So, Burnley away then. Never an uneventful fixture, when one peruses the history books. Last season alone it was mightily significant – for Paul Duffen’s sudden, cloak and dagger exit, Adam Pearson’s predictable return and Geovanni’s ludicrous act of double misfortune with free kick and red card.
And we can point to older, but just as memorable occasions for the Tigers at Turf Moor when following the nostalgic trail. Michael Turner’s 93rd minute header in the promotion season prompted celebratory caperings that were rarely matched afterwards, even in victory over bigger clubs in the highest division. All sorts of victories are possible as far as manner, context, style or occasion is concerned, but even in the more regulation away wins (which, admittedly, sounds like a contradiction in terms when considering recent shenanigans), there’s nought so sweet as an injury time winner.
Go back two further seasons and there was a 1-0 loss on a Friday night which allowed the travelling Tiger Nation to chant, at the Sky bosses who felt it necessary to televise the game (and thereby guarantee our instant, unnegotiable defeat), the dainty adage: “You can shove your f**king cameras up your arse”, to the hallowed melody of “If You’re Happy And You Know It”.
But, well, it still is about 1984. And a promotion challenge. And a fixture which came with absolute, total clarity about what was expected and required of the Tigers that day, the last day – and, indeed, a rearranged last day – of that rousing season.
Due to an extreme winter and consequent fixture pile-up, City ended up with games to spare over their promotion rivals in what was then known, quaintly but correctly, as Division Three. Managed by Colin Appleton, a man both masterly with tactics and entirely away with the fairies, the team combined brute strength with proper craft to mutually beneficial levels, and a real opportunity to secure promotion for a second successive year was on. The awful weather had turned January into almost a month’s sabbatical for the Tigers – just two League games went ahead – and an awkwardly successful run in the inaugural Associate Members Cup had made some potential midweek rearrangements totally impossible. By the time May came round, City still had four League games to play and, through winning just one of them, they went into the trip to Burnley knowing exactly what was required.
A victory by three goals.
City were fourth. But a 3-0 win would steal the last promotion place from Sheffield United by one cursory, delicious goal. Anything less and the Blades would join Oxford United and Wimbledon – from whom City took seven points from 12 over the season – in the second tier the following season. Further interest, and potential controversy, came from events earlier in the season when the police advised the team coach to turn round during heavy snowstorms and the game was called off, despite the achievement of many hundreds of supporters in successfully negotiating the same route to the murky end of the Pennines. Other teams involved – well, Sheffield United – were aggrieved that this rescheduled game was taking place in such circumstances at all and the atmosphere was cranked up by the presence of a tiny but noticeable number of snarling Blades supporters, hoping to see their team promoted through the unusual act of watching two others kick a ball. Burnley, for their part, were as middling as mid-table could get and had nothing to play for other than an element of Lancashire pride.
The game kicked off and quickly it was obvious that City were the better side. Brian Marwood, top scorer and on top of his game, scored early on. City attacked with the fluency and confidence that had trademarked their whole campaign, but the second goal didn’t come until midway through the second half, with Marwood again on target. So one more, then. One more, plus a bit of defensive responsibility, and the gatecrashing Blades fans could go home with the dashed dreams they deserved for impertinently barging in on someone else’s affair. And the fans who had proper cause to make the trip from Yorkshire to Lancashire could get on with their party.
It never came.
At the final whistle, there was a tiny pocket of celebration from one section of a home stand, while the City players and fans shared a sense of total dejection tempered only later, on reflection, by a feeling of gratitude for the shape of the club considering the threat of closure of just three years before. Appleton made it a double whammy of devastation by walking out of the club within hours, while Marwood was sold in the summer to Sheffield Wednesday and would later play for Arsenal and win both a League Championship medal and an England cap. He would state in retirement that he would not have moved on had the Tigers won by the required margin at Turf Moor, and gallantly – though quite wrongly – blamed himself for the failure to go up due to a missed penalty or two through the campaign.
As if losing out on promotion by one rotten goal wasn’t a definition in itself of “typical City”, they then proceeded to progress through the semi-finals of the Associate Members Cup – under caretaker boss Chris Chilton – before losing the final to Bournemouth in the only year it would not happen at Wembley, a place where City had, of course, never played and would avoid with skill and diligence for a further 24 years. And the crazily chosen alternative venue – Boothferry Park – made the defeat even more synonymous with City’s general luckless/clueless image over the years, as Bournemouth travelled several hundred miles north, won the game 2-1, collected the trophy and headed home again. Few mourn that particular day, however, as events at Turf Moor nine days earlier would take some beating as far as the concept of a “near miss” for the season was concerned.
What sort of game at Turf Moor would it take to usurp the drama, importance and emotion of the one that ended the 1983/84 campaign? Well, in footballing terms, none at all. That doesn’t make this coming match any less of an occasion, of course, and right now City are doing well at being out of the spotlight, especially after that wretched run without an away game finally came to an end. But for the City fans whose teeth are long enough to get shivers from the memories of May 15th 1984, there will always be a great significance about a trip to Burnley.