Monday, October 29, 2007


It's grim up north

Banks of empty seats thrilled the TV viewer during yesterday's clash between Bolton and Aston Villa at the Reebok. It's the same whenever we get the likes of Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers's fancy dress as thousands of fans come dressed as placcy seats and the watching world wonders where all the fans have gone.

It's easy to forget but there's a proud footballing heritage in these parts extending down the divisions to Burnley and Preston. Old northern towns with whippets and flat caps, football as we now know it saw its first boom in these streets of terraced houses and cobbled roads. Today their big city neighbours Manchester and Liverpool hog the headlines and get the glamour while these old towns cling to their memories and traditions.

Blackburn Rovers of course have a recent as well as ancient record of success. Founded in 1875 they were First Division Champions twice before the First World War and FA Cup Winners 5 times in the 19th Century in a memorable 8 year period as well as their most recent triumph a mere 79 years ago.

Like those early triumphs, the days of Shearer and Sutton are distant memories as today Mark Hughes tries to cobble together a successful side built around northern grit and determination and Robbie Savage kicking lumps out of opponents. For the armchair viewer it may seem the Blackburn public are an ungrateful lot, judged by those empty seats but in fact Rovers current average attendance of in a stadium that holds less than 32,000 is bloody impressive when you consider the town's population is only 105,000. Not many clubs average more than 20% of the population coming through the gate.

Bolton of course have been attracting headlines for the managers they have gone through recently. Big Sam was replaced by Little Sam who has also buggered off to be replaced by Ginger Gaz, Gary Megson who has, like his predecessors, won very little in the game. Obviously well qualified for the Wanderers who have only won the First Division once, and that was 10 years ago. Their glory days were the 1920's when they won the FA Cup three times. Their last victorious day out at Wembley was 1958 unless you include the Sherpa Vans Trophy but I'm not.

Bolton has some 139,000 people living there so with a stadium that holds 28,000 their average crowd of 21,000 so far this season is pretty good going. It's all a far cry from one day in 1933 when 69,000 turned up for an FA Cup tie with nearby Manchester City.

Burnley has to be the most parochial town I've ever been to. Everyone wears Burnley football shirts and the sports shops, at least last time I was there, only sold home town kits. One of my best footballing experiences was a derby match between Burnley and Bolton at Turf just had to be there. For today's fans times are lean. They were last in the top flight in 1976 and last won anything of note in 1960 when a wonderful Burnley team won the First Division for the second time in their history. A year later they were in the European Cup while in 1962 they were runners up in both the First Division and FA Cup. So near and yet so far to the elusive double.

The beauty of those days, when there was little transfer market activity, was players were found on club's doorsteps. Where have they gone eh? What has happened to the generation who kicked balls in dimly lit streets? That bloody Play Station, that's what!? With a small population, about 73,000, you can appreciate average crowds of 12,000 aren't bad for a midtable side.

Proud Preston, first ever winners of the First Division gave the world Tom Finney. They were unbeaten in the first ever season of league football, retained their title in 1889 and runners-up for the next three seasons. They also won the FA Cup twice, first in 1889 and last time 1938. Today they flit around the lower leagues, shunning the headlines and wondering what might have been had Sky money been around in their heyday.

Some 185,000 folk live in the Preston area so with average attendances of less than 12,000 their stadium which holds 21,000 is more than enough for this now struggling Championship team. Maybe the odd footballing tourist, someone aware of life before Sky and Euro '96 might pass through once in a while and take in the atmosphere of the club that were once the mightiest in the world.

For most people the North West means United and Liverpool but right on their doorstep lies football heritage, where a ball was first kicked in anger and where, despite small populations and other more glamourous attractions down the road, healthy attendances are still recorded.

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