“When I get in cabs in London, the chat used to be 100% about politics,” Alastair Campbell says. “Now some of it is about Brexit, but most drivers want to talk about Burnley.”
Becoming Burnley’s most famous fan might seem something of a come-down after being one of the most prominent members of the last Labour government, or less important than his present political position with the People’s Vote campaign. But as he has followed the Clarets for most of his 61 years, it is something he is very comfortable with.
“I can’t remember my first match, but I was only four,” he says. “Apparently I saw Jimmy McIlroy play although I don’t recall it at all. But following Burnley is the one part of my life that I can get totally immersed in and not feel I have to worry about anything else.”
And there have been plenty of potential distractions. The former political correspondent of the Daily Mirror and Today left journalism in 1994 to become Tony Blair’s press secretary.
He is credited with coining the term ‘New Labour’ and was also behind a famous footballing publicity stunt – Blair’s game of head tennis with former England striker Kevin Keegan, which actually took place at Stanley Deason Leisure Centre during the 1995 Labour Party Conference in Brighton.
How did he know that the Labour leader would deal with this particular big occasion so confidently? “If you are Kevin Keegan, you can head a ball as accurately as anyone else can throw one,” he said.
“My thinking was that Kevin would be so skilled that he would be doing the hard work and making the other guy look good. Tony would not have to be that proficient to be able to keep it going. A lot of people do remember that incident.”
He will be at the Amex for the Albion-Burnley match, and is entitled to a warm welcome after New Labour’s part in the stadium receiving the go-ahead in 2007.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott overruled the planning inspector’s initial thumbs-down, and Communities and Local Government secretary Hazel Blears gave final permission.
“I can remember the first time I came down, the fans singing about John Prescott ‘He’s fat, he’s round, he got us our new ground’,” Campbell says. “John is actually more a rugby league fan but he could see how important it was.
“It wasn’t just that it was a Labour government that got you the stadium - that’s not why people vote or don’t vote for a party - but I think it’s important to remember that among many decisions that governments have to make are ones like that, which have a legacy.
“I was probably as responsible as anyone for the tie-up between football and New Labour, but I do think it’s important. Football is the national sport and means a lot to communities.
“What if Burnley didn’t have the football club? It’s utterly central to the town, physically, geographically, culturally, economically – a massive, massive part of the place. Probably more than any other town in the country.
“We’ve never moved ground, Turf Moor has always been there in the middle of the town and it’s always us or Middlesbrough that has the highest proportion of the population that actually follows the team. We are winning that one right now.
“Some might say that the Amex is maybe not as atmospheric in some ways as the Goldstone Ground was – by the way, the first time my eldest boy, Rory, was a mascot for Burnley was at the Goldstone, about 26 years ago – but it’s a fantastic ground that has been a big part of the club’s recent success.”
So who are the other genuine football fans in the Labour party? Or are most like David Cameron, who famously couldn’t remember whether he was supposed to support Aston Villa or West Ham?
“A lot of MPs like football but I don’t think many are quite at my level of obsession,” he says.
“Some of the Scottish MPs are big fans. John Reid was on the board at Celtic, Jim Murphy and Brian Wilson are big Celtic fans, George Foulkes a huge Hearts fan who became chairman.
“Burnley’s biggest rivalry is with Blackburn and Jack Straw was their MP and is a Blackburn fan and we used to have quite a bit of banter and still do, Jack Cunningham supports Newcastle, Roy Hattersley Sheffield Wednesday, Neil Kinnock Cardiff and Peter Hain Chelsea.
“The late Tony Banks was MP for West Ham, but a massive Chelsea fan and I always liked that because I think too many politicians pretend to be big on their local team when they actually aren’t.
“I go to most of our games, home and away and even home and abroad. I went to all our Europa League games. I really make an effort and I am really fanatical, I suppose.
“But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an MP only going to a few games. People have got other things to do with their lives, after all.
“Among present Labour leaders, John McDonnell supports Liverpool, and so does London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn supports Arsenal, who are of course his local team.
“Ivor Caplin [former MP for Hove] is a genuine Brighton fan and I’ve been to games with him, and Steve Bassam, now Lord Bassam, too.”
A new face in the Burnley squad will be Peter Crouch, who arrived late in the transfer window from Stoke City with Sam Vokes, who spent time on loan at the Amex, going the other way.
“I really like Sam Vokes and feel we owe him a lot but I think Crouch is a good signing. Obviously he’s getting on but people underestimate him as a footballer. Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes have started to come good again but with [Matej] Vydra and [Peter] Crouch as options I think it’s a good move.”
Barnes, of course, is a player Albion fans know well and – mostly – remember with affection.
“I remember when we played Arsenal a couple of years ago, one of the reports said that Laurent Koscielny and the other centre back would rather have been anywhere on the planet other than marking Ashley Barnes. He’s a very hard player to play against, as he showed away to Manchester United [in the recent 2-2 draw]. He has scored some great goals.”
