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The only silver lining to Blackburn's relegation from the Premier League in 2012 was the return of the East Lancashire derby and the intense rivalry with Burnley. But last season, after an excruciating ten-hour round trip to watch December's 1-1 draw at Turf Moor, I realised that even the joy of this occasion has been stripped away.
It's often said that people from outside the area can't understand the passion of a derby that dates back to the foundation of the Football League, and former managers and players are always on hand to offer an explanation. "Nothing else has this feeling," said former Burnley boss Stan Ternent before the two sides met for the first time in the Premier League in 2009 (a 3-2 victory to Blackburn, incidentally). "When Graeme Souness says it's something else, then you know it is."
As much as fans love to hear their own hatred being championed, in truth it's a local rivalry much like any other, only with extra joshing in the form of supporters paying to fly planes bearing mocking messages over the other's stadium when fortunes are particularly dreadful. Although morale was so low at Blackburn in 2011 that Rovers supporters spared Burnley the hassle.
Of course, there will be a number of hooligans looking to cause trouble on Saturday lunch-time, but it goes without saying that the vast majority of Blackburn and Burnley fans are a decent sort merely looking for bragging rights in work on Monday morning. As David Dunn said before the clash in 2010 (a 1-0 win to Blackburn, incidentally): "I know it's a little bit of a fairytale, but I hope we pump them 10-0," before adding that he hoped Burnley managed to stay in the Premier League.
Most fans share Dunn's outlook and the derby is largely seen as an occasion to enjoy rather than an opportunity for violence and thuggery. It's for this reason that the police's decision to designate the fixture as a 'bubble match' is so incredibly frustrating, with many fans who are perfectly capable of behaving discouraged from attending the biggest game of the season.
In case you haven't been to a bubble match, it's possibly the most tedious experience a football fan can be forced to endure. There are understandably tough restrictions on applying for tickets, but the patience with which most supporters enter the process is gradually eroded by the further wrangles that await.
Unless you live in Blackburn, the demand that fans travel to Ewood Park to then take a coach to Turf Moor before returning to Ewood after the match seems enormously unreasonable. Although I can reach Burnley's ground in little over an hour from my home in Leeds, last season these stipulations saw my journey time quintupled. It was a similar case for plenty of supporters, many of whom live across the north west.
The ridiculous nature of these prevention tactics really hit home when we finally set off after two hours kicking about in the freezing cold at Ewood Park. With helicopters buzzing overhead, we appeared to be in a low-rent version of Speed, only every passenger on board the bus was willing an explosion to happen in order to be spared further misery. The build-up to local derbies is supposed to be full of tension and excitement - instead thoughts wandered to the arduous journey home.
We were greeted in Burnley by a few hundred jeering fans, whose gentle jibes were more an insult to the good name of banter than anyone crammed on the coach. The police had assembled their shiny crowd control barriers to cut off an entire street and universal searches followed before fans sighed their way through the turnstiles and into their seats. "This had better be worth it," was the overriding thought. A 1-1 draw in an atmosphere clearly dampened by the coma-inducing journey certainly wasn't the reward for a ten-hour slog that I had hoped for.
There was one winner, however, in the form of match commander Superintendent Terry Woods. "I would like to thank the supporters for being patient, especially around travel arrangements," said Woods following the success of operation killjoy. "We said from the outset that the overwhelming majority of supporters of both teams are law abiding citizens who are passionate about supporting their football team. The operation was put in place to make sure that people could enjoy the occasion."
The only problem is that no-one enjoyed the occasion. Not even the hooligans, who seem to enjoy everything as long as it's drenched in Carling and Stone Island. It's obviously necessary to take steps to prevent the ugly scenes that have provided a back-drop to Blackburn v Burnley matches in the past, but these steps have far exceeded the legitimate fears of police, clubs and fans, leading to what appears to be a constructive interpretation of 'policing by consent' and the death of excitement.
As supporters prepare to suffer the same experience on Saturday, it's clear that a compromise must be made. At the moment there is little discourse between frustrated supporters and the police, but for the good of this fixture, and others that are governed by similar restrictions, the bubble needs to burst. Instead of wearing the trip to the lion's den as a badge of honour, Blackburn fans now boast of surviving the gruelling journey down the M65. Is that really the abiding memory you want to tell the grandkids?
Matt Stanger - he's on the Twitter.
Great stuff. It's articles like this that make F365 worth returning to so often.- iai