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The remarkable story of Burnley’s European debut

Burnley, Football League Champions 1959-60: (back row, l-r) Alex Elder, Jimmy Robson, Tommy Cummings, Adam Blacklaw, Brian Miller, John Angus, ?; (front row, l-r) John Connelly, Jimmy McIlroy, Jimmy Adamson, Ray Pointer, Brian Pilkington - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

As the Clarets start their season with a Europa League tie, Roger Domeneghetti looks back at the club’s first, incident-packed European campaign

When Burnley and Aberdeen kick off in the second qualifying round of the Europa League this week, it will not only be the Scots – winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup in 1983 – looking to recapture European glory.

For the Lancashire side, this will be their first foray into Europe for 52 years. Then, their third place in 1966 was enough to see them entered into the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a precursor to the Europa League, where they were knocked out in the quarter finals by Eintracht Frankfurt. But, even before then, the Clarets had an impressive continental pedigree, with a now largely forgotten European Cup campaign in the 1960-1961 season.

They were only the third English team to take part in the tournament, after Manchester United and Wolves, whose midweek floodlit friendlies against foreign sides in the 1950s had provided the inspiration for the competition.

Burnley’s campaign got off to an auspicious start at the draw, conducted at UEFA’s Paris headquarters in early July 1960. A delegation from the club attended, along with representatives of the 27 other entrants. Holders Real Madrid received a bye for the preliminary round and the remaining teams were divided into three pots: Northern, Western and Eastern Europe. As the first team drawn from the Western European pot, Burnley also received a bye along with the first team from the other two groups. After the preliminary round the Clarets were drawn against Stade de Reims in the first round proper.

The French champions were a formidable prospect built around the twin talents of Raymond Kopa, who had won the Ballon D’Or in 1958, and Just Fontaine, who scored 13 goals in just six games at the 1958 World Cup – a record that still stands. They had lost the first European Cup final in 1956 and three years later were runners-up again. They were widely regarded as the second best team in Europe behind Real Madrid and going into the tie with Burnley they were one of the favourites to lift the trophy. However, Fontaine and Kopa were both suffering from injuries and missed the first and second legs respectively.

Ahead of the first leg at Turf Moor on November 16, Burnley allowed their opponents the use of their Gawthorpe training ground, while they opted for their usual pre-cup tie training regime of heading to Blackpool on the Monday before the match. It did the trick and they won the game 2-0, Jimmy Robson opening the scoring after just a minute and Jimmy McIlroy adding the second after 20 minutes.

The second leg, played at the Parc des Princes two weeks later, was a rather more hostile affair. John Graydon, who was covering the match for the Burnley Express, was moved to write that the home supporters were ‘the most unsporting, one-sided and dangerous I have seen, in wide travels, in many different lands’. Flares and bottles were thrown on to the pitch and French photographers even crouched behind the Burnley goal and used their flashlights to try and put off Adam Blacklaw, the visiting keeper.

However, it was the actions of the Burnley boss Harry Potts which caused the most controversy. Potts was infuriated by the French team’s persistent tactic of stealing yards at free kicks and in the second half he took matters into his own hands. When Reims were awarded a foul just inside their own half but attempted to take it 20 yards into Burnley’s, he ran on to the field of play, picked up the ball and threw it back to where the offence had been committed. Ordered from the dugout he had to make his way to the directors’ box through an angry crowd who pushed and shoved him all the way.

Amid all the controversy, a football game took place and, although they lost 3-2, Burnley had done enough to qualify for the quarter finals on aggregate. With Real Madrid having lost to Barcelona, the Clarets were now second favourites behind the Catalans and they were drawn against Hamburg, whose coach Günter Mahlmann acknowledged their status as ‘one of the greatest teams in the world today’.

The teams met for the first leg in mid-January on a muddy, recently thawed Turf Moor pitch and the home side made another explosive start with Brian Pilkington giving them the lead after seven minutes. With 14 minutes to play they were 3-0 up and cruising before Gert Dörfel reduced the arrears with a goal which gave the Germans hope for the second leg.

There had been protracted negotiations about when this game should take place and eventually Hamburg got their wish for it to be played in mid-March. This created huge fixture congestion for Burnley who were still in the hunt for both the League and FA Cups.

In just 14 days they were forced to play a remarkable succession of matches. First up was an FA Cup quarter-final against Sheffield Wednesday and, when that ended in a draw, a replay three days later; the following Saturday, Burnley faced Chelsea at Turf Moor; four days after that they were in Hamburg for the second leg of the European Cup semi-final; and their hectic fortnight was rounded off when they took on Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park.

In the end it proved too much. Against Hamburg, Burnley were never able to find the rhythm they did in the first leg. They fell behind to a Klaus Stürmer goal after just eight minutes. Three minutes before half-time Uwe Seeler grabbed a second. The BBC broadcast the second half live and those watching at home tuned in just in time to see Gordon Harris pull one back for Burnley and give them an aggregate lead. It was to prove just a consolation as Dörfel and then Seeler grabbed the goals to send Hamburg through.

The Clarets were out of the European Cup and at the weekend they were dumped out of the FA Cup too.

Writing a couple of years later, Burnley’s chairman criticised the number of games English teams played at the end of the season. ‘And they wonder why English football lags behind the Continentals. Is it any wonder, without wishing to make excuses, that we failed at two of the most important obstacles?’ he asked.

It’s a lament that many modern Premier League managers would sympathise. Burnley’s current manager Sean Dyche will be hoping they do not suffer similar problems this season.

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