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Former Aston Villa and Wolves man Mark Burke has split World Cup allegiances after globetrotting career

Mark Burke never played at a World Cup.

Mark Burke and Mark Venus
Mark Burke and Mark Venus

But he is well versed in the world of football.

The former Aston Villa and Wolves midfielder always had an eye for travel which combined perfectly with his eye for a defence-splitting pass or shot on goal.

And, in spending the second half of his playing career at different footballing outposts across Europe and Asia, Burke both relished and cherished picking up experiences off the pitch as well as on it.

“I always wanted to play abroad,” says the 53-year-old, who enjoyed his time in the Netherlands so much he now spends a lot of time there.

“I would probably have done it sooner if I could have.

“I remember when I was about 12 years old my teacher said I should play abroad because I was so interested in football across the world.

“I was always interested in European football and those were the days where you really had to go and find it to watch and learn about it.

“My dream when I wanted to be a footballer growing up was to play at as many big grounds as I could - which fortunately I managed to do - and also to play abroad. That was the ideal.

“I managed to experience not just football in several different countries but so many different cultures as well.”

The World Cup is now underway in Qatar, certainly a very different culture to previous tournaments, and while Burke will be watching, it doesn’t feel the same.

“It’s been strange looking at the arguments that are going on now because I remember saying it at the time,” he insists.

“It was such a strange venue to pick, somewhere without any footballing history, and yes, it’s that warm that they have to play it in November and December.

“I’m struggling to get excited about it if I’m honest but I’m sure if England get going and do well, I’ll start getting more wound up!

“It will be good to see Holland do well too because, just like in England, when the football team does well the whole country feels better.

“In Holland, everyone will be buzzing, and the whole place will turn orange!”

Just as with playing in different countries, Burke also boasts international football on his CV, representing England Schoolboys and England Youth.

Back in June, 1984, at Wembley, he scored a hat trick for England in a 4-1 win against, ironically, Holland.

“That was a great day,” Burke recalls. “I was 15 then and before that, when I was 14, I could have signed for several different clubs and there was a lot of interest.”

But there was nothing that was ever going to prise him away from agreeing schoolboy terms with Aston Villa.

Because Solihull-born Burke was a boyhood Claret & Blue fan, who had been at Highbury as a 12-year-old when, despite defeat, Villa clinched the League title and then, a year later, was in Rotterdam when victory over Bayern Munich secured the European Cup.

“I had been with Villa since I was about 10 and it was such a great club to be at, as well as supporting them,” he explains.

“I know a lot of clubs have changed since then and the game has changed since then but at the time it was a real family club.

“Everyone knew everyone else from top to the bottom, at Bodymoor Heath there would be the first team, reserves and youth team, a kitman and the tea lady and that would be about it.

“With such a friendly atmosphere, and being local for me, I felt really at home.”

On the pitch however, things weren’t so positive.

The team which were crowned Kings of Europe in 1982 were actually relegated five years later under Billy McNeil, who had followed future Wolves boss Graham Turner into the managerial hotseat.

Even though he made his debut as an 18-year-old towards the end of that relegation season, in a 1-0 defeat to eventual champions Everton, Burke could tell things weren’t looking great at Villa Park.

“I remember Gary Shaw, who’s a good mate of mine now, telling me that the two years when I was an apprentice were probably among the worst he experienced during his time at Villa,” Burke recalls.

“The club was so disorganised at the time, to go from where they were to being relegated, and it felt like chaos.

“Graham Taylor then came in and changed everything, he went through it all with a wrecking ball or whatever you want to call it.

“He basically said, this is how it’s going to be, and you are either on board with me or you leave.

“I actually played a few more games under Graham, but then Middlesbrough came in for me, and he basically said it was up to me whether I went.

“I remember speaking to Villa’s captain at the time, the leader in the dressing room Alan Evans, and he said when the manager is saying it is up to the player, it is probably best to go.

“Alan was a great bloke who looked after all of us young lads, and so I took on board what he said and decided it was the right time to leave Villa and head up to join ‘Boro.”

Burke admits life up in the North-East was difficult at first. In the days long before mobile phones, it was a big move geographically, as well as being away from home for the first time.

Very soon though, the excitement took over, and Burke was part of a squad including the likes of Gary Pallister, Colin Cooper, Tony Mowbray, Stuart Ripley and Bernie Slaven which followed one promotion with another, to reach the topflight.

Mark Burke with Steve Bull, Paul Cook, Darren Robert and Kevin Ashley

Remembering it as a ‘special time’ at a ‘brilliant club’, Burke chalked up 66 appearances whilst on Teesside, but the departure of Bruce Rioch, and arrival of Colin Todd, saw him fall out of favour.

