10 Burnley Cult Heroes
By Dave Thomas
July 8 2017
Put six fans of any club in any room and ask them to define what makes a cult hero, and I’m pretty sure you’d get six different answers. Hero, legend, cult hero, they can all be so different; yet just sometimes a player can be all three. Maybe the great Jimmy McIlroy now in his eighties and the Club President at Burnley Football Club, is one of the latter.
Maybe the great Jimmy McIlroy now in his eighties and the Club President at Burnley Football Club, is one of the latter. But what is it that makes one player a real cult hero, and not another? He certainly doesn’t have to play hundreds of games. Some play just a handful.
But what are the qualities and features that need to be present to be a cult hero? A distinctive appearance perhaps, an outrageous incident on the pitch that has us open-mouthed, a player that inspires a sort of slavish devotion, inspires a laugh, is all-action, the quintessential hard-man, fans can identify with him, he has a dedicated following, could be eccentric; he doesn’t quite fit the mould, some sort of rebel maybe.
But whatever he is, whatever he has done, however he looks, the fans love him for it whether he is the pantomime villain or the loyal servant who has been at the club for 20 years. It’s an extensive list and it needs to be said again a cult hero might exhibit only one of the above. But however they play, however they behave, whatever they look like, we hold cult heroes in deep affection and remember them for years. There is just something that sets them apart.
Robbie Blake: a little genius of a player who could jink his way past an opponent, could strike a venomous shot, could hit wonderful free kicks, could be totally unplayable on a good day, as in the Carling Cup game against Tottenham at Turf Moor in season 2008/09 and could see a pass in an instant. The stunning volleyed goal he scored that won the Premier game against Man United will be remembered for years to come. His control of the ball was superb, he was two-footed, and his first-touch was sublime. He didn’t thump a ball, he caressed it. He certainly wasn’t the biggest of players and couldn’t head a ball for toffee. But he did one thing in one game that set him part from the crowd even more. After a win away at Coventry in the promotion season he did something totally outrageous when he ran to the Burnley fans, turned his back to them, and lowered his shorts. Underneath he had a bright red pair of briefs with the word Bad Beat Bob on the rear, a reference to a losing hand at cards. The club shop then sold hundreds. With a huge wide grin, he wiggled his backside and showed the fans this new fashion statement. It brought the house down. Cult status was awarded there and then.
Ade Akinbiyi: the possessor of a superb and powerful physique and with a huge set of dreadlocks, seeing this man powering down on you must have presented a terrifying sight. Burnley bought him from Stoke City in 2005 and it was Sunderland that featured in an eventful game (for him anyway) when he made his debut. Burnley fans were quite happy to see him at the club and had high hopes he would do well. He achieved cult status within minutes of his appearance. Brought on as a substitute, within two minutes he had head-butted defender George McCartney and was sent off. The ground was stunned into silence by this dramatic event and then we gasped at the daftness of it. Seeing a high profile £600,000 purchase sent off after just 2 minutes was a first for the Turf Moor crowd that didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Such violent behaviour was in fact a rarity for Ade who was very much the gentle giant. Both cult and hero status were assured and combined when he scored the equalising goal on the night that Burnley knocked out all-conquering Chelsea in the Carling Cup at Stamford Bridge, in front of 6,000 travelling fans, and Burnley were still a Championship side.
Brian O’ Neil: The Bedlington Terrier was a product of the famed Burnley Gawthorpe training fields in the 60s. A small midfield player he nevertheless made up for his lack of stature with fearless performances, terrific tackling, the ability to go past players, a powerful shot and an impishness in his play that made him a darling of the Burnley crowd. He did just the same at Southampton when he was sold. His performances were truly heroic yet he was quite likely to turn up without his football boots and play in a borrowed pair, sometimes a couple of sizes too big. His battles with Leeds United’s Billy Bremner and Manchester United’s Nobby Stiles were legendary. For relaxation at Burnley he had an allotment and raised pigs so that he was quite likely to arrive for training in a pair of wellies. The story goes that at Southampton he drove in one day on a tractor. In Brian’s day pitches were frequently mudbaths and what really endeared him to the crowds at both clubs was the way he relished the mud and dived into sliding tackles and always came off the field covered from head to toe. Nobody ever came off a football field muddier than the wonderful, tenacious, Brian O’ Neil. How he never played for England remains a mystery.
