Mark Burke Interview

Miniboro sits down with Mark Burke to discuss (among other things) Trevor Senior’s teeth, his relationship with Sir Bruce and the highs and lows of a sometimes fractious Boro career.

We caught up with Burkey in October of last year, the resulting interview is surprisingly candid and far more open than i could have hoped for.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mark for his time and honesty, it is clear he still holds a great deal of affection for the team and the area. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as i did compiling it.

1: You’d been at Villa since you were about 14 years old, how did your move to Boro come about?

I remember when I was about 17, I was standing outside the changing rooms when Bruce walked past and said to Brian (Little) “Have a word with him”. I was young and naïve so didn’t really know what he meant, but apparently they had watched me a few times already, Brian came over and told me “he likes you”. I had only played about ten first team games for Villa (one of which was against Boro), but looking back now I wasn’t ready for it.

Around Christmas the offer came in and Graham Taylor, who had really started to turn the club around said “It’s up to you”. So I went to see Evo (Allan Evans) for some advice, and he said “If a manager says that then you should go”, so it started from there.

2. What was the biggest attraction about coming?

The fact that Boro were so keen to sign me, that is all any player wants really, to feel wanted. I was only 18 so it was a big move for me, I was very unsure at first as it seemed like the end of the earth! After all you couldn’t really get any further away in England at the time. It might sound strange now what with the instant communication and all that but back then it was different. Bruce and Colin Todd came round to my Mom’s house to talk to me about signing. I don’t think I said a word, I was a little bit dazed, nervous and very unsure. I know that Todd told Bruce not to sign me as he didn’t think I wanted to come, but Bruce said that was a normal reaction for a young player. I remember driving up to Middlesbrough with my Mom and Uncle, it was so different! Once we had been shown around the ground and seen the warmth of the people, my Mom said “You have to go” and I said “I know it looks brilliant”. The fact I already knew a few of the lads really helped. Within the ‘Villa’ lads I was the youngest by a good few years so I knew they would look after me, especially Sprout (Kevin Poole) and Deano.

3. What was your main doubt about coming?

My main doubt was that I was only 18 and a young 18 in my opinion. I had been at Villa with all my friends around me and it was all I knew. I remember the likes of Lee Turnbull coming to Villa from Middlesbrough and he had real problems settling, in fact I don’t think he ever did really (I remember going to his digs and he had a massive Boro team picture on his wall!) He was a good lad, Lee. I had been at Villa since I was 10, it was ‘my’ club but when I joined full-time it started to disintegrate.

One of my old team mates said to me recently that the 2 years I was there were probably the worst 2 years in the club’s history, maybe it was my fault?!?

From winning the European Cup in 1982, the club were then relegated in 1987; I don’t really know what happened, especially as it is such a massive club. But then I look back at the training equipment for example, every morning we would pile out of the club van and whoever was ‘on kit’ would pour out the contents of a big grey sack and there would be, and I mean literally, a big scrap in the middle of the changing rooms to grab a pair of socks that weren’t ripped, a pair of shorts that fitted and one of the two warm up tops. There were about 15 different types of balls, I always remember in shooting practice it was a constant fight to try and get the best one – an Adidas Tango – because it was the best one to shoot with. The only problem was that if you missed somebody else would grab it; this led to some very careful shooting! None of this is what you would expect from a club of that size with its success and history. This is what Graham Taylor sought to change and he did.

Sorry I went off the point there… at 18 it was a big move but Allan Evans had already told me if the manager says ‘it’s up to you’ then you should go. I wasn’t ready to play for Villa at 18 anyway, I can see that now and I knew it then. I had been looked after at Villa by people who had known me since I was 10 but then one by one they left, so it started to feel less and less like ‘my’ club. Despite all the changes the lads were still brilliant, some of which I am still big friends with today, like Gary Shaw and Mark Walters but the club had definitely changed.