And, after a loan spell with Darlington, Burke was back in the Midlands, and, just as at Villa, working first with Turner, and then with Taylor, when Wolves came calling.

Burke checked into Molineux in early 1991 to join a squad which had not long achieved back-to-back lower league promotions, buoyed by an incredible team spirit and quick and direct style of play.

They were in the early stages of what would prove a long and difficult conundrum to solve – how to make that final step from second tier to top – and adding a player of such technical ability as Burke was part of trying to move the club forward.

There were others who were also good on the ball and keen to play football – Paul Cook, Robbie Dennison and Paul Birch spring to mind – and it was all about aiming to blend the undoubted successes of that lower league team with the quality to break down more talented opposition.

That having been said, the threat of Bull was still looming so unmistakeably large and potent that Burke acknowledges Wolves still had to utilise the record goalscorer’s main strengths.

As if to reinforce that point, the unstoppable Bull notched a hat trick when Burke made his debut in a 3-3 draw with Oxford.

“I had moved to Wolves because I was desperate to play and it was a bit difficult at first because it was a very different style,” he recalls.

“At Boro we always tried to play a lot of football with short passes and balls into feet, but Wolves were a bit different.

“And when you’ve got someone like Steve Bull in your team, that’s understandable.

“Bully was such a powerful striker and great finisher that the team had to play to his strengths because he was phenomenal.

“You’d be daft to start playing the ball around at the back if you’ve got someone like Bully chomping at the bit to get on the ball further forward.

“In terms of why Wolves could never make it up both in the years I was there and the years after, it’s a really good question and difficult to find an answer.

“We had some really good players and every season I always felt Wolves were as good as any other team in the league but we could never quite do it.

“I always felt people were a little bit harsh on Graham Turner who lost his job, because even those that came after, and had more money to spend, always missed out on the promotion in the same way.

“You think back to those players like Cooky, Birchy, Robbie Dennison – they were top class – and then of course you had Bully.

“I always remember watching that game when he scored on his England debut against Scotland and feeling really chuffed because of what he had achieved and because he was from the Midlands.”

Burke’s most prolific Wolves campaign came in 1992/93 when making 34 appearances and scoring eight goals but, towards the end of the following season, he was despatched on loan to Luton.

Whilst at Kenilworth Road he discovered Turner had been relieved of his duties at Wolves, and was left wondering whether a change in manager might see him restored to a more front-line role in the Molineux midfield.

As it was, the new man at the helm was an extremely familiar one! Another GT – this time, Taylor.

“To be fair when I came back Graham played me in every game up until the last two, but it all finished a bit strange,” Burke recalls.

“We had a game against Luton, where I had just been, and in the first half I was almost like a second striker, and I felt I did really well, getting on the ball and making things happen.

“Then in the second half Graham told me to stick out on the left wing, the touchline near to where he was sitting in the dugout, not to come inside and I barely touched the ball.

“David Pleat was in charge of Luton and he came up to me after and said they had been discussing at half time how to try and stop me playing and then, in the second half, I was nowhere near it. I replied: ‘I know but the manager had glued me to the line!’

“Next game, in what turned out to be my last appearance, at Barnsley, Graham told me that whatever wing the ball was on, I had to make sure I was on the opposite.

“If the ball was on the right, I needed to be on the left, and vice versa, so of course I barely touched the ball again and was substituted at half time.

“To this day I still don’t know the thinking behind that one.

“But Graham was a manager who had his own strong ideas and did things his way, often with a lot of success.

“And he was always very honest, telling me at the end of the season that I was a good player but didn’t really suit what he was trying to do so it was probably, again, time to move on.”

There was still time for a spot of macabre humour on departing as Burke was one of a large number of out-of-contract players summoned to Molineux on the Monday following the end of the season.

“We all gathered in the dressing room and had to wait for our names to be called and then we’d go in to see Graham,” he explains.

“Well Darren Roberts was one of the first in, and after he’d finished, he put his head around the door and gave us a ‘custard pie’ signal, meaning he’d not been offered anything.

“But what he did tell us was that Graham had two piles of envelopes on his desk, and that if he went for the one on his left, you were getting a contract, but on the right, meant you were getting a free.

“So, when the rest of us went into the office we knew what was going to happen based on what pile he went for, which was one of those things that footballers are always able to laugh about!”

Out of contract, and still only 25, Burke still clearly had plenty more to offer in his playing career, and that offering very nearly came in the top-flight with Tottenham Hotspur.

