The Orient Game: Neil’s crucial role as Clarets’ backs were against the wall

Neil Grewcock scores the first goal against Leyton Orient
Neil Grewcock scores the first goal against Leyton Orient

Burnley will – barring a mathematical miracle in the final two games – play back-to-back campaigns in the Premier League for the first time next season.

It’s all a far cry from a date with destiny 30 years ago today, when the Clarets sat bottom of the Football League, with their fate out of their hands, facing the drop in the first season of automatic relegation to the Conference.

Burnley were a point adrift of Tranmere, Rochdale and Torquay, and two behind Lincoln, facing an Orient side hoping to earn a play-off place.

Whether Burnley, in dire financial straits, would have existed had they gone down, thankfully remained a hypothetical question, as goals from Neil Grewcock and the late Ian Britton dug the club out of trouble.

The club has never looked back since. It took another five years to get out of the basement division, as champions, and while a second promotion in 1994 was followed immediately by relegation, since returning to the second tier in 2000 under Stan Ternent, Burnley have been in the top two divisions since, and next year will be their fourth Premier League campaign in nine seasons.

Grewcock put the Clarets ahead on the stroke of half-time against Orient, carving his name into club folklore, and he looked back on a real sliding doors moment: “I can remember it quite vividly, as if it was last week.

I thought we had to win the last three games against Southend, Crewe and Orient – we beat Southend, but after losing at Crewe I thought we were in a bit of a mess

Neil Grewcock

“My father came up to Crewe on the Tuesday when we lost 1-0 and thought ‘that’s it’ – he couldn’t see any way out.

“It was all doom and gloom.

“I thought we had to win the last three games against Southend, Crewe and Orient – we beat Southend, but after losing at Crewe I thought we were in a bit of a mess.

“Lincoln, Torquay, Rochdale and Tranmere were all above us on the final day, so it was incredible how it turned out.

“We just had to beat Orient and hope results went our way, and thankfully we did our job and everything else fell into place. We kicked off a bit later than everyone else with one thing and another, and with 10 minutes to go we knew we had to hold on.

“It was such a relief – it had been going on for weeks, and it was a big weight off our shoulders.”

Clubs were forced to apply for re-election if they finished in the bottom two in the Fourth Division previously, but 1986/87 was the first year the bottom side would be automatically replaced by the Conference champions, and there was uproar that it could be Burnley, one of the 12 Founder Members.

“It was the first time a club was going to be automatically relegated from the Football League, and there was a thought that they couldn’t let that happen to Burnley, one of the founder members,” Grewcock said.

“We didn’t want to put that to the test! We knew if we finished bottom, we would be relegated.

“But it made people realise just what they had in town, with the football club.

“Maybe they had taken it for granted in previous years.

“The club had gone through a bad time, and if we had gone down, it probably would have taken a lot to get back up, if the club hadn’t gone out of business altogether.

“Thankfully we’ll never know whether that would have happened, but the club was in a pretty poor financial situation, and going down wouldn’t have helped matters.”

Burnley upset the odds to beat Orient 2-1, as Lincoln were relegated, replaced by Scarborough, and Grewcock’s goal was pivotal: “Orient needed to win to get in the play-offs, so it was a vital game for both clubs.

“I’ve never watched it all back – people say it wasn’t the best game, but that was always going to be the case with what was at stake, it was scrappy, and I’m glad we got the right result.

“I scored just before half-time, it was a great time to make the breakthrough, it was just one of those things, it just happened, I saw a gap and hit it with my left foot, and it found the corner.

“If they had got the first goal, we had a few young players and they might not have taken it well, but it gave us confidence, and then Brit scored just after half-time.

“It was a towering header! He was the smallest player on the pitch and it fell between him and the biggest, Colin Foster must have been 6ft 5ins, but Brit got there and gave us a cushion.

“It’s often said that 2-0 is the worst lead to have, and they pulled one back. The last 15 minutes were the longest of my career, but we held on.”

Burnley had been First Division champions in 1960, and only relegated from the top flight 11 years previously.

They have since made the arduous return journey back to the Premier League, and Grewcock is delighted to see his former club prospering on the big stage again.

He said: “If you look at the clubs who have been relegated into the Conference, or come close, Burnley are by far the biggest - the Lutons and Swanseas etc, there is no comparison, it would have been very sad to see Burnley go down.

“And the club is a million miles away from that now. It’s phenomenal. They’ve done tremendously well.

“It’s taken a number of years, but it shows what can be done with stability and good management.

“The manager is a good young manager, and is learning fast in the Premier League, and the fans are tremendously loyal.

“A few older fans still remember me when they see me, which is nice, but I’m not sure the younger fans know who I am – it’s a long time ago now, 30 years, I can’t believe it’s that long ago, but that day was a big turning point for the club.”