Following England’s elimination from the World Cup in disappointing fashion it has been all the rage to question the state of the national game in this country. Kick and rush. Tackling ahead of dribbling. The physical preferred to the technical. This is not a new problem though. It is a problem that English footballer Mark Burke was wrestling with some twenty years ago.
He is the Englishman who made nearly 100 appearances in the Dutch top flight, playing alongside Mark van Bommel under the current Holland coach Bert van Marwijk. The man who became the first player from these shores to play in the Romanian league. He even had a dabble out in the Far East with J-League outfit Omiya Ardija before trying his luck in Sweden with Brommapojkarna. Yes, Mark Burke brings a new perspective to the term ‘journeyman’.
At this point, I should perhaps declare an interest here. As a young pre-teen Wolves fan, Mark Burke was a favourite of mine. Yes there was Steve Bull – a legend – but he was my hero in a very obvious way. For a contrary 11 year old, Burke was a fascination. The Wolves of the early 90s played a fairly effective but thoroughly agricultural style of football. Even the shortest spells of possession would be greeted by calls of ‘boot it up to Bully’ and those who didn’t oblige were soon on their way through the exit door. Among them there was Burke. Sure of touch, calm of mind, he would lope around in seemingly lackadaisical fashion before offering a cute little pass here or a deft touch there. A man with an eye for ball retention. In other words, he was a player wholly unsuited to the muck and nettles of English football.
Birmingham-born Burke began his career under Graham Turner at Aston Villa, making several top-flight appearances there in his teenage years before the next Villa manager (confusingly, Graham Taylor) shipped him up north to Middlesbrough. There Burke played under the tutelage of Bruce Rioch for 3 years and the two enjoyed a difficult working relationship. The son of a sergeant-major, Rioch was a fierce disciplinarian and an old-school British manager. Burke, for his part, was developing a reputation as a talented impact substitute - exciting and infuriating in equal measure. Unable to make the breakthrough, a £25,000 move to Wolves followed and the opportunity to work under his old Villa manager Graham Turner. This was to be Burke’s most successful spell in England - 8 league goals in 27 starts in the 1992/93 season being the pinnacle. By this stage, however, Burke’s concerns with the English style were becoming greater, as the player later recalled in an interview with David Instone:
“In England, I often heard coaches say: ‘Let’s get stuck into them, do this and that and, if we get chance, play some football.’ That drove me nuts. You should always try to play football, not just as an after-thought.. There were times in games when I thought after 20 minutes I was going to have a heart attack. If you put three passes together, the crowd thought it was something special. But, if you still hadn’t gone anywhere, they would be urging you to knock it into the area.”
As Sir Jack Hayward began his spending spree at Molineux, Burke found himself increasingly marginalised by the new signings. When Turner was replaced by Graham Taylor, as he had been at Villa, Burke realised the writing was on the wall. There was the false dawn of interest from Tottenham Hotspur – he had a trial there and Ossie Ardiles was keen to take him before bowing to pressure from above to bring in bigger names. Klinsmann, Dumitrescu and Popescu duly headed for White Hart Lane.. Burke was dispatched to Port Vale.
After a year in the Potteries, however, the following summer was to prove a major turning point. It was time for a new adventure as Mark Burke went into the unknown with a move to Fortuna Sittard of Holland, where he would spent the next four seasons and enjoy a footballing education. It was to prove a whole new world.
“I learned more in a year in Holland than I had done in ten in England. All that happens in England when things are going wrong is that people talk about ‘working harder’, but these are professional players: they’re already working hard. In Holland, players think about everything and they talk about everything. It can get a bit much when they go on for twenty minutes about something that only needs, ‘When you go forward, I’ll stay back,’ but what then happens is that they really understand the system and what they’re doing.” [interview with Go! Go! Omiya Ardija]
It may have seemed exhaustive and over-the-top, but it also improved his understanding of the game, as Burke explained to Simon Kuper:
“In England if the manager said it, you just did it. When I went to Fortuna .. I really started to understand the shape of the field, horizontally and vertically. In England the only time I had training sessions like that was when I went on coaching courses.”
Burke’s first coach at Fortuna was Pim Verbeek, who managed Australia at this summer’s World Cup. The team had been promoted to the Eredivisie just before Burke’s arrival and over the next four years they were to establish themselves as a good midtable outfit. Mark van Bommel was the star turn throughout that period, often playing at the base of the midfield diamond with Burke at the tip. It was far cry from the bench-warming duties of the English second tier.
Dutch football clearly suited Burke’s game far better than the fare on offer in England. The Premier League was up and running and money was now flowing into the game as football became fashionable again. This fast tempo game was proving highly entertaining for fans both home and abroad. Part of the excitement though, was the speed, the constant exchanging of possession as the merry-go-round became faster and faster. In Holland, Burke’s experience of the game was quite different – the man who had been perceived as strolling around playing sidewards passes when he should have been lumping it forward was suddenly cast as the uncultured Englishman:
“Yes, I probably seemed like a direct player to them. The Dutch are encouraged to be patient, to wait and wait until a gap opens up. It’s draining mentally as well as physically when you don’t have the ball and your opponents are passing and passing. Someone, sooner or later, will switch off for half a second, and an opening will present itself.”
Never has the gulf between the passing football of continental Europe and the hard-running back-to-front football on offer from England been more apparent than at this summer’s World Cup in South Africa. Some speculation has focused upon the technical deficiencies of the English players. Burke, though, has no truck with this view. He believes it is more a case of misguided emphasis:
“I don’t believe foreigners are any better technically than we are. I defy anyone to name a better technical player than Paul Scholes. It’s just that our players aren’t encouraged to play the same way as the foreigners and our game is so fast.”
Despite loving his time in Holland so much that he still lives there to this day, in terms of Burke’s football career all good things come to an end. After Verbeek left the club he was replaced by his assistant, Bert van Marwijk, with whom Burke had a more fractious relationship. Better players were being added to the squad with the likes of Kevin Hofland, Wilfred Bouma and Patrick Paauwe coming in and with the Englishman approaching 30 he made plans to go join his former coach Verbeek out in Japan. An enjoyable year followed, with Burke impressed with the enthusiasm of his Japanese counterparts, before brief spells in Romania and Sweden preceded his retirement from the game. However, Mark Burke’s views on the game continue to be shaped by his time in Holland:
”Sometimes I watch kids being coached by Premiership clubs. They’ve got fantastic kits, all the facilities, but the coaching itself hasn’t changed in twenty years. I want to get away from the idea that keeping the ball is ‘pretty football’. If we’ve got the ball, you can’t score. It’s as simple as that. That’s not ‘pretty football’, that’s just football.”
Mark Burke harbours ambitions of getting into coaching. Given the events of this summer, I’d argue that he is exactly what this country needs.