IAN Britton once saved Burnley Football Club. Twenty six years after his goal against the Orient kept the Clarets in the league, football effectively saved Ian Britton.
The Clarets legend had long since retired from the professional game, but up until last year his five-a-side ‘career’ was still going strong, every Wednesday lunchtime, with nine of his Pendle Leisure colleagues.
A seemingly innocuous fall left Britton with severe back pain, and other complications as the days went on, resulting in a trip to accident and emergency at Easter time, an X-ray, followed a few days later with a call from his doctor and the word that everyone dreads: cancer.
“I had to go for a second opinion because I couldn’t take it in,” said Britton.
“It’s such a shock, especially because I was so active and I hadn’t noticed any symptoms.
“Telling the family was quite hard. And it was hard to take at the start.
“You always think ‘it won’t happen to me’.”
Britton was initially diagnosed with prostate cancer, but further investigations soon revealed the disease had also affected his bones.
The consequences of his condition, including, fatigue, pain and bone weakening, and ongoing treatment, meant that Britton had to quit football altogether, as well as take early retirement from his management role at Seedhill athletics track.
But in some respects the 58-year-old counts himself lucky.
“If I hadn’t had that fall it could have gone on for months or even years and it could have spread. It could have been there for years,” said Britton, whose Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) levels were sky high at the time of diagnosis, but are now under control with drug treatment.
With the love and support of family and friends, in particular his fiancée Eileen, who he will marry a week on Friday, he maintains a positive and cheerful disposition.
“They can’t cure Ian’s cancer, but they can hopefully keep it under control,” said Eileen at their Barrowford home, where framed pictures of family and football – including Britton against George Best – are neatly placed on the walls and windowsills.
“We’ve had our upset moments but on the whole we try to be strong. We’re very positive people.”
Britton adds: “You’ve got to be.
“As long as the levels are controlled that’s the main thing. Although I get tired now and again I feel okay in myself.
“I usually get check-ups every six weeks but now it’s 12, the Macmillan nurses come and see me too.
“They’re happy with the way things are going. But if I do feel bad or have any other symptoms I’ve only got to phone them up and I’ll get seen straight away.
“The treatment that I’ve had at the hospital and the hospice has been absolutely great."
Britton is grateful for the support of the football family too – at Burnley, notably through the Vintage Clarets and Burnley Former Players’ Association, who have held fundraising events.
At his first club Chelsea, for whom he made his debut at just 17 – two years after leaving his Dundee home for England’s capital city, a question and answer night with auction was held at a working men’s club close to Stamford Bridge last year.
Seventeen former players, including Ray Wilkins and a few more of Britton’s former team-mates, turned out and a pair of signed boots donated by John Terry for the event raised £1,000 alone.
“It was unbelievable,” said former midfielder Britton, who spent 10 years with Chelsea, making 289 appearances and scoring 34 goals, and earning fame for his self-confessed “outrageous” hairstyle.
“It was like a Davy Crockett hat!” he laughed.
“I’m still in the top worst haircuts in the world, so I’m happy with that.”
Britton joined boyhood club Dundee United after his decade with the Blues before returning south of the border for a three-year spell with Blackpool then on to Turf Moor, where he made more than 100 appearances in three years, scored 10 goals, and made history.
Burnley will be forever grateful to the smallest man on the pitch saving them with a big header on the final day of the 1986/87 season.
“It wasn’t the best of games I’ve got to admit, but the result was the right one,” said Britton, who is still hailed a hero in the town.
“People now say to their kids ‘that man kept Burnley up’ and it’s a great feeling. It’s nice that people still recognise you.
“You don’t get big headed about it but it’s a great feeling.”
As the swelled crowd swamped the pitch on that make or break day, everyone wanted a piece of Britton.
“I had hardly anything on by the end of the pitch invasion. I had one boot and just my jockstrap I think.
“Everything else went,” he said.
“I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“But it was great. It was relief all round.
“If we had got beat that day I don’t know if the club would have survived.
“You don’t want to see a big club like Burnley go out of the Football League.
“We survived that and then went to Wembley the year after in front of 82,000 people to play Wolves in the Sherpa Van Trophy final.
“It just goes to show how quickly things can change.
“We were the underdogs against Preston in the semis but we overcame that to go to Wembley.
“It was absolutely fantastic.”
Britton would love to see the underdogs have their day again and see his two favourite teams, Burnley and Chelsea, reunited once more in the Premier League.
And he believes it is possible with Danny Ings and Sam Vokes leading the line, and Sean Dyche at the helm.
“I think so,” he smiled. “I’d like to see them go straight up rather than go through the play-offs, but even if they do get to the play-offs it will be a great experience.
“At the start of the season Burnley weren’t in the equation.
“They’ve been there and stayed there and it’s looking good.
“We’ve come through the tough times and gone from strength to strength.”
Burnley, and the rest of the football family, will wish the same sentiment applies to Britton in his battle too.