The 2013 Football Blogging Awards’ Best Female Football Blogger ANNA-LOUISE ADAMS looks at a local rivalry that rarely gets the attention afforded to many other derbies, but lacks none of the ferocity – both on and off the pitch.
On Sunday the 17th of March, 2013, two stalwarts and founding members of the Football League came together to contest one of English footballs oldest, and fiercest rivalries.
This was not the Merseyside, North London, Tyne-Wear or Manchester derby. This was the Cotton Mills rivalry.
For those unfamiliar with this term, the fixture in question might be more commonly known as the East Lancashire derby. It is the battle of Blackburn Rovers Football Club and Burnley Football Club, where there is much more than just three points at stake. This is a rivalry which goes far deeper than football alone.
The name “The Cotton Mills Derby” stems from the perhaps slightly obvious fact that both towns were former mill towns.
Clearly there is a geographical element to this passionate clash with only eleven miles between them, but further still, there is history entangled between these two clubs.
The Cotton Mills tie is vicious, with its purported roots in industry, amplified by the beautiful game. The rivalry is not just between two clubs; it is between two neighbouring towns.
There are a couple of rumours that shed light on to how the oldest rivalry in English football came about. The first alleges that Blackburn complained to the Football League about Burnley’s number of illegal Scottish players in the 1890’s.
The second suggestion of why the hatred between these towns is so pure is supposedly that Blackburn won a large cotton mill contract ahead of Burnley, meaning employment and high wages in Blackburn and unemployment and low wages in their neighbouring town.
The two clubs first met in a friendly, in 1882, where the Clarets were subject to a 10-0 thrashing. Burnley first beat Blackburn in the Lancashire Cup final of 1890. When they did, their players were rolled back through the town on a wagonette.
In the first competitive fixture between the arch foes, Burnley endured another thrashing as Rovers slammed seven past them, conceding one consolation goal.
History plays a huge part in determining a rivalry, but the battle must always continue; therefore, the present is equally as significant as the past.
Back to Sunday the 17th of March. It was a glorious day for such a game; Ewood Park stood proudly basking in the sun marking the coming of spring.
Around 4,000 Burnley fans travelled the eleven miles to fill the Darwen End, for the first time in just over three years. It was the first time the derby had taken place in the Championship since the League’s name change.
To understand the sheer importance of this game, one that epitomises intensity and raw passion, some background of the run up to the game should hopefully put it into context.
Regarding history, Burnley had not beaten Blackburn for nearly 34 years, therefore the bragging rights remained firmly with Rovers, and Burnley were trying their hardest to reclaim them.
But for Blackburn, to lose those bragging rights could have been catastrophic. 2011/12 was a tumultuous season for the club, and the following campaign of 2012/13 was turbulent to say the least. The dark days and ineptitude of the infamous Steve Kean had finally ended, but chaos was destined to ensue.
We’ll skip over caretaker manager Eric Black, as his short-lived reign is hardly to blame for the struggles Blackburn endured. Next in the hot seat was Henning Berg, a former club legend, but a fairly uninspiring man when it came to managing. One win in ten is all that needs to be said for the Norwegian’s time in Lancashire.
For many, he ought not to have been hired in the first place. But he was, and sure enough he was sacked after just 57 days. Michael Appleton had little more luck and was trusted only ten days more than his predecessor.
However, it was Appleton that was in charge at the time of this brutal game of football. Rovers had beaten Arsenal in the Cup at the Emirates just a month prior to derby day under this man. But three weeks later, the club had been knocked out of the FA Cup in the quarter-final replay at home to Millwall.
At the end of that match, blue and white through and through supporter and fan favourite player, David Dunn, walked off the pitch in tears. Dunn knew that this was probably one of his last chances of securing a game at Wembley; little did he know that he would be Blackburn’s saving grace just four days later.
Back to Ewood Park – the tension was building in the stands as the two sets of fans tormented each other with relentlessly brutal chants, the nature of which needs not be discussed, needless to say much of it was revolting, demonstrating the ferocity of a game like this.
Many Blackburn fans had chosen not to renew their season tickets after their plummet from the Premier League. Attendances dwindled, averaging around 13,000; the lowest attendance being just over 8,000 at that depressing FA Cup quarter-final.
On derby day though, the gate shot up to over 20,000 – it was a game that no-one wanted to miss, despite their protests directed at the owners.
Kick-off came around, and the stadium was pulsating with energy, the atmosphere was of a calibre unlike anything I had witnessed before.
The football was fierce, the tackles more reckless than usual, and nerves were fraught.
Emotions in the home stand heightened as Jason Shackell put their arch enemies in front in the 32nd minute. The away end erupted with malicious excitement as Burnley realised that they had taken the lead.
The advantage was held right up until injury time; at this point the majority of Rovers fans, including myself, were on the verge of not just tears, but a mental breakdown. This could not be happening, why were we suffering so much punishment?
Injury time began, and David Dunn had amazingly lasted the whole game thus far. Bear in mind this is the man who suffers niggling injuries like no other; his Achilles heel particularly prone to damage.
On this day he was the man who saved Blackburn Rovers.
In the fourth minute of injury time, the heavens decided to stop their sadistic tortures, and instead awarded a miracle. Out of what seemed like nowhere, Dunn was stood in front of goal, the ball at his feet, and in hindsight possibly offside. The far post quivered, the net bulged, and an eruption of euphoria cascaded around the stadium.
Dunn had done it. He had not only equalised with just one minute remaining, but he had saved Blackburn Rovers. He clenched tightly to Rovers’ bragging rights as he paraded in front of the away stand, mockingly wiping tears off his face in response to the merciless mickey-taking he had endured at the hands of his rivals’ supporters.
As the anguish began to stain the faces of the Burnley fans, Blackburn fans sang louder than they had for the past two seasons. “David Dunn is blue and white, he hates Burnley” were the words that escaped the stadium into the afternoon air.
Burnley fans began to leave in a furious rage, they felt cheated. They felt that they had been robbed of three points, and they knew that they would have to endure another year of torture courtesy of their neighbours.
The chants of ‘David Dunn’ continued as the stadium emptied. It wasn’t until I had got back into the car after a twenty minute walk back from Ewood Park that I realised that they had stopped. That was only because I was no longer in the waves of blue and white.
Real tears were shed, as the reality of what had just happened sank in. After the game, Appleton calmly said that he hoped that it felt like the worst result Burnley had ever had.
This is the Cotton Mills derby. This is the oldest derby in England. This is more than a game of football, with so much more than three points at stake.