He bumped into then Spurs boss Ossie Ardiles on a bus transfer to the airport whilst on holiday, and, given Ardiles had previously been interested in taking him to West Bromwich Albion, he offered him a trial.

It was all going very well, to the point where after impressing in a pre-season friendly at Bristol City the rest of the squad were telling Burke he was ‘a Tottenham player’.

But on the team coach heading home, Ardiles dropped a bombshell.

“Ossie told me that he wasn’t feeding me a line but that the Chairman had told him he needed to be bringing in big-name players,” Burke reveals.

“He just said he couldn’t do a deal for me, which was fair enough in the circumstances.

“That was on the Friday night, and then I think on the Monday they signed Jurgen Klinsmann and Ilie Dumitrescu, so there’s not much I can say to that!”

If the arrival of some top European talent hindered Burke’s attempts to forge a career at White Hart Lane, he was soon to head off in the opposite direction and fulfil that long-standing desire to operate on the continent himself.

After an enjoyable spell at Port Vale under Wolverhampton-born John Rudge, opportunity knocked when scout Terry Lees spotted Burke’s name on a list of free agents and recommended him to his friend Pim Verbeek, who was in charge of Fortuna Sittard, in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Burke scored the only goal of the game on his debut against De Graafschap and would ultimately spend four happy years at the club, then moving on to be reunited with coach Verbeek with Omiya Ardija in Japan, becoming the first Englishman to play in Romania with Rapid Bucharest, again scoring the winner on his debut before, after almost moving to Sweden, rounding things off with Top Oss in the Dutch Second Division.

The challenge in the Netherlands was particularly tough but particularly engaging. Burke played alongside Mark Van Bommel, Fernando Ricksen and Patrick Paauwe and, when up against the likes of Ajax – at the time world champions – faced Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, the De Boer brothers Frank and Ronald, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars.

“They were a truly fantastic time and it was an honour to play against them,” Burke explains.

“It was a very different style of football out in Holland.

“It wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy it in England, I loved it, especially when teams played quick football with fast passing on the floor.

“Like any midfielder, you never want to see the ball coming and going over your head but a lot of really successful teams in England – Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Manchester United when they had their spells in the 80s and 90s – all took that approach of playing it quickly on the floor.

“In Holland it was slower and more tactical, waiting for an opening with not so many risks being taken, and I wouldn’t say it was better or worse, just different.

“I remember we were setting up for a game and I was playing as part of a central midfield two, which I had never done in England but because it was a different game in Holland I could play there and I started running back to track an opponent and the coach stopped the game and asked me what I was doing.

“In England you would have been hammered for not tracking back but here the coach said by doing so, I was leaving a gap for someone else to move into, so I had to let him run and let the defence deal with it as it wasn’t a problem.

“Then I went to Japan, which was an incredible experience, and very different again.

“The players out there were so technically impressive, we’d be doing a circle passing drill and I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope, they were technically that good.

“The only thing that was holding them back in those days was that because football was new to them, that they didn’t understand the tactical side, the spaces on the pitch and so on, but they have improved massively and I always said I thought Japan would win the World Cup one day.”

It might not have been the World Cup, not quite, but Burke did taste some more silverware at the conclusion of his career, as part of the Wolves team which won the National Masters competition for over-35s back in 2008.

Since then, having largely settled in Holland with his partner and 21-year-old son, he has travelled regularly between the two countries filling his time coaching at the University of Birmingham – including launching the career of former Portsmouth and now Union CG centre back Christian Burgess – scouting during different spells for Tony Mowbray at Middlesbrough and Verbeek for Australia, and maintaining some property interests.

At one point he also wrote a book about football aimed at children, another sign that perhaps his open and creative mind is quite far removed from the stereotypical perception of a professional footballer.

Enjoying all of those different cultures was something Burke relished, and he still treasures any trips across Europe when the opportunity arises.

“When I look back on everything in my career, I’m happy with how it all went,” he reflects.

“I always gave my best, which is all you can do, and then you either get the breaks or you don’t.

“I would have loved a year at Tottenham, getting the chance to play for Ossie Ardiles who was one of my heroes, and with all those great players, but it wasn’t to be.

“But I managed to have a career, experience different countries, and with the great clubs I have represented and players I have lined up with and against, it’s been a great experience.”

It’s been a cosmopolitan career and one which sees Burke effectively with a foot inside three camps at the World Cup when it comes to experiencing football in England, the Netherlands and Japan.

He was always as comfortable spreading his wings to play football as he was travelling across a pitch with the ball at his feet.

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