Chris Burns: My love for Portsmouth was why I quit Football League aged 28 to return to the building site. No club came close

At the age of 28, Chris Burns ripped up his Northampton contract and walked out on the Football League in favour of a building site return.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 6:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th April 2021, 9:55 pm
Chris Burns tussles with Liverpool's Michael Thomas during the 1992 FA Cup semi-final

Plucked from the non-league game by Pompey in March 1991, within 13 months the tireless midfielder had lined-up against Liverpool in an FA Cup semi-final.

Yet four-and-a-half years later, he had fallen out of love with the professional game he had spent his youth pursuing.

Fratton Park had been the pinnacle, a photo album of cherished football memories snapshotted during 116 appearances and 12 goals for Jim Smith’s popular side.

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Now aged 53, Chris Burns was back on the south coast last weekend to take part in a charity five-a-side tournament, representing Pompey. Picture: Simon Hill Photography

However, Burns’ career pathway subsequently led to Swansea and Northampton as he sank through the leagues.

Sadly, no other club could compare to that treasured first love.

Burns would initiate a Football League escape to successfully rediscover his footballing soul, playing until his 50s – and remaining a brickie.

‘If I had moved from Northampton or Swansea to Pompey, it probably would have been the better way round of doing it,’ he told The News.

Chris Burns made 116 appearances for Pompey after arriving in March 1991

‘I was aged 23 when I started in the Football League at Pompey, such a massive club. You had the best first – then suddenly you’re coming back down.

‘You are thinking “Am I really going to get back to the level I want to be at?”.

‘I was at Northampton, now aged 28, that probably was never going to happen. In my mind, I was better off cutting my losses and going back to what I knew - bricklaying.

‘To me, Pompey was the pinnacle. The facilities were good and everything was run properly. Suddenly I was at clubs not as professionally organised. It really hit home.

Chris Burns made 329 appearances and scored 42 goals following two spells with Gloucester City after dropping out the Football League. Picture: Martin Perry

‘I had come into the Football League travelling on lovely coaches, all your training kit was laid nicely out. Later, with other teams, I was taking my training kit home to wash, while travelling up in the morning on a five-hour journey to Carlisle rather than staying in a hotel overnight.

‘I guess I was spoilt from the start at Pompey. In the end it occurred to me that I’d done enough, I just now wanted to have a game of football and enjoy myself.

‘I could have stayed at Northampton. I’d signed a second contract and had 18 months remaining, but the Football League wasn’t for me any more. I wanted to go back to Gloucester and be in non-league.

‘To be fair to my Northampton boss Ian Atkins, he was understanding and asked me to stay until he could get someone to take my place. A few months later, Sean Parrish arrived, which was good for me. I could leave.

Chris Burns pictured with fellow ex-Pompey players David James and Hermann Hreidarsson at Fratton Park in February 2015. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘I missed home. We had two boys by then, with the eldest just starting infant school. I didn’t want to keep moving them from school to school, so the alternative was staying in one place. That’s when we decided to come back to Brockworth in Gloucestershire.

‘I don’t think many would have left the Football League at the age of 28, but I’d done what I wanted. I had played for Pompey, been in an FA Cup semi-final – now I’d fallen out of love with football.

‘With my background, I knew there was life after football, it was how I came into the game. Walking away didn’t scare me.

‘I came back to normality, working on a building site, training on a Tuesday and Thursday evening. I got my enjoyment back – and never regretted it.’

Burns was the grand old age of 23 when invited for a week-long trial at Fratton Park.

The midfielder had turned out for Brockworth, Sharpness and Cheltenham before offered the opportunity by Blues boss Frank Burrows to shine in training in March 1991.

By the end of the week, Burns had been snapped up on a two-year deal, while Burrows had been dismissed.

Reserve boss Tony Barton oversaw the final 12 matches of the season on a caretaker basis, with Football League rookie still awaiting his debut.

Then, in June 1991, Jim Smith arrived at Pompey.

Burns added: ‘I was released from Bristol City at 16. I was 5ft 5in and told I was too small – three years later I’d shot up to 6ft 2in. That’s the way it is, you get knocked down, but have to get back up and have another go.

‘After my release, I played part-time for Gloucester City under-18s, while attending college doing my bricklaying apprenticeship and ended up being a bricklayer with Allan Gough.

‘He’d been on Swindon’s books under Dave Mackay, serving as Frank Burrows’ defensive understudy, and they’d kept in touch.

‘Allan had seen me play for Cheltenham a few times and recommended me to Frank, who was now Pompey boss.

‘Well, it was good timing as I’d been sent off for Cheltenham and suspended for two weeks, so I came down for a week to see what football was all about, staying with my wife’s aunty, who lived in Hedge End.

‘Suddenly you see all these names in training, people you’ve watched on the television like Mark Chamberlain and Steve Wigley, and you think “Blimey, how am I going to do against this lot?”.

