What began as a brief chat regarding a photo, turned into one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve conducted so far. Don Burluraux was part of the same team that included Willie Maddren, David Mills, Pat Cuff, Peter Creamer, Harry Charlton, Alan Moody and Brian Myton. Over a period of a few months Don agreed to answer a variety of questions about his time at Boro and the results are well worth a read.

1. Could you tell us a little about how you came to play for Middlesbrough, who spotted you and how quick the process was?

I was playing for my school 1st team, Guisborough Grammar School, and Staithes Juniors in the Eskdale Junior League (I think that’s what it was called) – it would be the 1966-67 season. The position I played was what these days you’d call a ‘striker coming from deep’ – put it this way, I wasn’t an out and out ‘centre forward’ although I wore number 9. I scored 80 goals that season for Staithes, 14 of them on my debut against Goldsborough which we won 32-1, how they scored their one I’ll never know??? We easily won the league and 2 cups. I was young to be in the school senior team – the standard was pretty high in those days and the older lads seemed much bigger than me. Unbeknown to me I was being watched by several football scouts – one from Leeds came to talk to my parents, then another from Wolves. Then someone came along from the Boro – end of story – no competition – I was by then a massive Boro fan so I signed ‘schoolboy forms’! No money involved in those days, just pride!

I was in class one afternoon when my sports teacher walked in with a telegram for me from Harold Shepherdson – I was asked to report to Feethams that evening for a Youth Cup match v Darlo (I think we lost 2-1) and that was the night Willie Maddren first injured his knee – it was to bug him for the rest of his career. From then on I was chosen regularly to play for Boro Juniors in the Northern Intermediate League. The team was coached by George Wardell and Alec Brown was our trainer – a couple of great guys! Our home games were at Hutton Road and it was during one of these against Huddersfield Town that Boro’s manager, Stan Anderson, first came to watch me play. Although I thought I was playing well, I was brought off early, midway during the 2nd half, and I was gutted! As I was undoing my boots in the dressing room, Harold Sheperdson walked in with my Dad and my brother Alan.

His words were something like this: “Well done son, Stan’s seen enough – he wants you to sign as a full-time pro – that will be on your 17th birthday! I’ve had a chat with your Dad and brother and they are concerned about you continuing your education (I was studying English, Maths and Geography at A-level). If you sign we will pay for you to go to Kirby College and you can keep on studying.” So from then on I got to train with the senior players squad at Hutton Road during school holidays, etc until I signed my first contract – on the 8th June 1968 my basic wage was £16 a week.

2. You were only 17 at the time, was that an advantage or disadvantage, how well did you cope?

By not signing until my 17th birthday as a full-time professional I missed out on the ‘apprentice’ stage. This meant I had a lot of catching up to do with the lads who had trained regularly with the reserves and 1st team during their apprenticeship – apart from footballing skills, they had ‘learned’ a few tricks to play on each other and lots of dressing room banter. What I didn’t miss was the back-breaking work apprentices did in the close season, ‘forking’ the bare patches of grass on the pitch at Ayresome Park – Wilf Atkinson (the greatest groundsman ever in the world and one of the funniest men I ever met!) had them working from dawn til dusk until he had the pitch in perfect condition for the start of the season.

3. Is it true you finished school with 9 ‘O’ Levels? Were you the exception rather than the rule for lads your age playing football at that time?

Yes, I left Guisborough Grammar School with 9 ‘O’ levels and was half way through studying my A-levels when I signed for Boro. I continued my studies for a few more months at Kirby College but slowly lost interest – I suppose I thought I’d ‘made it’ as a professional footballer – little did I know how short that career was to become.

Looking back there weren’t that many ‘bright scholars’ in the game but there were certainly plenty of lads with good footballing brains and that’s what obviously counted most in professional football – thats what managers wanted. A couple of exceptions at Boro were Bill Gates who had studied to be an accountant and Stan Webb who later gained similar qualifications.

I now very much regret not completing my studies. But at that time all I wanted to be was a professional footballer – and I defy anyone else would have thought otherwise. In hindsight there are lots of decisions most of us wish we’d changed in our lifetimes, but I was only young, and I lived then for today rather than tomorrow – bad call.