Knowing what I know now, having lived in several countries and seen the development of young players in various forms, the period between 16 and 21 is absolutely crucial in the moulding of a young player / person. At Villa in one season we had 4 youth team managers and I think 4 first team managers, so there was no structure for the young players to hold on to.

Graham Taylor came in and changed everything, he could not believe the state the club was in, it was his job to get it right as soon as possible and he did just that. I was not ready for him or for what he needed to do. As a young kid a lot had been spoken about me, I had been a star for England Schoolboys, a hat-trick at Wembley and all of that, so there was a lot of expectation. Young players need nurturing and I don’t think that happened after Brian Little left, EVERYBODY loved Brian, he was like a God to us, he had been such a legendary figure on the pitch and now he was our (youth team) coach, we would do anything for him, a little bit like Sid Cowans now.

Certain people ‘are’ that particular club, in the same way Mogga is Boro, Brian Little is Aston Villa. When he left we were all in shock, I still remember him coming to the window of the van while we were waiting to go home saying “right then lads I’m off”. We could not believe it, terrible for us young lads, gutted, it was easy to see why he was a success as a manager because he made you want to play football for him and if you weren’t doing it he could be hard but in a good way, I loved working with Brian.

4. What were your first impressions of Teesside?

Middlesbrough is a great place, I really enjoyed it. I remember when I first arrived; I was watching ‘Yes Minister’ in my top floor penthouse at The Stork, the cabinet ministers were arguing and one of them was threatened with a transfer to Middlesbrough and the minister gulped!! I remember thinking bloody hell, is it that bad?!!

At first it was hard and I came back to Birmingham a lot but that is normal. I remember one day being in the Stork and a guy who was in there called Kenny said to me did I want to see the real Boro? (I am sure we went on the bus). I said ok, so he took me round everywhere, over the border, the Bongo, the lot, I remember finding it really interesting as it was so different to Birmingham. When I travel I like to see the ‘real’ places. I remember the lads from the Stork took me to a working men’s club one Sunday morning and there were strippers on, I couldn’t believe it!! Great laugh. One of my favourite all-time television series was ‘Our Friends in the North’ it really reminds me of my time up there.

It was a big move for me but that would have been the case wherever I went. I had been at Villa forever, so to suddenly move like that was difficult but the club and the lads were great. I already knew Kevin Poole, Paul Kerr, Deano and Brian (Little), so a lot of people knew me as a player and a person which made it a lot easier.

My first impressions of Teesside was that it was ‘raw’, there was a different atmosphere, I can really sense and ‘feel’ atmospheres and I can still ‘feel’ the Boro even now. Something hard to describe but it made a real impression on me, (maybe because it was my first move away) but Middlesbrough was a real town, close knit, everything within touching distance. The people at the club were so friendly and everybody helped each other, I can think back to the staff at the club like old Ken, Joe, Karen, Julie (now Coop’s wife) they were so helpful to me and I have never forgotten that and am very grateful.

5. Did you ever revisit the Stork Hotel?

I drove past it a good few years ago with my mate Scott Selby (he taught me a lot about the Boro and its history) obviously its not there now but it brought back fantastic memories just driving down the street. What a place! John and Eleanor and all of their family were so fantastically friendly to me that I could never thank them enough. They were massive Boro fans and looked after all the lads in their like their own.

When I watch ‘Life on Mars’ on the TV it reminds me of the Stork! All the local constabulary in there, drinking, telling stories and I think sometimes they even stayed past licensing hours!!!

Myself and Ashley Fothergill were in there (what a great lad he is, lives in New York now) and when Trevor Senior joined we had such a laugh, he is one of the funniest people I have met along with Trevor Putney and Neale Cooper at the Villa. Me and Trev Senior used to get on famously and we were constantly together, we used to slaughter him about his dress sense, so we said right we are taking you down town to sort you out. So we took him to Big Cyrils shop (Zone?) and kitted him out, he still looked like a binman! Like he said, clothes just don’t suit him!!

