The story of Colne Dynamoes is a classic case of “too much too quickly”. You could regard it as a testimony to the democratic nature of football or you could merely brush it aside as another club benefitting from the inflated investment of a local businessman eager to flex his ego, only for the benefactor to “take away his ball” when the authorities conspired against him. It is all academic, of course, because it is now a quarter of a century since Colne Dynamoes closed down. It remains one of non-league football’s great mysteries.
The way that Colne marched their way through the non-league pyramid in the late 1980s was the stuff of legend. Fuelled by the cash of millionaire timber merchant and property developer, Graham White, Colne were more than a plaything for “new money”. White had been instrumental in the formation of the club, he had played for them and he managed the team to Wembley triumph. It is a fair assumption that his affection for the club drove his investment in Colne Dynamoes. Therefore, the decision to close the club in 1990 could not have been easy for him.
When the news broke that Colne were closing down after being refused admission to the Conference due to their Holt House Ground being unfit for purpose at that level, there must have been sighs of relief in Burnley and nearby Nelson. The threat of Colne was no more.
It seems remarkable, given Burnley’s recent dalliance with the Premier League, but in the late 1980s, Burnley’s position as the leading club in that part of Lancashire was definitely under threat. That period saw the club at a very low ebb. In 1987, Burnley only stayed in the Football League by virtue of a last-day win against Leyton Orient. Ian Britton’s goal gave them a 2-1 victory and preserved the status of one of the League’s founder members.
White, allegedly, had the audacity to suggest that should Burnley drop out of the Football League – they finished 10th in 1988, 16th in 1989 and 16th in 1990 – then a merger with Colne Dynamoes would make sense. You can imagine the outrage in the Turf Moor board room that a team that had risen from the Lancashire Combination to the North West Counties League and then into the Northern Premier, should have the nerve to offer Burnley a holy union.
But if the tap-room talk was true, Colne may well have been paying some of their players more than Football League clubs. Rumours abounded that White was throwing £10,000 a week into the club and most of that as being spent on players wages. Certainly, during and after Colne won the FA Vase in 1988, White enticed players like Billy Rodaway, Kevin Hird and Alan Kennedy to the Holt House. Although crowds started to arrive at Colne, rising from 200 to more than a thousand, gate receipts were never going to acommodate the arrival of such players. This required serious funding.
There was definitely something building in the area. Colne Dynamoes, founded in 1963, were promoted from the Lancs Combination in 1982, then went through the North West Counties League Division Three in 1983, Division Two in 1984 and Division One in 1988. They spent only one season in the Northern Premier Division One, losing once and scoring 102 goals, and then won the Premier by a massive 26 point margin. While the crowds grew at the hill-top ground, nearby Burnley’s attendances were barely reaching 6,000. It was not beyond the realms of fantasy that Burnley and Colne could find themselves in the same division.
So when the Conference turned down Holt House – capacity 2,500 and just 200 seats – White tried to secure a groundshare at Turf Moor, offering a staggering £500,000 in the process. That didn’t work, so White than laid plans for a new ground for the Dynamoes in Nelson, who had their own football team. It is conceivable that Burnley found the prospect of their tenants usurping them just too much to bear. At that time, they were not in good shape, while there did appear to be something exciting building in Colne. They even had people like Harry Potts, the legendary Burnley manager and 1970s Turf Moor favourite Paul Fletcher involved.
Finally, in the pre-season period, White decided to close the club down. He claimed he had received death threats – from whom nobody was quite sure – and there were rumours that the money had simply run out. White continued to be a successful businessman, so the latter would seem unlikely. What is for sure is that Colne’s on-pitch success had outstripped the fabric of the club. Colne, after all, was a town of just 15,000 people at the time.
What was the Colne lesson? Simply, that non-league clubs cannot get rich quick and expect it to be sustainable. That throwing vast sums – in relative terms – at players can only get you so far, and that building something tangible that lasts for decades takes time. For about three or four years, Colne created something that was too good to last, and it didn’t. “We long endure”, the club’s motto, didn’t quite ring true.