4. How would you describe yourself as a player / which modern day player were you most similar to?

I suppose I was lucky enough to be blessed with the skill of being able to run at speed with the ball at my feet, get past full backs and cross accurate balls on the run. As I mentioned earlier, I started off in junior football mainly as a striker, but Stan Anderson thought that because of my speed and ball control I’d be better as a winger. I could play on either wing, although I had much more control and accuracy on the right – I always took free kicks and corners with my right foot. However, I scored more goals playing on the left wing and cutting into the box on my right foot – it now seems to be the modern trend with many of today’s wingers.

If I’d stayed injury free and continued to develop and improve in my career I’d like to think I might have been compared with such modern day players as Stewart Downing and Ashley Young – if only!

5. You were very good friends with Willie Maddren, having both come through the ranks together. Did anyone else in that team immediately stand out as a future star?

I knew Willie from when we both first started playing in the juniors and reserves – I suppose we’d be about 16 at the time. Willie was a lovely lad and Boro through and through – I always blame his knee injury for him not playing more games at international level, not the fact he played for the Boro. He was never 100% fit in his prime – a bit like Ledley King and Paul McGrath

There were quite a few of the juniors and reserves that were outstanding, Willie being just one of them. Pat Cuff was a great keeper (and good friend) – he was probably unlucky that Jim Platt played so well for Jack Charlton, or else he would have played many more times for the 1st team. David Mills was always a good player in our team and I remember he worked very hard in training, often going back on afternoons to do extra. Harry Charlton had lots of skill. When ‘Spike’ Armstrong first played in the juniors he was a skinny little lad (hence the nickname) but he was strong as an ox despite his frame – he soon filled out in a couple of seasons and had a tremendous left foot. Alan Moody and Brian Myton were our full backs and both made it into the senior team. Joe Laidlaw scored loads of goals for the juniors and reserves but Stan Anderson played him in midfield for some reason when he got into the 1st team – I never understood why because he was a natural goalscorer. Other players to make it to the senior ranks later on from our juniors were Peter Brine (Salty) and Peter Creamer (another good mate).

6. By the same token, were there others who surprised you later in their careers (late bloomers as it were)

No, not really – all the lads who progressed to the senior team were good players in the juniors and reserves although some obviously did improve more than others later on.

7. How would you sum up your time with the Boro? In particular what were your own personal highlights?

I had a great time at the Boro! I’d supported them since I was a kid so to get to play for them was a dream come true. I thought I did well in the juniors and reserves, playing well, making and scoring goals and winning several trophies both at home and abroad. I remember well captaining the youth team when we played in a tournament in Dunkirk – we played Essen (a German team), in the final and the little stadium was packed with most of the crowd on our side (after all, it was like WW2 all over again!). They were a big team of lads and soon went a goal up but from then on we played brilliantly. I scored one of the best goals of my career – I latched on to a throw in on the half way line, ran straight at their defence going past at least 3 players before hitting a beauty into the far top corner from the edge of the box. Wewent on to win 6-1 and I lifted the trophy – I’d love to know where it is now. The Northern Echo photographed us with the cup when we arrived back at Darlington Station.

When I eventually made it into the 1st team against Luton I was very nervous and I remember my first touch – well, non-touch really! Someone knocked a ball out to me on the wing – I failed to control it and it went out for a throw – duh! I settled down though and played OK. Malcolm MacDonald scored for them in the first half so we went in 1-0 down at half-time. Stan brought Hughie McIlmoyle on from the bench second half – I won a free-kick on the left wing and went to take it. Johnny Vincent trotted over and said, “Leave it son.” He pinged in a cross with his trusted left peg and Hughie rose head and shoulders above everyone to head home the equaliser. Later on I won a corner – over came Johnny again – it was deja vu. Sweet left foot, bullet header, get in! Final score 2-1.

I only played a handful of games for the senior team before my ankle injury stopped me in my tracks – I’m certain I’d have gone on to play many more, and I’d have loved to have become a regular in the side in front of that great Ayresome Park crowd – they loved a good old-fashioned winger and I think they would have given me plenty of support. Ah well, it just wasn’t to be….

