The Burnden Park Disaster

While living in the south of England I have met many local football fans. Die hard, one love, football fans. But they’re different from Northern football fans. It’s quite hard to explain the difference without sounding disrespectful to Southern fans (and I really don’t want to be, honest!) but…

It’s like, they have football… and a life. Separately.

Their devastation or joy on a Saturday night is just like ours but after that, they move on. They go back to work on a Monday and, that’s it until the following Friday afternoon when they start to think about the trip the next day. It’s a day out, a meeting with friends, dare I say… only a game.

Shankley’s life and death quote is familiar to all. The difference is Northern friends accept the truth in the observation, Southern friends think it’s meant as a joke.

Sunderland Association Football Club is our club. Cowie or Quinn, Donald or Dell can sit in the big seat, but they’re sitting in our club. A club that is part of our community. In our County. They can call it Tyne and Wear all they want but we know that Sunderland is in County Durham because it’s our county, built by our ancestors. Shipbuilders and glass makers and miners.

Northern football clubs are part of these communities. More, they are the beating hearts of these communities.

The same lads worked together, lived in the same streets, stood together on the Roker terraces and, tragically, stood side by side in fields in France. They worked together under the cranes or the pit wheel and they worshipped together, first on a Saturday at 3 o’clock and then the next morning in a church that was only a short walk from their homes. An unbreakable community even through the hardest of times.

The cranes have gone and so have the pit wheels. But the places of worship remain and the Saturday one still draws people in to watch people play a game that is irrelevant in a shirt that means everything.

Our club representing our community. ‘We are Sunderland’ and ‘We are Wearside’ are always chants that get the hairs on the back of my neck standing up because of what they mean. This is us, we are Wearside, not just a club but a community with football at our heart and the stadium as our beacon.

This story is repeated across the North. The mill towns of Lancashire, the steel workers of Sheffield, communities with football at their heart.

My Grandad and his brother, Morgan, came over from Blackrock in Ireland to the North West of England to find work. They found it and, with it, they found a community. A place that welcomed them. They worked hard, played hard and, on Saturdays, they went to the match. As the years went by and a family grew, they started to take my Dad and my Uncle. Junior supporters, not just of the footballers who graced the pitch, but supporters of a far bigger thing, the feeling of belonging.

On 9th March 1946, they went to the match to support their beloved Bolton Wanderers take on Stanley Matthews’ Stoke City. It was the day that became known as the Burnden Park disaster. It was the day that my Great Uncle Morgan, in an attempt to throw my Dad and Uncle Matthew into the air, lost his footing and as a result, lost his life. He saved my Dad’s life. Without him, I wouldn’t be here.

My Dad and Uncle were passed over the heads of the crowd to the front where they were looked after. Not by police or stewards but by the self sufficient and self supporting community who looked after their own. That same community stood firm in the days and weeks after the disaster and pushed through change that prevented the same thing happening to other communities. The same community that looked after my Dad and Uncle at the next game they went to. The same community who, it would appear are about to have their core, their heart, ripped from them.

My own personal reasons for being devastated for Bolton Wanderers fans is obvious but we should all mourn the situation at Bury and Bolton because there, but for the grace of God, go us.

The closure and collapse of a football club in these Northern towns is not a blow for people wondering what to do on a Saturday. It’s a kick to the guts of an already struggling community, desperate for something to pull them together and keep them going.

Can the community keep going without its heart? Can it keep its identity? I hope it can but I fear the worst. Bury and Bolton will become a sign post conversation on the way to somewhere else.

The communities of Bolton and Bury have my deepest sympathies because I can see what they’re really losing and it’s far more than 11 blokes kicking a ball around. It their spirit, their history, their last unifying bond years after the closure of the pits and the mills. It’s all they had left and now it’s going.

The saddest thing is, I suspect they’re just the start.