Animosity the common thread as Burnley prepare for cotton-town derby revenge

Expect plenty of needle in Blackburn's rare visit to Turf Moor in the FA Cup fifth round tomorrow, predicts Tim Rich
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The Independent Football

The Hidden conflicts, half-forgotten by the world outside, are frequently the most savage. When Portsmouth hauled themselves up to the Premiership few outside Hampshire realised what a dam-burst of poison and resentment would be released when they encountered Southampton for the first time in 15 years.

The Hidden conflicts, half-forgotten by the world outside, are frequently the most savage. When Portsmouth hauled themselves up to the Premiership few outside Hampshire realised what a dam-burst of poison and resentment would be released when they encountered Southampton for the first time in 15 years.

One of the great mysteries of North-east football used to be to walk through the genteel gates of Feethams, which nestled alongside Darlington's cricket ground, and see the citizens of this Quaker town work themselves up into states of rabid fury whenever Hartlepool came calling. So when Peter Reid gave a deep cackle when pulling out the ball indicating "Blackburn" to go with the one signifying "Burnley" few outside Lancashire understood just what a vicious conflict this fifth-round FA Cup draw had reignited.

Graham Branch knew immediately. The Burnley defender was in B&Q, having just moved home, when his father rang with the draw. "The first word that went through my head was 'fireworks'. No one who comes to this club from outside is aware how big this fixture is. When Graeme Souness was manager of Blackburn he said he was taken aback by the match."

One of the reasons there is so much tension surrounding the game is that it is so rarely played. The Merseyside derby, the meeting of Manchester's red and blue halves, Arsenal v Tottenham are usually fixed points of the football calendar. Not so Burnley v Blackburn. The two sides have met only twice in 22 years and on both those occasions Burnley, the club that in 1995 had endured Blackburn winning the Premiership while they were relegated to the Third Division of English football, were badly beaten. Blackburn always seem to have had the edge. In the first six times this fixture was played, they scored 31 goals.

Branch recalls the last match, a 5-0 humbling at Ewood Park in 2001, as one where he played for 25 minutes with ruptured medial ligaments in his knee. In normal circumstances, he would have gone off but not in this match and not on that ground. "I remember as I was going to strike through the ball Marcus Bent stuck his leg out to get it and I felt something go. I should have gone off but we were two or three-nil down and I remember thinking: 'If I go off now, what are the fans going to think? They're going to say that he's bottled it.'

"I'm not a bottler but I am very lucky I didn't do my cruciate because as I ran I could feel the bottom of my leg just flopping. It was the weirdest sensation I've ever had. I could go in a straight line but if I twisted or turned my leg just gave way and I had Jason McAteer, zipping in and out, to contend with. Our physio said he couldn't believe I played on like that because the leg was bent right out. But it was the derby."

Men like Alan Beecroft would appreciate Branch's naked courage. Beecroft typifies the kind of passion Burnley fans say is sometimes lacking at Ewood Park, which was half empty for its first European fixture. He made his first visit to Turf Moor in 1958 and once cut short a trip to Mexico to watch Burnley play - "It was worth it because we put seven past York." As a child he was at Turf Moor for the last meeting of the two sides in the FA Cup, a game that has become part of East Lancashire folklore.

In March 1960 Burnley were driving towards the Double when they drew Blackburn in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Burnley charged into a three-goal lead before a penalty was given against Alex Elder for handball. Blackburn fought back to 3-3, won the replay and made it to the final. Burnley duly won the championship at Maine Road in front of almost 66,000 with thousands more camped out in Moss Side, judging the match by the roar of the crowd. Five days later at Wembley in front of 34,000 more, Blackburn were beaten 3-0 by Wolverhampton.

Then, as the focus of Lancashire football shifted from the great cotton towns to Merseyside and Manchester, Burnley and Blackburn began drifting through the divisions and the meetings became less frequent. Their last encounter of the 20th century, in April 1983, ended with Burnley fans tearing off Ewood Park's roof.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Beecroft recalled. "I saw some guy with a lump-hammer breaking up the terracing. Then they got up on the roof and began tearing down the asbestos. It was absolutely scary; you thought someone was going to be killed. The police began a baton charge - although it would have been truncheons in those days - and it was absolutely indiscriminate clubbing; young, old, everybody got it.

"The origins of the trouble were that we had lost, we were going down and everybody at the Burnley end knew it. The funny thing was that the next time Burnley played Blackburn, in the FA Youth Cup, Ewood Park was full of riot police to greet 150 Burnley fans and 300 from Blackburn."

They had to wait 17 years, until December 2000, for the next East Lancashire derby, a match remembered for Kevin Ball - "one of the hardest people I have ever played with," according to Branch - being sent off for a tackle that sent Blackburn's David Dunn several feet into the air. "Kevin is a nice fella who became a legend at Burnley but he liked a challenge. I remember when he first arrived. We were in pre-season training in the Isle of Man under Stan Ternent and there was a no-tackling policy because we had such a small squad and on a rock-hard pitch he kicked seven kinds of it out of us."

Burnley are better prepared to face Blackburn than they were then. Ternent was a good, old-fashioned belt-and-braces manager who chain-smoked his way through matches and whose players went to the corner shop for their lunches. Under his successor, Steve Cotterill, there are controlled diets, breakfast meetings and ice-baths. This season Aston Villa and Liverpool were both outplayed at Turf Moor in the Carling and FA Cups. Branch, who under Ternent enjoyed cup victories over Tottenham and Fulham, thought that Burnley played better against Premiership sides "because they give you more time and space".

Blackburn will not behave like a Premiership team tomorrow. "It will be like facing a Second Division side because they will give us no respect. I am hoping there will be a bit of football played but I know that at times it will be just a battle."

There is a part of Beecroft that is not looking forward to tomorrow. "To tell the truth I'm nervous just thinking about it. Maybe it would have been better if we'd got Manchester United or Chelsea, got beaten and just taken the money. Whoever loses, their fans are going to have to put up with years of purgatory."

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