8. Returning to Willie for a moment, what was he like to have as a team mate?

Willie was a great friend and a brilliant team mate – I can honestly say I have never come across a better one. He was a true professional no matter what level of football he was playing. He was also a gentleman on the pitch although I’m glad I was on the same side – Willie could hand it out at times and I doubt anyone enjoyed playing against him! But after the final whistle he would be the first one to buy a drink for whoever he’d kicked around (and sometimes off) the park! He would encourage everyone in our team from keepers to strikers – he set a great example to everyone and if I’d been his manager I know for certain his name would be my first on the teamsheet. I don’t know of anyone who didn’t like Willie. I only wish Boro had him in the team now – he would have held it together and encouraged the kids to come through. I don’t know Tony Mowbray personally but I imagine he was, and still is, a similar character to Willie – and Boro through and through!

9. What was he like to have as a friend outside of football?

I’m very proud to be able to say Willie was a great friend. We met when we played in the juniors and remained good mates until he tragically died of MN – why do these things always happen to all the best people? He used to come to North Skelton to visit me at my home. We’d go down my allotment shed to see the Border Canaries which me and my brother Alan successfully bred and showed all over the country. I remember our coach Jimmy Greenhalgh, who was a great joker, once saying to me in jest after finding out about my hobby, “We should be feeding you with millet seed instead of steaks!” If you read Willie’s book, ‘Extra Time’, you’ll laugh when he mentions the fact that I didn’t mind him calling me a ‘woolly back’! It’s a superb read and I still don’t know how he remembered all he did to put in the book.

Me and my wife Jean went through to Willie’s house not very long before he died. His lovely wife Hilary cooked us a nice meal and afterwards we sat and reminisced about the ‘good old days’. And oh how we laughed! That’s how I’ll always remember him, brave and cheerful to the end. I didn’t go to Willie’s funeral – I knew there would be lots of people there, many whom I probably wouldn’t even know. Instead Jean and I decided to pay a personal tribute to Willie so we walked up to the top of Cringle Moor from Lord Stones cafe and placed a bunch of red roses and white gypsophilia (Boro’s colours of course) at a beautiful spot overlooking the Cleveland Plain with lovely views across to Roseberry Topping. Hilary published a photograph of the flowers and their place when she added the ‘Final Chapter’ to Willie’s book. We spent many hours running up and down those Cleveland Hills in pre-season training and I love to walk there now – I often think of him when I’m up there.

10. What is your favourite story or lasting memory of him?

Before I made my debut for the senior team I was named as sub at home versus Sheffield Wednesday – Dave Sunley from Lingdale, who I knew well from school and who was the best mate of my future brother-in-law Dave Congerton, was making his debut for Sheff Wed. It was a lovely sunny day and there was a big crowd. Early on in the game Willie got a knock on his head – it might have been after a clash with Dave Sunley. Shortly afterwards he came across to the dug-out and told Stan he had ‘double-vision’. Jimmy Headridge sponged him down and Stan told him to give it a few more minutes then told me to get warmed up. I did a few sprints up the line then returned to the dug-out. Willie Whigham shouted for a cap because he was facing the sun so I jogged round to the East End goal to give him it. ‘Whig’ said “Looks like you’re gonna be on soon son, Willie’s struggling.” At least that’s what I think he said – Whig’s got the broadest Scottish accent I’ve ever heard and I still can’t understand half of what he says at our reunions!

Anyway the game continued, I kept warming up and Willie kept challenging for every ball in the air and heading it clear. Half-time came and Stan asked him how he felt. “Still got double vision boss but I’ll give it a bit longer.” Soon into the 2nd half he went up again with Dave Sunley (who was good in the air by the way) and headed the ball miles clear. I kept thinking to myself, “How the hell does he know which ball to go for if he’s got double-vision!” This continued all through the game, We won 1-0 (big John Hickton got it I think) and Willie never missed a ball even though he looked groggy – and I didn’t get onto the pitch. I told people afterwards, “It shows just how much Stan thinks of Willie as a vital team member – and it shows how much he must have thought of me for not putting me on!” Ha!