Once at Maiden Castle, Colin Todd was giving out a bollocking about something and he said to Trevor “Are you laughing at me?” and Trevor said “No, I’ve just got big teeth!!” Brilliant!! In San Jose Bruce asked him to warm up and he just rubbed his arms twice and said “I’m ready!” He was great, great for the spirit and an important factor in us going up; his goal scoring record was incredible.

I remember the week we played Leicester, the build up to the game was crazy, the whole town was absolutely buzzing and it seemed that everybody thought it was a formality. Everywhere me and Trev went people would be telling us what their plans were and what they would do when we won etc. When we got back to the Stork, Trev said to me “I’ve got a horrible feeling about Saturday”, I said “Bloody Hell Trev don’t say that mate” and he said “Everybody is just too confident, I don’t like it”. And he was right, we froze.

6. Any particular games / goals / moments stand out for you during your time here?

There were lots of games both good and bad for me individually and for the team, so in no particular order:

Southampton away when I scored a good goal and Bruce said “Don’t think that means you’re playing next week!” Cheers for that. Sheff Wed away when we were relegated. Man Utd at home with Dav scoring the winner. Millwall at home. Norwich at home (scored first goal). Villa at home in the first Sunday live game. Coventry away, won 4-2. Man Utd away and the power of Bryan Robson. Newcastle at home, setting up the goal for Bernie. Newcastle away when Alan Comfort did his knee, a horrible moment.

The play-off game at Chelsea, eating fish and chips from a shop in Kilburn on the way back, then all out to the Mall in Stockton. The cup games v Everton.

There are loads of games I could mention but it’s not about one particular game, its more about the feeling and the atmosphere at the time, it’s difficult to describe for those who weren’t there. But the club had been dead and buried a few years before and because of this there was an extra special feeling for the club and its players. They were doing the town proud and you could sense that, I felt so proud to play for the Boro, if I shut my eyes now I can still feel the cold air, the soaked pitch, dark wet Saturday afternoons, floodlights on, the roar as we attacked, very, very special.

I was talking to somebody about this a while ago and I said I thought Boro have had (in my memory anyway) three very special teams / times. Steve McLaren brought success, Bryan Robson heralded a new era, but Bruce Riochs team was the initial rebirth, and I am proud to say I had a small part to play in that.

7. Who did you see as your main rival for a first team shirt and did you rate them at the time?

Good question, but I didn’t really see it like that, I just wanted to play. It wasn’t like I was thinking “get him or him out”. I have to be honest, I rated all of the players in that squad, I really don’t think there was a bad player there.

8. Why do you think you were overlooked for your favoured ‘central’ role whilst at Boro? Especially when you played in that position for the reserves.

One of my coaches in Holland said “if you had come to us when you were 18 you would have been a very different player” and I know what he means. I have always thought a lot about football and how it should be played, how to organise it, how I could get the ball etc. When I played in the reserves and played up front, I thought there is no point standing there against a giant of a centre half waiting to fight it out, so I would drop into little pockets and areas where I could pick it up and turn, play one-twos, put people in, shoot etc.

I remember Colin Todd saying I should stay up front and that I only wanted to drop off so that I didn’t get kicked. I told him he was wrong – and that the reason I drop off is because the defender probably won’t come with me, so I can get the ball into my feet. If he does come with me, I’m still creating space behind for somebody else to run into. He wouldn’t have it though, his mind was made up.

When I played out wide I was never the kind of winger to run to the by-line, I want to play ‘with’ people, create combinations etc. But the way the game was played, 4-4-2, meant that you stayed out wide, got to the line and put your cross in. But I would often drift inside again because from that position I could pick the ball up more easily. With the arrival of foreign coaches / players everybody is doing it now and they all say how clever and how tactically astute it is, what a load of bollocks, its nothing new.

9. After the highs of promotion with a young squad, what was the hardest thing to take about relegation?

That was tough, we were only in the bottom three on the last day of the season and we thought we’d done well for a young team, which was true. For me, relegation brought on a massive disappointment the following season. In my naivety I thought, right, I am going to go away and get myself so unbelievably fit (as I knew I wasn’t strong enough) and then I am going to come back, score goals and help us get back up.

