This week’s Cult Hero is none other than Burnley legend Robbie Blake, writes Conor Heffernan.
The true essence of a Cult Hero is the ability to have half the fans love you and the other half hate you.
Today brings the story of a man known for his on-field hi-jinks, his wonder goals and for joining his club’s biggest rivals. It is the story of a man who began a fashion trend with his underpants…today is the story of Burnley’s Robbie Blake.
Born Robert James Blake in March of 1976, Robbie Blake was always going to be a footballer. In Middlesbrough’s schoolyard playgrounds, Robbie was known for dazzling spectators with his ability. He could play the ball comfortably with both feet, could jink his away around a defence and could spank a ball so thunderously it would make the ground shake. It was no surprise then that Darlington snapped up the young lad in the mid-90s.
Darlington would soon prove too small a stomping ground for our Cult Hero and by 1997 he had joined Bradford’s high-flying Championship team. There Blake proved a revelation, scoring sixteen goals in forty games the year Bradford gained promotion to the Premiership.
Sadly for our hero, his contribution was soon forgotten. Once in the Premiership, Blake struggled to hold down a regular place at Valley Parade and was shipped off to Burnley for a cool £1 million fee. Burnley had been on the verge of signing Stockport’s Shefki Kuqi but dropped the move at the last moment when it became clear Blake was available. Oh how different history may have been.
Burnley signed Robbie Blake and his cult hero status at Burnley was soon to be created.
Like many other Cult Heroes, Blake’s story at Burnley began poorly. Blake joined in the midst of Burnley’s push for promotion to the Premiership but due to an injury he was carrying he only managed a handful of lacklustre appearances. Burnley missed out on promotion and the punters at Turf Moor were mumbling that they should have signed Kuqi instead. Times were slow to change.
Despite being fit for the start of the 2002/03 season, Blake was still struggling to find his feet. He started Burnley’s opening game of the season, a shock 3-1 home defeat against Brighton where he was criticised by Burnley’s manager Stan Ternent for diving and needlessly trying to be flashy.
He would spend the next four games on the bench and was only reinstated when international duty for Gareth Taylor meant Ternent had no choice but to play Blake. Blake’s opponents would be Derby County and initially it looked as if Blake would falter once more. Burnley were one nil down at half time and the fans were on Blake’s back.
Charles Dickens once wrote:
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
Whatever happened at half time, Blake came out a new man. Perhaps it was his desire to show his new club what he could do. Perhaps he was angry at his own fans for not supporting him or maybe he finally realized he could be the star of the show. Whatever the reason, the second half saw Robbie Blake become the hero.
Blake dominated the game, pulling the strings and mesmerizing the Derby defence. Blake forced an own goal to make it 1-1 and soon after he converted a penalty to give him his first Burnley goal and give Burnley all three points. He was now establishing himself in the hearts of Burnley’s faithful.
The following season in 2003/2004 saw him play 45 games for the club in what turned out to be Burnley’s closest shave with relegation during Blake’s time there. That season saw our hero score nineteen goals to save Burnley from the drop. Not a bad way to earn the fans’ love.
Fan’s hopes were high for the following 2004/2005 season. Blake was in form and a new manager named Steve Cotterill had been brought in. Cotteril’s impact was immediate. On the field the introduction of a 4-5-1 formation with Blake as the leading man saw Burnley dominate games where previously they would have been beaten.
What’s more, Blake was flourishing. By December he’d already notched ten league goals. Sadly it was not to last. By January 2005, Blake had been sold to Birmingham City, at the time a Premiership club. It seemed a dream move for Robbie but quickly became a nightmare. Picking up only a handful of appearances in the Premiership, Blake was sold to Leeds that summer. Many Burnley fans couldn’t forgive Blake’s decision to move to Birmingham.
At Leeds Blake again wowed fans with his skill, determination and goalscoring ability. Two years at Elland Road saw him notch a goal every 4 games for Leeds, an impressive record considering he was often played out of position for the Whites. At Leeds, Blake intensified the hatred some Burnley fans felt for him by scoring against Burnley in the ‘05/06 season.
Fans at Turf Moor were shocked then when the club gave Robbie a second chance in April 2007. Leeds’s relegation to League One meant Blake was available at a pittance and Steve Cotterill snapped him up for the Clarets.
Blake would no longer be the leading man at Turf Moor but that didn’t matter. His contribution on and off the pitch became integral to Burnley’s success It was during Burnley’s promotion season in 2008/2009, that Blake gained the love and affection of Burnley’s faithful. Who can forget the now infamous ‘Bad Beat Bob’ celebration against Coventry City. Blake had just scored against the Sky Blues when his teammate, Stephen Jordan pulled down Blake’s shorts to reveal his underpants containing the message ‘Bad Beat Bob’.
The Monday after the game saw Burnley’s club shop sell over 500 replicas of the pants. Blake was a fashion icon. Apart from setting fashion trends in Burnley’s high street, Blake was integral in Burnley’s successful push for promotion to the Premiership. Blake’s 9 goals that season helped Burnley reach the Premiership for the first time in the Club’s history.
From there matters only seemed to improve. The 2009/2010 Premiership season was one of the most eventful in Burnley’s history. August 2009 saw Burnley win their first ever home fixture in the Premiership. Their opponents? Manchester United. The goalscorer? Who else but our Cult Hero Robbie Blake.
Blake’s goal against United has to rank as one of the best in his career. It was a thunderous volley that left United’s goalkeeper Ben Foster with no chance. Even today fans at Turf Moor will fondly remember that goal.
It was to be a shining light in an otherwise disastrous season for Burnley. Burnley finished the season in 18th place and were soon relegated back to the Championship.
Blake’s time at the club was nearing an end. A new manager in the form of Brian Laws had been brought in around January and Robbie was getting less opportunities as time went on. With our hero’s contract winding down Burnley offered Robbie a one year extension…he wanted two. Burnley left the door open for our Cult Hero, but in the end Robbie broke Burnley hearts by signing a one-year deal with their rivals Bolton Wanderers.
Some fans were furious, others were sad to see him go. In his six years at Burnley, Robbie Blake had given fans everything. Goals, performances and laughter. Whether the fans at Turf Moore love him or hate him, there is no denying that Robbie Blake is most certainly a Burnley Cult Hero.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.