Barnes has become an established Premier League player under Sean Dyche, of whom Campbell is an admirer - torn between agreeing that the Burnley manager is one of the best around and hoping that bigger clubs fail to share his opinion.
“A lot of those taxi drivers say to me ‘I like your manager’ and I’m sure the reason is that he’s so straight. He’s one of the few managers who really get annoyed about all the diving and play-acting and you don’t see our players doing it because he won’t have it.
“That’s why Ashley Barnes went crazy last week when he should have had a penalty and instead got booked for diving.”
“But the other night on Match of the Day they were saying: ‘Why doesn’t Eddie Howe get a really big job, he’s a good young English manager?’ Fair enough, he has done a good job at Bournemouth, but he was the Burnley manager before Sean Dyche and did not do anywhere near as well as Sean has done.
“And I never ever hear pundits say ’Why don’t any of the big clubs go in for Sean Dyche?’ Obviously I hope they don’t, but I think the reason is that he looks like he looks, he sounds like he sounds and people think that rough, gruff exterior is him.
“I know him well and I think his attention to detail is fantastic, he’s clearly a good motivator, he thinks about the game, he has views and has been incredibly successful. But he’s not seen the same way as Eddie Howe, and I go back to my point: both managed Burnley and Sean has been more successful.”
He kept the faith that Dyche would turn things around during Burnley’s indifferent start to this season.
“I was never in doubt that he had the ability to do it and that we have some very good players, but Burnley fans have got to be realistic. We have a good squad, but when we played Man City – and this is with no disrespect to any of our players – we were up against players who in so many ways are exceptional footballers.
“But what Sean Dyche has done since he has been at the club is get the best out of what he has got. The whole team had a bit of a dip, and I don’t think it was anything to do with Europe. They just weren’t on it for a few games but it has started to come back again.
“Even though the Manchester United game was disappointing because we conceded two late goals, we were back doing what Burnley did well last year - being very tight, very compact, very organised, but also able to create something special, and we scored two very good goals. Tom Heaton has been brilliant. He leads from the back!
“I’m a friend of Sean’s and I think he and the other coaches were genuinely baffled as to why our form fell away but they have managed to turn it round, no doubt about it: we’ve gone six league games without defeat.”
While the dip was in progress, some fans were critical. It may be a comfort to Albion supporters to learn that Burnley, too, have their share of followers who feel entitled to success and their moaners and worriers too.
“Even recently there has been stuff on social media saying: ‘Why are we getting Crouch? Why are we giving away late goals at Old Trafford? You can’t defend like that at this level!’ But you do have to be realistic.
“What Burnley did in getting into Europe was absolutely incredible. If that hadn’t happened, most Burnley fans would have accepted that where we are now, around the bottom six and on the fringe of a relegation fight, is where they would have expected us to be. But that’s one of the great things about football. Fans are totally unrealistic.
“I’m a bit the other way, I’m a pessimist and I always think things are going to go wrong. But I absolutely love Burnley, so even if we did get relegated I’d still be out there saying “What a great club, what great players, what a fantastic manager. It’s just what I do.
“We’ve been punching above our weight and we should be happy about that. I’m into my sixth decade as a Burnley fan, and the past few years have been the best. The same for Man City fans who remember the downs. But a lot don’t, they have only known City since they have been this global success story.
“That’s fine, but I often say to Man United and Chelsea fans that if you haven’t known what it is like to need to win the last game of the season to stay in the league, if you haven’t known relegation and miserable Tuesday nights in Hartlepool, Carlisle or Aldershot, then you don’t really appreciate it when you have amazing days and nights winning playoffs or defying relegation or playing in Europe. It has been an absolutely fantastic ride, that’s the truth of it.”
How did it start? “I was born in Keighley in Yorkshire and my dad was Scottish, a Partick Thistle supporter and he loved football. We used to go to Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Burnley, to Halifax a couple of times, and Burnley was the one I really liked. At that time, we were the biggest, and I loved the colours.”
And over all those years, who is his favourite Burnley player? “My all-time Burnley eleven until recently would all have been players from the 1970s. I loved the Leighton James team - Paul Fletcher, Ray Hankin, Colin Waldron, Mick Docherty, Frank Casper, Alan Stevenson, Peter Noble.
“Paul Fletcher and I have written a novel together that has done quite well called Saturday, Bloody Saturday, about football in the 70s and the IRA. He became a friend when he came back as chief executive. He picks me up at Preston station for home games. At a club like Burnley you can get to know everyone.
“But now, you look at Tom Heaton, he’s got to be in my all-time team now. Ben Mee has been fantastic for us for a long time, Jack Cork has been brilliant. We’ve had so many…”
Stop being a politician - answer the question! Who’s number one? “Still probably Leighton James. Actually no, just for a laugh, say Paul Fletcher. But only because he really sulks when I say Leighton James!”