So I got loads of nutritional advice, went to the gym with a friend in Yarm and came back absolutely flying. I had put on about a stone in muscle, prior to that I was very lightweight up top because I hadn’t really filled out yet. But Bruce just saw that I had put weight on and said I wouldn’t get in the team while I was overweight. I tried to argue my case and told him what I had been doing, through experience, I know that my body fat would have been so low as to be negligible, but that didn’t matter in those days and he had already dismissed me in his head. Daft.

10. From that crop of players, who would you say was affected most by that relegation season?

It hit all of us hard; maybe for the local lads it was tougher, but I don’t think so because we all loved the club.

11. What do you think Bruce got right during that single top flight season?

I think he got most things right, he kept a small squad, simple principles and kept faith in that squad.

12. What do you think he got wrong?

I’m not sure he did really; it was probably just the consequences of a young squad running out of steam when playing against top class players week in week out.

13. Post relegation; is it fair to say you became a scapegoat for others at times?

Maybe not a scapegoat (what does one of them look like anyway?) But I do remember giving the ball away on the halfway line at Villa Park. It went back and forth across the pitch a couple of times until Ian Ormondroyd (I think) scored with a header which died in the mud and went under Kevin Poole. I think Bruce blamed me for that and he didn’t forget about it either. I think that was pretty harsh, especially when you look over a season. There will always be mistakes made by many different players, there always is. I have seen more experienced players make far worse mistakes than that and nothing is said, but it’s funny really, because its over 20 years ago now.

14. During that same time, were you aware of the level support you had from certain sections of the crowd?

Yes, I knew that the crowd quite liked me which I think annoyed Bruce even more.

15. Were you also aware that some fans still regarded you as a ‘luxury player’?

Yes of course

16. How do you respond to that kind of criticism in retrospect?

I don’t know really, I think if you sign an 18 year old for next to nothing, who then plays for the first team in the top division and does ok, I would think ok, if we work with this kid then we have got a player. So you talk to him, you get him to understand what you want from him, tell him his good points, his weak points and what he needs to improve on. You teach him the game as you see it, how, if he does X, Y and Z he can become a regular in the first team. Really teach him the game in a calm, educated manner, get him to REALLY understand why you want X, Y and Z.

Bruce was funny, on the one hand he taught you an enormous amount just from watching him in training and the general principles that he instilled. Every day we did the same thing and this led to everybody knowing what he wanted, simple football with the ball passed from A to B. But on the other hand he could be incredibly erratic in his behaviour and we would never know what he would do next, I suppose it’s not a bad thing for a manager but its very confusing for young players, anyway it worked and he was very successful at Boro.

17. Your website Pro Soccer Secrets mentions that “nothing is as delicate as a footballer’s confidence” would you describe yourself as a confidence player?

Every player is a confidence player, from the top to the bottom; every players confidence is only 2 or 3 bad passes away form being dented. I needed a run in the team to see me through the patches where maybe it wasn’t so good, somebody encouraging me, pushing me in the right direction, so if that’s a confidence player then Yes.

18. What was the ‘;Chicken Run’ like from a players perspective?

I honestly never had a problem with all that. The lads told me Parky used to get a lot of stick before I came and Gilly too. I used to like playing on that side as it was miles away from the bench!

19. I enjoyed the following quote from you recently “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.” Has this ethos caused issues between you and managers in the past?

No, not really, I used to get a bit frustrated at Wolves because the first ball would always be to find Bully, but if you have him up front then that’s what you do because he was fantastic.

But I have always found it fascinating that if a team passes the ball consistently to each other its labelled pretty football. I always thought that was the aim of football, to control the ball as well as you can, keep it within in your own team until you can create an opportunity, then organise things so you get it back as soon as you can. I was talking to somebody the other day about the origins of football in England and it was originally intended as a test of endurance and strength and it seems that this is still the prevailing underlying belief.