Brian Jensen: Any player with the nickname ‘The Beast’ has to be in the cult hero bracket. A goalkeeper with a huge physique, tall, broad and beefy, he arrived at Burnley in 2003 from West Brom. For over ten years the Danish custodian fought off challenges from several other keepers that were brought in. Fans were always divided as to his ability and may even challenge the ‘cult’ status, but for me he was a rock, occasionally a tad dodgy which kind of added to his charm, even heroes have off days, but capable of delivering inspiring performances that on occasions single-handedly won the points. Bryan Robson when manager at Bradford City said he was world-class in the game there. Nobody, in fact, was better at winning one-on-ones as Arsenal will testify in the Carling Cup game at Turf Moor that Burnley won. There were six in all. He was a supreme penalty saver as Chelsea will testify when Burnley won the shoot-out at Stamford Bridge again in the Carling. This was in his peak season when he starred in the promotion team. Aged 38, he is still playing at Crawley Town having joined the list of players at Burnley who played over 300 games. His book simply called BEAST, is well worth the read.
Roger Eli: He was a player who had just one wonderful season at Burnley in 1991/92. And yet he is in the list of all-time favourites and people simply smile at his name with deep affection remembering his fearless, get-stuck-in, gladiatorial performances as a striker. During this one memorable season he was a member of the promotion team that took Burnley out of the old Fourth Division after a 7-year stay and for that reason as well he assumes legendary status. His dodgy haircuts, sharp suits, 100% input, speed and bravery, plus his goals that season were his hallmarks. He was ‘Player of the Season’ and scored the ‘Goal of the Season,’ a classic, spectacular, diving header against Peter Shilton in a Cup-game against Derby County. Injuries however blighted his career and managerial changes led to an early exit from Leeds as a youth. He wandered round the lower leagues before landing at Burnley. Sadly, after that one marvellous season injuries took over again. His superb book ‘Thanks for the Memories’ is almost a textbook on the heartaches and perils of football. Today he is a very successful businessman and still plays for the Vintage Clarets.
John Deary: Another player who simply makes you smile at the memory, a 1990s re-incarnation of the tough, fearless Brian O’ Neil and of similar stature, average height and build but packed with indestructible, muscular dynamite. He was the midfield dynamo that made the 1991/92 team tick. He was the classic ball-winner with a low centre of gravity that kept him on his feet unless he was diving in with brick-wall, crunching tackles. There is an iconic picture of him standing, snarling and leaning over a stricken Bryan Robson, himself no slouch, during a game, when he has clearly triumphantly decked him, as if to say ‘take that you b*****d, there’s only one John Deary.’ Fans loved him and still do and will often say there’s never been a player like him since, and if only we could find another John Deary. He was the kind of man you’d want in the trenches next to you. There can be no higher tribute. Having played hundreds of games, today he is a successful businessman and one of the driving forces behind the Vintage Clarets that plays regular charity games in the Burnley area.
Chris Pearce: Some players develop an incredible bond with the supporters. Such a player was goalkeeper Chris Pearce, a real character at Burnley. What further endeared him was that he was there in the season, 1991/92, when Burnley battled their way out of the Fourth Division. Manager Mullen tried four other ‘keepers that season and Pearce eventually missed out at the end of the campaign. Like most goalkeepers he had memorable games and moments; the latter none more so in one game when there was an almighty melee in the goalmouth with flying boots, pushes, shoves, bodies heaped on top of each other, and no-one with a clue where the ball was underneath this scrum of players until Pearce eventually emerged grinning from ear to ear clutching the ball. It broke his heart almost to be left out of the final line-ups of the season but that didn’t stop him joining in the joyous celebrations at Turf Moor when in suit and tie, he leapt on the dug-out roof to wave and bow to the fans who loved him. ‘Pearcey, Pearcey, give us a dance,’ they yelled. And he obliged them with his characteristic gusto and humour. Fans felt that manager Mullen had treated him badly when he was abruptly released at the end of such a triumphant season.
