilst yesterday was earth-shatteringly horrible, it was ironic that it was Burnley FC that put one of the final nails into our Premier League coffin. Indeed, do they have a slight soft spot or grudging respect for us? A fellow intruder at the top table since 1992, our clubs have similarities: what we do for our community being one of the biggest ones. I mean, even the “Going down” chant from the away end was seemingly half-hearted throughout yesterday’s game.

From what I saw yesterday, Burnley FC seem refreshingly free from some of the unlikeable added-extras that you get in the Premier League.

On the pitch, The Clarets played quite a simple, well organised game that was reminiscent of how we used to play under TP. Indeed, we’re hardly Barca now, are we? Hitting target men early, winning second balls and being defensively solid, especially against the long ball from us. They worked damned hard, seemed fitter than us (hence finishing the game far stronger despite only playing last Thursday). I paid particular attention to Sean Dyche. Constantly applauding the efforts of forwards who closed down defenders, players were regularly given thunderous rounds of applause by the gravel-voiced gaffer, looking like the lovechild of Tony Pulis and a nightclub bouncer.

But it wasn’t all brawn over brains. Far from it. In Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Burnley also had the game’s outstanding player, too. His stunning left foot was close on several occasions and delivered quality set piece after quality set piece. Add on clever positional play and good use of the ball, it took me back to the days of Nigel Gleghorn plying his trade in ST4. I do feel slightly aggrieved this season that our style of play under the capped one was seen as totally one dimensional whereas this year’s Burnley are this the footballing equivalent of beards and craft ale, but they can also play a bit, too. Their Icelandic midfielder bears testimony to that.

Off the pitch you seemingly couldn’t find a nicer bunch of lads, too. Many didn’t get the team bus home – no doubt, as several live this side of Manchester in the Cheshire Footballers Triangle – and so their cars were parked in the main car park or they were leaving with mates/family. But unlike so many teams who come to ST4, there was no-one pretending to be on their mobile, no refusal of a photo or autograph at all.

Whilst it doesn’t seem much, it does speak volumes to me. Football is all about the connection between club, team, and fans. Whilst I was truly gutted to see us virtually relegated yesterday, part of me inside smiled a little at seeing the soul of football right before my eyes. And it’s bloody good to see a club like Burnley doing well. And yes, I am bloody jealous!

Whilst Burnley may have no Galacticos, they do have any number of international players, with all only too happy to mingle with Stokies and Clarets, young and not so young alike.

Personally, I just wanted to catch up with a couple of Burnley players. Jeff Hendrick, I interviewed by telephone a month or two ago for another magazine and just wanted to meet him and thank him for a cracking chat. We met, said hello and had a brief chat, he had a pic with my little un, and he walked across the car park – to do the same with any number of other supporters waiting with pens and mobiles in hand.

You can guess who was the last Burnley player out, couldn’t you? Hugely popular, (Super) Jon Walters was still in the ground, saying his goodbyes to players and staff, and emerged a good hour after the final whistle had blown. His father was stood next to me by the club shop and no doubt overheard the Stokies present saying just how much they loved Jon in the red and white stripes and what a great bloke he is. I hope it filled Mr Walters’ heart with pride, it certainly did mine. We don’t forget our heroes here in Stoke, and Jon Walters is a modern day Stoke City legend. Fact.

Luckily for me, Jon was parked on the South Car Park, same as me, and so we walked back to our cars together – I’d given Jon a print of the cover we did of him last Summer and also a piece I’d written about him, and he was holding his youngest child whilst we nattered about football in general. He asked how my lad was doing at the academy and was genuinely happy when I told him he’d had a great year and was loving every minute of it.

“…….That’s ace, because that’s what kids football is about, Ant, they HAVE TO love it!”.

We posed for a pic with my kids, I wished him a great summer, and he was off.

“If you ever need anything Ant, just let me know……” , he shouted from twenty yards away.

Jon Walters is a proper footballer, a proper man. Burnley is a proper football club, and a town with a genuine heart and soul. I hope they finish seventh and I will enjoy watching their European adventures next season.

The opening sentence of this piece?

I was with a client who I do some writing for. In Burnley. They’d treated me to lunch in an ace Italian restaurant and afterwards one of the company’s owners walked with me on my personal pilgrimage. I had to go and find it, and have a look at it……..

The Falcon is now a gastro pub, and a lovely looking one at that, on the edge of the town centre. I was driving, or I’d have gone in and had a pint and a nose around. I will one day, but it won’t be next season now. Shame, but football is about so much more than what league your team plays in, isn’t it? It’s about heart, soul and community. It’s about your team choosing you, not the other way around. And that’s why I’m immensely proud to be from Stoke and support Stoke City. The division we play in doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Yes, I get angry, bitter and frustrated. But I go home to what’s really important, and Stoke City is still there the next day. For me, simply having a club and support that has a fierce civic pride and is the centre of the community is more than enough and always will be.

That’s why I’m delighted my youngest kid’s first away game is at Anfield next week. He’s 9 now, so understands football, understands the passions it evokes, and understands just what might happen to our club’s status if we lose next week. I’m buzzing for him to be in that away end to be honest, cheering on the club he loves, a club from our city. And that buzz of watching his team away from home will automatically and magically be transferred into his young heart and soul as soon as we get in the car next Saturday. After all, it’s your club, Archie. Yours.

ANTHONY BUNN