11. How did it feel to leave Middlesbrough and what was the primary reason for it?

I knew since my ankle injury I hadn’t shown the same level of fitness and form as I had before it but I was hoping I would be given at least another season to hopefully get back to full fitness and challenge again for a 1st team place. Stan let me go to York on a month’s loan around Xmas / New Year time in the 1971-72 season to get me more league match experience and get back to full fitness. Reluctantly, York agreed to pay me the same wage as I would have earned in Boro’s 1st team at the time – £50 a week. I scored my first league goal against Chesterfield – a rare header. (Their keeper at the time was Alan Stevenson who also played for England Under-23’s – Stevo ended his career later on at Hartlepool). I also remember playing against Bolton on New Years Day when Roger Hunt was playing for them – quite an honour at the time to play against a World Cup legend. At the end of the month’s loan Tom Johnston, York’s manager, called me into his office and said he’d contacted Boro to say he’d like to sign me but Boro wanted a fee (I never found out how much) so he asked for Alan Murray on another month’s loan and I went back to Boro.

A few months later I went in to discuss my future with Stan – he told me he was letting me go on a free transfer along with 7 other players. I was gutted! I sometimes think the backroom staff knew I would never be fully fit again but I’ll never know for sure. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough.

12. Your ankle injury eventually forced you into early retirement. You’ve previously described the medical ‘treatment’ as consisting of “a bucket of hot water to dip it in, followed by spraying it with a cold hosepipe!” – With this in mind, what’s your reaction when you see players feigning injury these days?

The ‘bucket of hot water, cold hose pipe’ treatment was when I was at Darlo. Boro’s treatment room facilities had been much better and more modern at the time – Jimmy Headridge had given me infrared and ultrasonic treatment after my plaster cast was removed and also told me to run in the sea down at Saltburn but I was never the same again.

When I see players these days feigning injury it makes me sick – you can tell it from a mile off, peeping at referees through hands held up to their faces while rolling about ‘in agony’. You can guarantee that 9 times out of 10 they’ll be back on their feet within a couple of minutes. I suppose most of its to do with trying to get opposition players booked or sent off – something never even heard of when we played. A sign of a really serious injury is when players lie still and their team mates spend more attention to them than chasing the referee waving a pretend card in his face.

13. Out of interest, if the hose pipe example was how they “looked after” players, how extreme were the punishments doled outback then? (for example if you missed training / turned up late etc)

Boro looked after their injured players very well. We had a great trainer/physio in Jimmy Headridge and Doc Phillips was one of the best club doctors in the country.  Every player had a little ‘rules’ book – I’ve still got some of mine. If I remember rightly you weren’t supposed to go out dancing and night-clubbing up to 72 hours before a match. I think drinking was restricted to 48 hours before and smoking 24 hours before. Of course all these rules were often broken but you just hoped you weren’t found out! For instance, on some occasions Willie Whigham would disappear into the toilet cubicle 10 minutes before kick-off and you’d soon see smoke rising from the top – sorry Willie!

I remember a nasty incident once in the dressing room just before training. One of our players was regularly late and it soon got too often. An argument between him and a member of the coaching staff started in front of the rest of us resulting in the player assaulting the member of staff – as punishment he was sent home and banned from the ground indefinitely until a further decision was made. However, he was such a vital player in the team that some senior players got together and met with management – they finally to allow him back before the next match! I saw a couple of other nasty dressing room incidents and others on the training pitch – players can get nasty when they’ve been dropped or have a grievance against another player, sometimes resulting in nasty injuries, but all were soon sorted out internally without too much trouble.

14. I understand your weekly wage was roughly £30, with a bonus of £4 for a win and £2 for a draw – what do you make of the money being splashed about today. Have Boro suffered from living beyond there means in recent times?

Those figures refer to my days at Darlington. When I signed for Boro on my 17th birthday in 1968 my wage was £16 a week basic. For my last contract at Boro in 1971-72 I was on £25 a week and an extra £25 a week if I got into the 1st team. It was also written into my contract that I would “receive the sum of £1.00 for every 1,000 spectators exceeding 21,000 in number at Ayresome Park in which he plays (or is declared Substitute) and for any match (Home or Away) ) in the F.A. Cup Competition.” For all Home and Away matches we were on £5 a point. This rose if we had won the previous match to £10 a point. For gaining promotion to the First Division a sum of £12,000 was set aside for disbursement among the players on a pro-rata appearance basis. There were also bonuses to be earned in the FA Cup rising from £10 for playing in the 3rd Round to £500 for the Cup Final.

