Turf love from the man who's got to be there

He's been expelled from school, had scores of jobs, invented dead relatives, called his child Clarette and missed one game in 40 years. Meet an 'extreme fan'
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The Independent Football

Dave Burnley describes himself as an "extreme supporter" of Burnley Football Club. The label scarcely does justice to the dedication that has compelled him to move heaven and earth – as well as changing his surname by deed-poll and naming his daughter after the club – to watch every Clarets match bar one over the past 40 years.

As he sits outside a pub in the Staffordshire village of Madeley, 75 miles from the claret-and-blue cathedral of Turf Moor, a friend asks him to sign a copy of the richly entertaining new book, Got To Be There!, which chronicles his all-consuming passion. "I still don't understand," she puzzles, "why you support Burnley."

This, after all, is Stoke City territory. Resplendent in Burnley's new "1960 champions" shirt, Dave (or Ralphy as he is known locally after his hero and foreword-writer Ralph Coates), breaks off from pondering the prospect of Everton being vanquished today as Manchester United were in midweek. "I don't either," he replies. "It's just something I've got to do. It's like I was sent from Mars to do it."

There really is something other-worldly about 55-year-old Dave's devotion. It has led him, a non- driver, to cycle between home and Lancashire, walk thousands of miles, hitch-hike in fancy dress and catch pneumonia by sleeping rough. Not to mention having 70 occupations, changing jobs 100 times and inventing dead relatives, all because of his compulsion "to be there".

His love for Burnley – "I call it true love, because that's something you'd do anything for" – began in 1964. Dave and his mate, Reggie Bradshaw, flitted between teams. When Liverpool went top and Reggie came round to pledge allegiance, Dave resolved to announce his ardour for them first. Reggie beat him to it and demanded to know who he now followed. "I blurted out 'Er, Burnley' because I'd just been reading about them and the old chairman, Bob Lord, in the paper.

"Then I started finding out about them and it intrigued me. How did they do so well in the top division, with such a small population and low crowds? I finally went to Burnley in '66, on a Stoke fans' coach, and loved the atmosphere and the colours."

His reluctance, nay refusal, to worship from afar did not enhance his academic or career prospects. Having routinely skipped classes to attend midweek fixtures, he faced the dilemma of the mock O-Levels. "We were told no one could be absent unless there was a death in the family. The teacher added: 'And Beeston (my name then), that doesn't include hamsters, goldfish, cats or dogs.' Burnley were playing Chelsea and I had to be there. So I said one of my aunties had died. I got expelled.

"Work-wise I've done everything from merchandising clerk to toilet-cleaner. I've been back to Mr Kipling's bakery, where I am now, 10 times. If people won't give me time off to watch Burnley, I walk [out]. When I was with the Co-Op I had about six aunts die. We were playing Norwich one night and I used the funeral excuse. There was a downpour and next day the manager said 'I see your auntie's funeral was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch'."

His daughter, a 19-year-old student, is called Clarette. "I wanted Clarette Anne Baloo, but her mother said it was wrong to name her after a character from The Jungle Book. But I've googled Clarette and it's a unique name. She adores it and enjoys telling people how she got it. She also likes the Burnley siege mentality and comes to games occasionally."

Occasionally would never do for Dave, who rebranded himself as an act of loyalty after Burnley's relegation from the old First Division in 1976. When his record first began attracting media interest, "eight lads from the village" physically tried to stop him going to a game. "They thought it was hilarious. I had to fight like a demon to make sure I got out.

"If ever I'm in a situation where I'm struggling to get there, I start pouring sweat and tensing up. When Burnley played at Carlisle on Boxing Day 1980 I went as an Arab sheikh. I was due to be picked up from Keele services at 10 o'clock, yet by 10.50 my lift still hadn't come. There were no mobiles then. Eventually a chef came over and said my friends had been in a car crash. No one was hurt but I was to make my own way.

"I went running down the slip road like Yasser Arafat with his thumb out. I got to Preston by one o'clock but that was still 80 miles away. At 1.10 a furniture van pulled up with 20 Burnley fans dressed as teddy boys, cowboys and chickens. I made it, but we lost 4-1."

Then there was a 10-hour slog to Pwllheli for a 10-minute five-a-side game; "three days on a Greyhound bus" to watch Burnley in North Carolina and Minnesota; getting to a third-place match on the Isle of Man; and actually playing for the club in a scratch game against hotel waiters in Majorca. "Leighton James came off and I was the only Burnley fan in a crowd of 20, so he said 'You go on'. I scored two in a 7-2 win but mysteriously, they never asked me again!"

Dave finds it less easy to jest about the fabled Orient game on the last day of 1986-87. "I'm convinced Burnley would be extinct now if we'd dropped into the Conference. If we were losing I planned to lock myself to a goalpost with a combination cycle lock. Others were going to invade the pitch. Yes, it would've shamed the club, but the position was desperate. Fortunately we won 2-1 so I didn't have to do it."

His funny and often poignant memoir, or part one of it, takes the reader up to that fateful afternoon. The second part will deal with two decades spent almost exclusively in the lower divisions before culminating, he hopes, in survival among the elite. "It's not just about Burnley. Anyone who's ever suffered for a football club will relate to it."

Talking of suffering, what about the match he missed? "Newcastle away, '73-74. It was scheduled for December but postponed repeatedly because of bad weather. There was also a rail dispute and a miners' strike. I was taking two days off to get up there only to find it was off again. I'd used up my days off but kept phoning Burnley to try to find out when it would be played. I think they got fed up of my asking. It was played in April and I didn't realise until too late. We won 2-1 but I went upstairs and cried my eyes out."

His tears were of the joyful variety last week when Owen Coyle's play-off winners beat the Premier League champions. "The Turf went back to the Sixties on Wednesday. The roar was amazing. Even Alex Ferguson commented on it."

Now for Everton, though true to form, Dave is already looking ahead to Hartlepool away in the Carling Cup on Tuesday. "It's tricky. I also have to leave early next Friday to make sure I'm at Chelsea for a 12.45 kick-off on Saturday. If it was Stoke there would not be a problem but people don't appreciate the attraction of this outpost in north-east Lancashire.

"It's a matter of swapping shifts and buttering up the boss. I should be OK, but if not, there's no choice. I've got to be there."

Got To Be There! Part One: 1964-1987 by Dave Burnley (Dawber, £10)

Fanatical Fans

John Westwood: Portsmouth supporter prompts a crescendo of noise with his out-of-tune trumpeting and bell-ringing. Iconic figure who is mobbed at Pompey games, with fans asking for autographs and pictures.

David Johnson: The Newcastle fan was catapulted into the spotlight when his energetic and alternative dance moves were seen on YouTube. Christened the "Geordie Dancer", his fame reached fever pitch when he competed on Soccer AM in a dance-off against a Sunderland supporter, the "Mackem Mover".

Vic Flowers: Flowers (also known as Jimmy Savile) is the Barmy Army's unofficial leader. A regular sight at all England games with his St George-inspired attire of flags, top hats and vests.

Matthew Gerrard: Former Arsenal fan switched allegiance to Borussia Dortmund after becoming disillusioned with the Premier League. Now makes eight-hour round trips (more than 560 miles) to see them play.

Peter Dorman