Once upon a bitterly cold Christmas, not far from Turf Moor, there were polar bears prowling Burnley’s snow covered, cobbled backstreets.
Or so my uncle told me.
With gob-stopper wide eyes and shallow breath, the five year old me, claret and blue scarf wrapped round my ears, shivered fearfully inside an igloo built against our back-yard wall in the great winter of 1947.
The few tiny, spluttering night-lights in jam jars inside the igloo were small comfort, as I could quite clearly hear, on the cold, late afternoon air, the chilling sound of one (or was it two, or MORE!) giant polar bears scratching and snuffling on the frozen, snow covered, cobbles outside the entrance to my den. I was about to be eaten but worse still, I’d miss Christmas.
Rescued by my Grandma who was only a few yards away, feeding bread to some hungry sparrows, I later told her, safe in front of a hissing coal fire, how there were HUNDREDS of bears out there and one of them had a laugh just like my uncles.
1947 was a memorable winter but nowadays, like the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, I can’t remember, “Whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was 12, or twelve days and twelve nights when I was 6.”
Shortly after my Grandma had seen off the bears (and, no doubt, my uncle), Britain, (still an austere, rationed, country) emerged into the post-war years and the Football League returned to its pre-war divisions. First, Second and Third (North and South.)
In fact, Burnley played today’s tangerine opponents on the 2nd of December, 1944 at Blackpool in what was then the Football League (North), courtesy of an Air Commodore, no less, Bloomfield Road having been requisitioned by the RAF during the war.
By 1948, I was occasionally taken on the Turf, in spite of maternal misgivings.
There I am, a small boy carrying a large, wooden, war-time rattle painted claret and blue, alongside my Granddad who made me a stool which enabled me to gain an extra foot of height just before kick-off, peering excitedly over the trilby’s and flat caps of the 30/35000 fans that used to stand crammed in to Turf Moor in football’s post-war boom years.
Games watched through a fog of acrid, blue cigarette and pipe smoke and, at Christmas, a heady whiff of cheap whisky or brandy emanating from thousands of Thermos flasks opened at half time.
There was tea in there too but in what proportions one dreads to think. No doubt it had medicinal qualities. It was Bovril for me.
Burnley played Blackpool, home and away, after Christmas, on the 26th and 27th, 1949.
I don’t remember any snow (or bears) but Christmas it was and I’d learnt all the words of, “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” and, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” from the radio.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve (no floodlights in those days), Burnley beat Bolton away, 1-0.
We didn’t go because this year, joy of joys, we were off for a short stay in Blackpool, where we spent Christmas Day going up the promenade on a tram, marvelling at the Illuminations, or at least, the remains of them, unlit but back again earlier in the autumn for the first time since the war.
Boxing Day saw us on a packed steam train heading for a Turf Moor over-flowing with 49,000 spectators to witness a goal-less draw.
The following day, we were back in Blackpool for a 2.15 kick off at wind-swept Bloomfield Road (Blackpool’s ground since 1900), to watch them put two winning goals past us in front of a mere 31,000.
I remember nothing of the game but I was mightily impressed by a huge advert for Dutton’s, “O Be Joyful,” ale, (brewed in Blackburn), written across the roof of one of the stands.
I would have seen the two great Blackpool Stan’s, Matthews and Mortenson in a fine side that would often finish ahead of Burnley in seasons to come.
The side that Blackpool manager, Joe Smith, was to manage for 23 years had been Cup Final losers to Matt Busby’s, Manchester United in 1948 and later in 1951, finished third in the League before losing to Newcastle in the Cup Final. They went on to win the Final, in 1953, beating Bolton 4-3 after coming back from being 3-1 down in an epic match with performances to match from Matthews and Mortenson.
Sadly, I remember nothing of those Christmas derbies but I do remember being surrounded by warmth, security and happiness.
In that respect, little has changed and if you look around the ground today, you’ll see many a child, sitting with their families, acquiring their own Christmas memories of when they were taken on to see Burnley play Blackpool just before Christmas, 2013. Even if, when they’re getting on a bit, they can’t remember much about it.
Although, they might remember that on their way home in the dark, their uncle told them that HUGE polar bears once used to pad along Burnley’s streets, particularly at Christmas time.