Burnley v Blackburn Rovers: Is this football's most passionate derby?

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East Lancs derby will be intense - Berg

To most observers MK Dons v AFC Wimbledon is the weekend's grudge match.

But kicking off at the same time, 192 miles away in East Lancashire, is a game described by former players and managers as the most fiercely passionate in the whole of football.

It is the "Cotton Mill" derby between Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, two founder members of the Football League separated by just 14 miles.

Such is the rivalry, that fans of Blackburn have a police escort to Turf Moor. They arrive at Ewood Park two-and-a-half hours before kick-off and travel in a blue and white convoy of coaches.

For the majority of supporters the rivalry is about bragging rights and local pride but a minority go looking for trouble.

After the Premier League match between the two at Ewood Park in October 2009 violence broke out at a Blackburn pub and 12 members of a Burnley hooligan group were subsequently jailed for a total of 32 years.

Police, who have insisted the match kicks off at Sunday lunchtime, expect no major flashpoints, but on the pitch it promises to be more fiercely contested than ever.

With Blackburn 10th, just one point and four places above Burnley in the Championship, many fans believe the two squads are more even than they have been for a long time after Rovers' relegation from the Premier League last season.

Both teams have new managers and Burnley's Sean Dyche has started the better, with 10 points from six games, compared to Henning Berg's five points from the same number of matches.

Blackburn have £8m Jordan Rhodes up front, with 10 goals already for his new club - Burnley have the country's top scorer in 21-goal Charlie Austin.

Optimism is high for the Clarets but it is 33 years since Burnley last beat their local rivals in a meaningful match.

Former Burnley striker Paul Fletcher, who scored 71 goals for the club between 1971 and 1980, played in that game and outlined the feelings among fans.

"It's been building up for many years; there are a lot of old scores to settle from both sides. It is one serious derby," said Fletcher, who returned to the club as chief executive in 2008 for three years.

"We had it drummed into us that if you were to beat a London club the fans would have the bragging rights for a few days but if you beat your local rivals, they could live off it for the next 12 months.

"People in Burnley and people in Blackburn have a tough time often. We have a coal industry and a cotton industry and sometimes life is tough and the enjoyment of being a winner is huge.

"It's the most important game of the season and there will be Burnley fans, some maybe in their 80s and some eight years old who won't sleep the night before - that's how important it is."

One person who knows all about the derby is the Rovers manager Berg. The Norwegian, who won the Premier League with Blackburn in 1995, played in both fixtures in the 2000-2001 season during his second spell as a player with the club.

Despite having played in the Old Firm derby during a spell at Rangers, the former defender believes that the East Lancs derby is one of the biggest.

"You couldn't really match the intensity and the atmosphere when I played in this derby," he said.

"The first one I played it was 17 years since they had met and the atmosphere was unbelievable.

"The stadium was full over an hour before the game. We were sitting in the dressing room and the stadium was pumping. It was something really special."

Rovers were ninth in Division One (now the Championship) going into that game in December 2000 - two places behind Burnley. But Rovers won the game 2-0 and started to move up the table. Under Graeme Souness, they went on to finish second for automatic promotion back to the Premier League.

Berg, who has been told by Indian owners Venky's that promotion is the "minimum" expectation, will be hoping that victory can provide a similar catalyst for his misfiring team.

"Before the game, in the warm-up, when you get to the ground, you can feel the atmosphere is special," he said.

"I hope my players will enjoy that, they've looked forward to that, to be involved in playing games like this."

While Blackburn still have a superior budget, Burnley's confidence comes from a good run under Dyche, who has improved a defence which had conceded more goals than any other Championship team when he took over at the end of October.

BBC Radio Lancashire's Andy Bayes said: "Burnley probably fancy their chances as much as they have done for the last 30 years.

"Burnley seem to be getting things right since the change of manager.

"They will always feel with the Turf Moor crowd behind them there's no reason why they can't beat Blackburn."

Bayes pointed to both legs of the FA Youth Cup semi-final between the sides last season, which attracted attendances of more than 10,000, as evidence of how important the derby is to the fans.

"These two sets of fans are desperate to put one over on each other," he said.

"The Blackburn fans have had the bragging rights for 33 years so the Burnley fans will feel it's their turn."

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