John Francis: Sooooper, super John, sooooper, super John, sooooper, super John… super Johnny Francis. Not many players are accorded a chant that is both distinctive, and unique to the player. But that was the chant and song that was bestowed on flying winger and chunky striker John Francis at Burnley. It can be no coincidence that the team of 1991/92 contained four cult figures. It was an iconic team; it was an iconic season and marked the beginning of the long climb back to the top. If there was one game that cemented his status it was away at Plymouth Argyle in the end of season play-offs in 1993/94. Plymouth and manager Shilton had been to Burnley for the first leg and bruised and kicked their way to a 0-0 draw. They were confident they would dispose of Burnley back in Plymouth so much so they even booked their coaches for the Wembley Final. Super John had other ideas. Despite the hostile atmosphere, despite the most appalling racist abuse directed at him, he scored two almost identical, solo goals, racing away from the pack and slotting the ball home. He remains in football youth coaching and working in schools.
Glen Little: The most unlikely and ‘different’ looking footballer you could ever see, nicknamed ‘Blakey’ because he resembled the On the Buses character; a winger who was tall, gangly, with knobbly knees and elbows that stuck out at all angles when he ran, and who seemed to defy all the athletic requirements of any footballer. But boy could he play and he remains one of the all-time Burnley favourites. There was all of this, plus clothes and kit that seemed to hang off him like a scarecrow. Fans were incensed during the Waddle management season when his assistant told fans he wasn’t fit to lace Waddle’s boots, despite him possessing skills that took him past players as if they weren’t there with the ball tied to his feet. His best time was under manager Stan Ternent when one of his defining games was against Tottenham in a Cup game at Turf Moor coming off the bench to turn the game on its head, was virtually unplayable, and gave one of the best individual exhibitions seen at Turf Moor so that Burnley ran out worthy winners. He is still playing today in non-league football and Youtube shows what is claimed to be the finest-ever individual non-league, solo goal when he scored for Wealdstone.
Tommy Boyle: Nobody remembers him playing because this was a player that featured so long ago in a career that spanned World War One through to the 1920s and a great Burnley team that won the FA Cup in 1914 and the title in 1920/21. For years he was seen as one of the Burnley greats but Mike Smiths book Tommy Boyle Broken Hero paints a picture of a man and player who was a real cult hero of his age through his bravery, toughness, captaincy and achievements. Described as ‘hard as nails’, an essential quality to survive the brutality of early football, his leadership was inspirational and his comeback after World War One when he was badly wounded in the leg and told he would never play again was remarkable. Only 5’ 7” he thrived on conflict and getting stuck in on mudbath or ice-bound pitches. When he arrived at Burnley he had already appeared in a Cup Final for Barnsley. After football, his story is one of sadness and decline, of personal problems both domestic and drinking, financial problems and mental health illnesses so that he ended his days in a secure mental institution. Quite recently Burnley FC paid for a new headstone for his grave to mark his status.
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What about "Whoooshy' too?
Lest We Forget:
There's prob another ten you could put in.
Who would yours be?
ah but then who do I leave out?
There's prob another ten you could put in.
Who would yours be?
Billy Hamilton in place of Jensen.
Grewcock for Ade.
And as I didn't see him play,I would replace Boyle for Britton.
For me Peter Noble deserves a cult hero top 10 place but who to relegate is a tough call.
And what about Bob Kelly? The Jimmy Mac of his time at Burnley.
Lest We Forget:
Cheltenham Nap Champion 07/08
Cheltenham Nap Champion 09/10
Paddock Naps Champion 2013/14
WE DARED TO DREAM!
THEY SENT US KEAN!