PL25: Burnley return in style to the big time besting the famous Man United

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a fairytale uprising that announced the return of a ‘sleeping giant’.

When Brighton & Hove Albion hosted Manchester City for their first ever Premier League game last weekend the rest of football smiled on with a great deal of affection. 20 years earlier the Seagulls were desperately clinging to the league pyramid’s trapdoor, requiring a frantic stalemate with Hereford to retain their status and survival. Now here they were, in the promised land of milk and honey, a thousand lightyears away from struggle.

It can be assumed that Burnley fans watched on last Saturday evening with infinitely more than just affection; indeed for them it must have been empirical empathy that brought back a whole mixture of emotions. Just eight short years ago they too had completed that same surreal journey from the depths that threatened their very existence to the big time finding themselves blinking in disbelief among the elite. For Burnley, their 90 minute salvation came against Leyton Orient in 1987. A 2-1 win. And like Brighton, their reward 20  years on was to go toe-to-toe with a Manchester giant, in their case United.

Few had expected the Clarets to mount a promotion campaign the previous year having finished 13th, 17th, 15th and 13th in recent seasons. Even with the astute Owen Coyle settling into his second term as boss, the vast experience of Graham Alexander driving them on in midfield, and Brian ‘the Beast’ Jensen filling half of the goal it was a very competitive Championship that year – when is it not? – but Burnley disproved the odds and lasted the pace.  They eventually finished fifth, beating Sheffield United in a battle of attrition at Wembley to secure their dream ticket.

Fewer still anticipated the twin cup runs that accompanied their sprint to the play-offs. A fifth round exit in the FA Cup to Arsenal was the Gunners’ revenge for a famous quarter-final upset in the League Cup that followed an equally brilliant headline-grabbing victory at Stamford Bridge in the preceding round. ‘Little’ Burnley, a club that proudly boasted two league championships in the distant past, were making waves and, maybe more importantly, were instilling a self-belief in their own capabilities that would prove priceless in months to come.

With the immense excitement of competing in the top flight for the first time in 33 years it is all too easy to imagine a Clarets fan devouring the fixture list on its unveiling and the order in which it was prioritised. What’s the first game? Stoke away. Not great. When is Blackburn? Mid-October. It can’t come soon enough. What about Anfield and Old Trafford away? September and January. Oh crap, nearly forgot: who are we playing in our first home game?

The name presumably jumped out and electrified the senses. Manchester United at Turf Moor. That May Alex Ferguson’s men had won the Premier League for the third year running and went into the 2009/10 determined to make history. They had recently weakened their cause by selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a world record fee and were still aggrieved at the loss of Carlos Tevez to their ‘noisy neighbours’ across the city but this was still the mighty Man U, the all-winning, relentless machine, Giggs, Rooney and all. Whoever pulled that one out as Burnley’s opening home fixture was evidently a romantic at heart.

A capacity crowd of 21,000 turned up on August 19th 2009 to discover that three quarters of United’s back-line were unavailable through injury and if that offered up a thin sliver of hope the thunderous start undertaken by the home side ignited this beautiful, down-at-heel, proper football stadium into raucous belief.  19 minutes in Robbie Blake thundered in a volley from an Evra half-clearance and Turf Moor physically shook to its foundations, scaring the visiting reporters into mentioning how scared they were in virtually all of the ensuing match write-ups.

If the goal though is crystal clear in most of our memories – the sheer adamance of it! – the rest of the game has been misremembered as we falsely recall United dominance from there on in and Burnley bravely fending off everything but the kitchen sink. In truth Coyle’s side were more than value for their startling win and though Carrick missed a penalty just before half-time it was the home team who played the better football throughout creating the most chances.

No matter, though, that United were unquestionably poor, with debutant Michael Owen toiling to such an extent he was pulled after an hour, this was still an extraordinary evening for the Clarets. And given their recent history it was incalculable what it meant though the necessity for the club to commit to another print of matchday programmes offers a clue. 20  years prior, they required a hard-fought win to stave off an ignoble exit from the league. Now they were besting the most successful and famous side in all of the land.

On the south coast, Brighton supporters presumably watched on their television sets; happy for the underdogs and thinking ‘if only that was us’.

What happened next?

In January, Owen Coyle departed for local rivals Bolton, a shock switch that soured his relationship with the club. Under the tutelage of Brian Laws, Burnley ultimately failed to find any form of consistency and the club was relegated at the season’s end. Their return to the top flight in 2014 however has resulted in the Clarets re-establishing themselves as a force in English football.

Manchester United failed to secure their fourth consecutive title, losing out by a single point to Chelsea.