GOOD, BAD & UGLY
Striker Ben Burgess takes us through his most memorable moments
FOR most footballers, retirement means coaching badges, afterdinner speeches or a stint on the TV pundits’ couch.
Not Ben Burgess. When a ruined knee forced the former Hull and Blackpool forward to call it a day in 2012, he enrolled on a PGCE course and is now a fully-qualified primary school teacher.
“It’s challenging, but it’s very enjoyable,” says the 34-year-old. “Mind you, even a dressing room doesn’t prepare you for a class of children!”
Taking time out from lesson prep to speak to The FLP, Burgess recalls his terrifying debut against a ‘man mountain’, that fairytale promotion to the Premier League with Blackpool in 2009-10 and how those knees have resulted in a new sporting passion.
Blackburn Rovers. I joined them when I finished school at 16. I’d been at Everton when I was younger, but Blackburn paid them a bit of compensation to sign me.
It was only a couple of years after they’d won the Premier League and everything about the club was cutting edge. They were just building their academy and it was a really exciting time.
I came through with Damien Duff and David Dunn. They still had a couple of people from the title season, like Chris Sutton.
I was 18 when I made my debut. It was a Championship game against Portsmouth and I was up against the absolute man mountain Darren Moore.
The day before the game all the first-teamers were going ‘You just wait and see who you’re up against tomorrow — he’s about 6ft 5in and 17 stone’.
I thought they were just winding me up. I mean, who’s ever heard of someone like that playing football? Then I saw him and he was the biggest human being I’d ever seen. Terrifying.
I’d have to say Ian Holloway, purely for what he did with us at Blackpool in 2010. We’d just avoided relegation the year before, and on the first day of pre-season he talked to us for about two hours solid.
He was saying how we were going for the play-offs and that this time next year we’d be in the Premier League. We were looking back thinking ‘We knew this bloke was mad, but maybe it’s worse than everyone thought!’
But he completely changed the way we played. He’d had a few years out of the game and he’d been watching Barcelona play. Suddenly, he wanted the centre-halves to split and the midfielders to play through the middle. Very Guardiola-esque.
Looking at the state of us, it was a brave move, and those first few training sessions didn’t go so well. But, as pre-season progressed, the defenders really took it on board. They got better on the ball and everything snowballed from there.
Ian’s a lot more intelligent than people give him credit for. He plays up to the ‘mad guy’ image for the cameras, but there’s nothing crazy about what he does.
I’ve got to mention Peter Taylor at Hull, as well. Ian was the best manager, but Peter was the best coach. His sessions were fantastic.
Blackpool had some great players. David Vaughan was fantastic. Charlie Adam was a terrific footballer with a wand of a left foot. Seamus Coleman came on loan to us from Everton in the promotion season and was unbelievable.
But the best was Damien Duff, from when I was at Blackburn. He could go past the best defenders in the business even then. You just knew how good he’d be.
At Hull in 2003-04. We went up from League Two to the Championship in successive seasons under Peter Taylor. They were probably the best years of my career, even though I was only about 22.
I’d been on loan to Brentford when we lost in the League One play-off final against Stoke, but we were a small club with no money and nobody expected much.
With Hull, it was completely different. They had the money but they hadn’t been promoted for about 18 or 19 years and there was so much expectation.
We were the Manchester United of League Two. Everyone raised their game against us. We’d often have more fans than the home side and at the KC we’d get gates of 25,000 every game.
To play under that pressure every week and see it through meant a lot to us, even more so now when you see where it led. Where Hull are now is where a club of that size should be – even if we never dreamt it then.
Marc Joseph, who I played with at Hull and Blackpool. He was fantastic on a night out. He always had loads of games to play. He had great oneliners in training as well. Sometimes they went over people’s heads but I always got them and he had me in stitches.
Managers loved MJ. When things were tense in the changing room, he was the person who’d crack a joke to make people laugh. You need that just as much as the serious side. He actually works for Blackpool FC Community Trust now, so he comes to my school sometimes.
When I was at Notts County, we had Martin Allen as manager. We were staying in a hotel before an FA Cup game and we got a call saying there’d be a team meeting at 11.15am.
We got to the room, sat down, and waited for Martin. Five minutes went by. Then ten. By that stage we were all slagging him off, talking about him being mad and all sorts.
Then, suddenly, Martin popped up from behind this screen at the front of the room. He’d been sat there listening to us the whole time, just for a laugh.
We thought he’d go mental at what we’d been saying about him, but he just walked off. He was absolutely nuts.
Partly it was carrying on for so long despite all my injuries. Looking back, though, I’ve got to say getting promoted from every division – with Hull from League Two, then Blackpool from League One and the Championship. Not many players have managed that.
The injuries. I first did my knee when I was 21 and it’s been a battle ever since. Every time it went, it was months or a year out. And, as much as clubs try to keep you involved, you never feel part of things.
I did my anterior cruciate, my posterior cruciate and my meniscus. Then I did my medial ligament.
Perhaps the worst part was going to tell Ronnie Moore, my manager at Tranmere. I’d signed for him about a month before, which I should never have done because I knew my knee was no good. I managed about two out of 30 training sessions
I still remember his face when I knocked on the door to say I was retiring. I was his big summer signing and hadn’t even played a game.
I probably should have stopped a lot sooner than I did, but you naively think ‘Well, what will I need knees for when I’m 40?’ Then you have kids you want to play with!
I played in a charity game last year and ended up needing another
op. The surgeon told me I’ll need a knee replacement in 5-10 years. It’ll stop the pain, but not the problem.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
When I was at Hull in League Two, I hated playing at Boston. It was a big game for them and they had one side of the pitch where the fans were right on top of you.
At the other end of the scale was St James’ Park, Newcastle. It’s a fantastic place to play but I lost 4-1 there with Brentford and Blackpool.
I played against Jonathan Woodgate at Middlesbrough when I was quite a bit younger.
He’d had his injuries and I remember thinking ‘He’s past it, he’s fragile, I’ll be able to rough him up a bit’. But I never got a chance. He read the game brilliantly and was immaculate on the ball.
He wasn’t particularly strong or quick, but he didn’t need to be. I was hugely impressed that day.
Another guy better than I expected was Fabricio Coloccini (pictured
below) at Newcastle. He was immense in that 4-1 defeat.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
Wembley is obviously a special place to play. I’ve been lucky enough to appear there three times and it’s always a memorable day. But I’d also mention Loftus Road. I always scored there and it had a nice small pitch, which makes things easier when you’re slow like me. I didn’t get found out too much! The ground was great as well. Really small, really compact, great atmosphere. It’s a proper football stadium – the complete opposite to all these big open bowls you see now.
Every now and then, I daydream about getting back into football.
Truthfully, though, I just want to be the best teacher I can. One day, maybe be a headmaster.
Outside of football, I’d like to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
I took up swimming on the advice of my surgeon, who basically told me it was the only kind of exercise I could do.
From that, I started open-water swimming and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve done the Great North Swim in the Lakes and the Great Manchester swim in Salford Quays.
I’ve done sport all my life and just need something to aim and train for. Alcatraz is it – my swimming ambition!
I DO LIKE TO BE BESIDE THE SEASIDE: Ben Burgess celebrates scoring for Blackpool
Funniest incident: Martin Allen Biggest achievement: Promotion from each division Toughest opponent: Jonathan Woodgate