I have always said if a team in England plays a fast, passing game there is no team in the world that can live with them. Using all the typical English traits and allying them with technique is an incredible thing to watch, you can see it with teams like Man Utd and Arsenal, even though the latter is in essence a foreign team, they still play with an English intensity.

20. Do you think that Colin Todd had already made his mind up about you before taking over as boss?

Definitely, we didn’t even get on when he was assistant, but that happens. In fact my biggest regret was that not long after I left, Toddy went too. Lennie Lawrence came in, and whilst you never know with a new manager, we all saw what happened to Kerny, which has to be the biggest turnaround in a players fortunes I have ever seen, great lad Kerny.

21. You were part of the Wolves team that played against Boro on the last day of our 92/93 promotion season? Was it a day of mixed emotions?

Yes, I played that day and we should have won the game. I suppose I do remember coming into the payers lounge and all the Boro lads (who had been there when I was) were cheering me, it brought a few strange looks because I was a Wolves player by then. But in truth I would have still liked to have won that game against Boro, even though I still loved the club.

22. Who did you get on best with at the Boro and why?

As I said before Trevor was great and obviously Nookie, Sprout and Deano were good mates. From the Boro lads, I got on well with all them I think (maybe they say differently!) there were no bad lads at all. But I suppose Kerny and Gilly, who I used to think were really funny and would really make me laugh. I really liked Coops and Ripper as well they were very genuine, Pally was great. Mogga was the leader and everyone respected him, Pearsie was great, quiet and had authority. Parky was always moaning but in a funny way and used to make everyone laugh. Bernie was a good lad even though he was always offside! Hammy was just hard as nails, I remember being tackled by him once in training and it sounds strange but he would tackle you with his whole body, I just remember thinking, how does he do that?

23. Assuming that you are still living in Holland, have you heard the recent news about Gary Parkinson?

Yes I have seen the news and sent him a card, absolutely terrible. It was strange as I was only thinking about him a few days before I heard the news. I had met him at the Masters Football and he’d said something really funny that day along the lines of “Burkey I don’t like this real life stuff, I just want to play football again”. I was laughing my head off, typical Parky. I am really hoping and praying that he can recover.

24.  Who do you regard as ‘your club’ these days?

The 4 results I look for are Villa, Boro, Wolves and West Brom. I used to watch West Brom a lot when I was younger, my uncles are all fans and I watched them a lot when I didn’t go to the Villa. From the days of Johnny Giles (I was very young then) to a young Bryan Robson, Len Cantello, Willie Johnston to Cyrille, Laurie and Brendan Batson, great, great days and great, great players

25.  What do you make of Boro’s recent decline?

Very sad, it just seems really flat, I don’t know the reasons why but it’s a real shame.

26.  Tell us a bit more about your own website; are the articles based on your personal experiences?

Yes, I have played in 4 countries, England, Holland, Japan and Romania so I have learned a fair bit about football and life. The football education I received in Holland was phenomenal, the detail that they go into over there is incredible and I learnt massive, massive amounts there. I always had a certain idea of playing but they taught me how to organise it, they are the best in world bar none at organising a team and a method of playing. Of course, like anything, not all of it is brilliant but I think a mix between and Dutch and an English style of play would be very successful.

27. What key lessons do you hope to pass on to young players in the game today?

To enjoy the ball and understand that it is the most important thing in the game, so make sure you master it. Also to get them to understand how quickly things change in football and to keep playing whatever happens.

28. How likely are we to see you in a management / coaching role in this country?

I don’t think in England to be honest, I am completing my licence and then I will see what happens but I don’t think it would be in England.

29. Finally, what do you make of Mogga’s appointment?

I spoke to Mogga yesterday (the day after it was announced) and he is obviously very pleased. I’m sure he will sort out the mess, for whatever reason, it has become. I’ve no doubt he will bring stability and good football back to the club and eventually get them back up.

Mark Burke