‘Pompey paid £35,000 for me, with a deal earning £300 per week, with bonuses on top – which actually represented a £110 pay cut!

‘I’d previously got £350 for bricklaying and £60 at Cheltenham every week. Making less at Pompey didn’t bother me, I just wanted to be a professional footballer.

‘Mind you there was a clause that if I played six games then my Pompey pay would double – which I reached within three weeks of my first full season!’

Handed his Pompey bow on the opening day of the 1991-92 season in a 1-1 draw at Blackburn, Burns established himself as a first-team regular.

That term he featured 58 times and scored nine goals, with only future Welsh international Kit Symons making more appearances.

Following that campaign’s FA Cup semi-final replay defeat to Liverpool at Villa Park, the Blues continued to flourish under Smith.

Next season they finished third, missing out on the Premier League after play-off semi-final defeat to Leicester City, with Burns totalling 40 outings.

However, by the summer of 1993, the side had begun to disintegrate, with influential talents such as Darren Anderton, John Beresford, Guy Whittingham, Colin Clarke, Martin Kuhl and Gavin Maguire by now gone from Fratton Park.

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As for Burns, he would fallen out of favour, spending periods of the 1993-94 campaign on loan at Division Two sides Swansea and Bournemouth.

Then, in November 1994, he left for Swansea on a free transfer after more than a century of Pompey appearances.

‘Towards the end of my third season, I wasn’t getting into the side and had lost a bit of enthusiasm,’ said Burns.

‘There were three or four lads brought in who I didn’t really gel with, while it was now a different style of football which didn’t include me.

‘Some of those which came in thought they were better than what they were. That wasn’t me, I was down to earth, I didn’t want to act the big I am – I just wanted to play football.

‘I will keep the names to myself, but there were certain new arrivals in that squad I didn't see eye-to-eye with. I’d get a bit angry with people in training, you don’t mix your words with some.

‘Don’t get me wrong, if I saw those guys I didn’t get on with I’d still say hello, it’s nothing personal. It’s just you know you’re going to get on with them.

‘My heart was no longer in it, suddenly you were among a bunch of lads you don’t want to be with, although I still gave 100 per cent for the club because I loved it there.

‘We had a really good bunch of lads and two years later it had completely changed. It was time for me to move on. It was a shame.

‘I was transfer listed and Port Vale were interested, so I went there for two weeks for them to have a look at me, with Ian Bogie coming in the opposite direction.

‘A swap deal plus money was agreed with Jim Smith if both players impressed. Port Vale manager John Rudge decided he wanted to complete the deal – only for Pompey to then double the price and it fell through.

‘Jim afterwards pulled me into the office and admitted “Bogie’s no better than what you are. There’s no point me having a player when I already have one who’s better than him”.

‘Then I went on loan to Division Two Swansea, who were managed by my former Pompey boss Frank Burrows. I had a good month there, but Pompey did it again.

‘I was in Frank’s office one Friday morning when he rang Jim to finalise the move. The response was “Look Frank, I’m sorry to mess you around, but the chairman Mr Gregory now wants double”. Swansea didn’t have the money.

‘Then, in the summer of 1994, Pompey offered me a new contract. It was a two-year deal for £100 a week less than I was already on and posted without telling me. There were no face-to-face talks.

‘I felt that was disrespectful, I was one of those who had been there a while, playing more than 100 games, and suddenly had a letter dropping onto my doormat offering less.

‘That’s why I turned it down – and eventually left on a free transfer.’

What would prove to be Burn’s final Football League club was Northampton.

The midfielder had been a regular selection, missing just five league games in 20 months, totalling 74 appearances and 11 goals.

However, the Division Three club agreed to his pleas to return to non-league and, in October 1996, Burns headed to Gloucester City.

He featured for Gloucester in two spells, the latter as a player-manager, while twice reached the FA Trophy final with Forest Green, losing on both occasions.

In October 2020, as manager of Stonehouse Town, Burns emerged from retirement to feature from the bench in a 20-minute cameo during a Bluefin Sports Challenge Cup encounter. He was aged 52.

He remains in charge of the Hellenic League Division One West outfit, while works on the building site alongside two of his three sons, Alfie and Harry.

Burns added: ‘As a brickie, there’s not a day when I think “Oh no, I’ve got to do that at work today”. I like what I do.

‘Working in a factory isn’t for me, I couldn’t do the same thing day in, day out. I travel to different places, there’s nothing better than being out in the open air.

‘During the first lockdown we had nine weeks off, but since then haven’t stopped, it has been absolutely flat out. I didn’t realise how many people still need houses in this country!

‘Without a doubt, Pompey was the best time of my career. I love it there, still do.

‘When you come out of a club as big as Pompey and suddenly go to these other teams, it’s a bit harder to get motivated. I was spoiled.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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