Saturday, October 17, 2009

East Lancashire Derby: Blackburn - Burnley

By reader request, here's a preview of an interesting match, the East Lancashire Derby. If you are like me before doing research for this article, you aren't very familiar with this rivalry. While it has been overshadowed by the Merseyside, Manchester, Northeast and various London derbies, it is important historically.


I'll go ahead and start with the geography of it since many of you might not be familiar enough with England to know where these towns are. As you could guess by the name of the derby, Blackburn and Burnley are located in Lancashire, in Northwest England. The towns are quite close together - according to google the grounds for each team are just a 15 mile (24 km) drive from each other. That's a bit longer than most derbies but it's quite close none the less.


History is what sets this rivalry apart. It actually goes beyond just the history of the derby and is more about the history of the game itself. There were clubs before, but the first season of the Football League was 1888-1889. Twelve clubs took part. They were, in order of how they finished, Preston North End, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Accrington, Everton, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County and Stoke City. You could make a great case that this is the oldest derby in football.

The first East Lancashire derby took place at Turf Moor, the stadium in Burnley, on November 3, 1888. Blackburn crushed their neighbors 1-7. Later that season Blackburn won again, 4-2 at Ewood Park. An interesting side note is that both clubs still play in their original stadia so Sunday's match will take place at Ewood Park.

Unlike the more famous derbies, these teams have missed each other due to playing in different divisions. Burnley had serious problems in the 1970s and fell from the top flight all the way down to the fourth division. They have since recovered and this is their first season in the Premiership. They were last in the top flight in 1975-1976. Meanwhile, Blackburn primarily bounced between the first and second flight. As a result, they have mainly met in cup matches and in lower divisions. This is the first time the two clubs have met in the top flight since 1966. Indeed the last time the clubs met in league play at all was the 1982-1983 season. They last played in the 2004-2005 FA Cup. Blackburn won that meeting 2-1.

The time off has not made things less heated. This derby is considered one of the most intense. Like the steel city derby in Sheffield, this is probably more passionate than those of the big clubs because virtually all of the fans are from the area or at least have ties there. Because the clubs are so close together and the fanbases local, Blackburn fans know and work with Burnley fans and vice-versa. The Independent has an interesting read; former players and managers discuss the derby. It sounds pretty intense even compared to other such matches.

The results through time have stayed very close. The teams have met 91 times. Blackburn have 39 wins, Burnley have 37 and 15 times things finished even.

Analysis of Season Performance

A couple things stood out to me when I looked at their results so far. The first is probably just due to the small sample of 8 and 7 matches. Neither team has a point away from home. Combined they have 7 losses. Burnley have yet to score a goal and conceded 14 goals in four matches. At home both are much better. Burnley have 4 wins in the same number of matches and Blackburn are a respectable 2-1-1. Based on that, Blackburn look to have a big edge. Having said that, who knows given that it will be so heated at Ewood Park and the clubs are so close together.

The other thing that struck me is how tough the schedule has been for Burnley, particularly away from home. As I said they are 0-0-4 with 14 goals against and not one scored. That looks absolutely terrible and if I only told you that you'd probably say they will be playing in the Championship (odd name for the second flight if you ask me) next season. They opened the season at Stoke City, who will probably finish mid-tablish. Their other three away fixtures were just brutal: Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs. In light of that, their away record doesn't look all that bad. Their home schedule has been pretty tough as well; the big upset of the young season was Burnley's 1-0 win over Manchester United. I think it's pretty safe to say they've played the toughest schedule in the league. Given that, they are in pretty good shape at this stage.

The models I use, Poisson for the rankings and the PLM for the predictions, take schedule into account. They rate these teams pretty similarly. At scoring Blackburn are slightly higher in 12th with the Clarets 14th. Flip that around for defense; Burnley are 16th best and Rovers 17th. Overall the model puts Blackburn 16th and Burnley one spot higher at 15th.


As you can see from the above, the PLM has these teams very close. In fact, if they were playing at a neutral site it would have each equally likely to win. Because Blackburn are playing at home, they naturally have an edge. The PLM predicts that they have a 47% chance, Burnley a 24% chance and there is a 29% chance of a draw. 1-0 and 1-1 are the two most likely scorelines.

Something I will work on in the future is how well rivalry matches can be predicted compared to normal matches. If you believe the pundits then they can't be at all. I think that's over the top, but there certainly are differences compared to normal matches. I'm not sure I've gotten a single guess correct, but I'll go with a 2-1 win for the home side.

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