It seemed a lot at the time but show those figures now to present day players and they’ll laugh in your face! The amount of money splashed around in the game these days is frightening and I do think the Boro have suffered financially in recent times but it’s not their fault – every single club is in the same boat and unless you manage to stay in the top flight and receive the £millions from the Premier League payments then it gets so much tougher in lower divisions to finance a club once that money runs out. In my opinion, it’s players and their agents who are to blame – their wage demands are far too high and contracts don’t seem to honoured any more. Having said that, how can you blame them if clubs are willing to pay them that kind of wage, and I’ve got to be honest and say I suppose if I was in their position I too would have taken the money and run – who wouldn’t in their right mind? My fear is that one day (and it could be soon) the bubble will burst and many clubs will be in financial ruin – just look at what happened recently in the banking industry, and I’m afraid that’s what football is these days sadly, just another industry.

15. Staying with money, were contract negations more straight forward back then / do you think the introduction of agents has protected players or exploited them?

In my day you were usually offered a typical contract of ‘a year with a year’s option’. I never really knew what that meant but looking back I suppose the club had you by the proverbial ‘short and curlies’! If after a year they wanted you they kept you, if not you were off. Your ‘agent’ in those days would be, if not yourself, a parent or good friend who knew what they were talking about. When I was told by Stan Anderson I was being given a ‘free transfer’ I hadn’t a clue what to do. The club offered very little help or support  and I just waited for other clubs to contact me, which a couple did in time. I hadn’t a clue what to ask for or how to negotiate. I only signed for Darlington because I didn’t want to leave my family or the area. I suppose agents these days are a big help in a case like mine – they can get players a good contract because they know what they’re talking about. In my day you were more or less left to deal with your future on your own – or at least I was. However, I still think most agents probably think of their own potential earnings before the player they represent – it’s a whole world apart from when we played and it’s not a nice one I don’t think.

16. Are you still involved with Redcar and Cleveland Council? If so tell us a little bit more about your role as Tourist Information Centre Manager there.

I only worked for R&C Council in the Tourist Info Centre and for a year in between jobs. Since 2003 I have worked for the NHS as the Health Walks Co-ordinator for Middlesbrough Redcar & Cleveland. The name of our walks scheme is Healthy Stepping and the idea behind it is to get people off their backsides and outdoors into the fresh air for short walks usually lasting between 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 mins. Our main target groups are those who are sedentary or who live in deprived areas but anyone and everyone is welcome to join in on our walks. Teesside has some of the worst areas of ill health in the UK – most people blame unemployment, poor diet, cigarettes and alcohol, but studies show that much of it is to do with a complete lack of physical activity, sometimes referred to as ‘the silent killer of our time’.

Our walking groups are based all over the area and there’s sure to be one close by wherever you live. The main benefits aren’t just an improvement in people’s physical fitness but also in their mental and social well-being. There are over 600 people registered with us within the Teesside area and numbers are ever increasing as the local population begins to realise that leading a healthy lifestyle is much better than sitting at home and relying on GP visits and medication. We are lucky enough to have some lovely countryside right on our doorstep. Many people from outside our area have a perception of Teesside as being full of industry, poor housing and pollution but we have many lovely parks and greenspace in our towns as well our picturesque villages. We can also boast some wonderful beaches and coastal walks and, of course, my beloved North York Moors. That’s where you’ll find me every Friday on my day off (a busman’s holiday I suppose) walking  up hills and down dales, many of which I used to run on in pre-season training 40 years ago. I hadn’t time to appreciate their beauty then, I was too knackered – but I certainly do now!

17. Any advice for the young Boro lads breaking through at the moment

My advice to any youngsters coming through is to work really hard in training and volunteer to do a few extra afternoon sessions to improve any weaknesses in your game -your coaches will admire you for doing that without having to ask you. Listen to what your coaches and manager have to say and follow their advice. Don’t spend too many nights out on the town and in the clubs – I’m afraid we did in our era and it doesn’t do your fitness or reputation much good. There’s plenty of time later in life for all that. A footballer’s career can end suddenly and unexpectedly (mine did!) so it’s a good idea to seriously think and plan what you might like to do in the future – maybe a career outside the game or staying in football maybe on the coaching side, either here or abroad. Be prepared to move to another club and another area if need be – I was never keen to move away from home but looking back I should have done. Most youngsters get decent money these days so need to invest it wisely. Be honest with yourself and your team-mates and don’t cheat – fans over here appreciate players who don’t dive, etc. unlike those in some other countries. As long as you try your hardest on the pitch, even if things aren’t going right in the game, the fans will notice and get behind you.

