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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Classic Campaigns - League Two 1986/7

Our series reflecting on classic Football League seasons from the past continues.

With Torquay hosting Crewe in League Two this evening,
Nobes looks back on when the pair met in the basement division 24 years ago. A final day like no other, for so many reasons.

The Orient Game: 1987 was an emotional year for all Burnley followers

Every dog has its day. So goes the old saying, anyway. For one, it came on May 9 1987 - the final day of an historic season in the basement division of English football.

Twenty four years ago, Torquay United against Crewe Alexandra was both sides' final game of the 1986/7 season - a match that was of vital importance to the home team whose very Football League existence hung in the balance.

The Devon side were one of three clubs who could end the day bottom of the old Fourth Division - or League Two as it is now called - and slide into the Conference.

This, too, was the first season of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football and Non Leagues, with Scarborough, managed by Neil Warnock, ready to take their place in Division Four as the newly crowned Conference winners.

At the other end of the Fourth Division, one of the biggest stories came at Preston North End. One of the most historic clubs in the country had finished second bottom of the entire Football League 12 months previously.

However, after winning a re-election vote, North End bounced back to finish as runners-up and gain promotion to the third tier.

They weren't able to match the form of Champions Northampton though, who blew their opponents out of the water, including winning 20 and losing just one of their home games all season.

Graham Carr's side with the attacking talent of Richard Hill and Trevor Morley were too hot to handle as they racked up 99 points and over 100 goals. The Cobblers and North End were joined by Southend in winning automatic promotion.

At the wrong end of the table, for much of the season it was the the North West duo of Rochdale and Stockport who were battling to avoid becoming the first side to be automatically relegated from the Football League.

However, as the second half of the season progressed others began to plummet into the relegation mix. One of them was Burnley, one of the original 12 members of the League in their second year in the Fourth Division.

Torquay - who had finished bottom in 1986 - were again in contention for the drop, and Lincoln City had nosedived from 7th at the beginning of January to find themselves in a dogfight.

In the penultimate weekend of the campaign, Burnley suffered a 1-0 reverse to Crewe and hit rock bottom. The Clarets were staring down the barrel of a gun.

Things were to get worse, Rochdale won their game in hand in the midweek before the final day to ensure their safety. Then Tranmere were allowed to play their final match on Friday evening - the Wirral club won to keep themselves up.

That left three in the mix - Burnley, Torquay, and Lincoln. The stage was set for a dramatic final day.


Burnley vs. Orient
Swansea vs. Lincoln
Torquay vs. Crewe


22. Lincoln.....45....-18....48
23. Torquay....45....-16....47
24. Burnley.....45...-22.....46

Burnley knew that only a win against Orient at Turf Moor would do. If they managed it, then Torquay and Lincoln - the only side travelling - would then come into the picture if they failed to win their respective games.

For the Clarets, Champions of England as recently as 1960, they could scarcely believe the position they found themselves in.

Ask a Burnley supporter now, and they will tell you those 90 minutes in May '87 - known simply as 'The Orient Game' - were arguably the biggest in their club's history.

The prospect of losing professional football from the town - combined with the rise of upcoming neighbours Colne Dynamoes - threatened the very existence of the club.

Over 15,000 crammed into Turf Moor - delaying the first half by 15 minutes - to see if Burnley could pull off a great escape.

Goals from Neil Grewcock and Ian Britton either side of the break put the Lancashire outfit 2-0 up. Alan Comfort pulled a goal back for Orient, but the Clarets held on for a 2-1 victory.

The defeat for Orient cost them a place in the play offs - with Aldershot securing the final birth. The Shots would then go on to beat Bolton and Wolves in the end of season lottery to secure promotion.

The three points were enough for Burnley to survive, too. Emotional scenes at Turf Moor ensued after news had reached them from South Wales - Lincoln City had been beaten 2-0.

However, the story of that day was just of Burnley's great escape - but that of another team.

Burnley's win meant Lincoln and Torquay were in trouble, but the Imps would be safe if the Gulls failed to pick up anything against Crewe.

Things had certainly looked good for City at half time. Crewe, under the management of Dario Gradi, were 2-0 up against Torquay, with one of the goals coming from a young midfielder called David Platt. The Gulls were heading down into the Conference.

Then, early in the second period, Jim McNichol pulled a goal back for the hosts from a free kick. Torquay had hope - another goal would save them from relegation.

Into the last ten minutes and, with the Devonians still seeking a second goal, a police dog called Bryn, in attendance at Plainmoor, reacted to a close challenge by McNichol on his handler.

McNichol sustained a nasty thigh injury from the dog's bite - holding play up by four minutes. They were to prove four crucial minutes.

Deep into added time, a mistake in the Alex backline allowed Paul Dobson to smash home an equaliser for Torquay. Just like at Turf Moor, fans invaded the Plainmoor pitch in joy and relief. The Gulls were staying up.

Torquay's Jim McNichol with unlikely hero Bryn - the dog who bit him

Dobson's goal, however, meant Lincoln, who up until that point had not been bottom of the table all season, had been condemned to relegation.

Final table:

Burnley ...46...-21.....49
23. Torquay...46...-16.....48

The intervention of Bryn had been crucial. Torquay were safe thanks to Devon's most famous dog since the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Almost a quarter of a century on and Gradi and Crewe return to Plainmoor this evening in much less dramatic circumstances.

Despite his lengthy tenure at the helm, you imagine the events of that May day ensure that it is one game the Alex's long serving boss will never forget.

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