18. Anyone in particular catch your eye?

The kids are doing a good job for Tony Mowbray but I honestly think we’re a bit lightweight in places. QPR, Leicester, etc out-muscled and bullied us at times – maybe the youngsters will fill out a bit in time. We had to eat at least one big steak early in the week to help us grow a bit of muscle – they used to make us eat them when we were in the juniors and reserves but I can’t remember which butcher supplied them – I think it was close by to Ayresome Park. Pre-match meal was always a steak followed by tea and toast – if you were told you could have a few chips and veg you knew you weren’t in the team! After training we always went in Rea’s opposite Albert Park for a milk shake or orange juice with ice cream in – good old days!

From what I’ve seen in the past couple of seasons there are some really promising young players coming through the ranks:

  • Jason Steele looks a good solid brave keeper with lots of potential.
  • Joe Bennett I love watching him go forward on his surging runs (reminds me of me!) – its a shame he’s a bit lightweight for a defender, though he never shirks a tackle!
  • Matthew Bates oozes class – his distribution is superb. It’s a pity he isn’t a couple of inches taller for a central defender. I just hope he stays fit.
  • Rhys Williams is another classy player – I like the way he goes on forward runs from midfield.
  • Luke Williams has impressed me every time I’ve seen him – he controls the ball well and has a good eye for what’s going on around him. I think he’ll score a lot of goals if he gets a decent run in the first team. I think he’s wasted when he plays wide – I’d rather see him sitting just behind a forward striker.
  • Richie Smallwood has looked a good solid midfielder from what I’ve seen of him. He wins plenty of 50-50’s, plays the easy ball and supports well. For me, a good all-round team player with great potential.

There are a few other young players coming through who I haven’t seen a lot of but I’ve heard high praise from those in the know. With all these youngsters pushing for a 1st team place plus our experienced players we can’t go wrong can we? That’s provided Tony Mowbray is allowed to hang on to them!

19. If you could do it all again tomorrow, would you change anything?

Yep – I’d do a lot more of what I recommended earlier for the younger players. I was good at running at pace with the ball, taking on defenders, getting past them and crossing good balls into the box – they were my strengths.  But I should have done more to improve my weaknesses in extra afternoon training sessions instead of going in Rea’s cafe with the other lads for milk shakes and down town for a fresh, warm Newbould’s pork pie – they tasted so good in those days!

I was far too ‘laid back’ as a player – I should have toughened up on my tackling and worked at getting back to help the defence more. I was poor in the air – again I should have practised at this more. I should also have been prepared to move from my home area and away from the north-east when Boro let me go instead of going to Darlo – I had the opportunity to go to other clubs but blew it!

Never mind, I loved my 4 years at the Boro and met some great guys – I don’t regret it. I still see some of them now and then and we have a good laugh, reminiscing and looking back at those days when our lives as footballers and the game itself were so different to what they are now.  But the one lad I miss most and will never see again is Willie Maddren – God Bless him….

As footnote to the interview Don sent me the following via email:

Hi Steve,

I thought you also might like to use the attached photo in your article if you want to. I think it was taken around 1996, about 4 years before Willie died. Willie had not long been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and had just set up his MND Fund.

I organised a Charity Walk from my workplace at Wilton ICI. There were about 70 of us who took part – we walked from Ingleby Greenhow, then up over the moors via Ingleby Incline and then down to the Feversham Arms in Farndale (about 10 miles) where we all enjoyed a couple of pints before Willie came along to meet us at the pub with his lovely wife Hilary and their son David. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and we all went out into the beer garden where Willie gave a great speech thanking everyone for taking part in the walk and then went on to tell them about our days at the Boro and a personal friendship which went back a lot of years!

You can see on the photo that his hand isn’t right, but despite that he still insisted on signing certificates for everyone who took part on the walk – so they all walked away with Willie’s autograph! We managed to raise about £2,500 that day which was a great start to Willie’s fund.

Photo L to R: Willie, Jean (my wife), David, Hilary, and me.