Meet the man who unearthed Portsmouth favourite Christian Burgess at university and took him to Middlesbrough

Every Pompey fan knows the fascinating journey Christian Burgess’ career has taken to date.

Monday, 27th April 2020, 6:02 pm
Updated Friday, 1st May 2020, 2:27 pm

From being released by both Arsenal and West Ham as a youngster to being offered a second chance by Middlesbrough, the centre-back’s occupational trajectory has been remarkable.

Burgess was forced to fashion a pathway to the professional ranks not by the traditional academy route but instead via the University of Birmingham.

And without the recommendation of Mark Burke, he’d likely never have etched himself into Fratton Park folklore.

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Former Aston Villa midfielder Burke was the man who arranged Burgess’ trial with Boro, having been highly impressed with his performances while coaching an ‘exceptional’ Brum university side.

The centre-half was the stand-out player, with his cultured defending convincing Burke there was a discarded gem waiting to be rediscovered, polished up and placed back where it belonged.

Sweden was the destination the 51-year-old had in mind for several of his fledgling talents who’d all previously suffered disappointment as juniors.

But the Riverside would be the destination where Burgess would make his breakthrough.

Christian Burgess in action during his sole appearance for Middlesbrough. Picture: Pete Norton/Getty Images

Speaking to The News, Burke said: ‘The Birmingham team that we had was exceptional. A lot of players had been released by clubs and decided to take different paths by going to university, which is fair enough.

‘In that league, there were two or three players in every team that were just as good as players in academies.

‘In every game, you saw one or two really good players. Clubs have hundreds of players who go through the system and get rid of around 95 per cent of them, so a lot drift to university.

‘Our team was a bit freakish because there were five or six who were really, really good.

Former Middlesbrough player Mark Burke with Bernie Slaven. Picture: Rusty Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

‘Christian was an excellent player. There was obviously his stature but he was very good on the ball, could bring it out from the back, was good in the air and could defend. He had everything I thought to be a top player.

‘For that age group, he was as good as anyone on the ball for a centre-half in terms of bringing it out and surging into midfield.

‘He could also lead as well, while he was mature and level-headed.

‘I had no doubts about him. There were four or five players in that team who were good, but they didn’t really want to kick on.

Pompey defender Christian Burgess with the Checkatrade Trophy after last season's Wembley triumph

‘This team was exceptional and better than I’d seen in academies.

‘I had a contact in Sweden and tried to set them up there but they didn’t believe they were as good as I was saying. But they were and they missed an opportunity.

‘I tried to get them to a few different places but they weren’t that bothered. But Christian took the chance.’

A phone call and a ringing endorsement to then-Middlesbrough boss Tony Mowbray meant a trial was brokered.

And after two days of training, the Boro supremo had seen enough.

Burgess penned a two-year professional deal at the Riverside and transferred his history degree to Teeside University.

There he’d mix football with his studies before gaining first-class honours.

The defender would only make a solitary appearance for Middlesbrough, though, in a 2-0 Championship defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the 2012-13 season.

But Burke felt the centre-back could have featured more regularly for his former club.

He added: ‘Christian was very enthusiastic to go up to Middlesbrough and I arranged it straight away.

‘Some of the lads thought their chance of making it had gone, although I told them that players are breaking through at all ages now and clubs give players a lot longer with under-23 systems.

‘Christian didn’t seem particularly scarred by being released by academies earlier in his career. There was disappointment but that’s football and he wasn’t scarred.

‘They offered him a contract after a couple of days. Tony Mowbray was the manager at the time and he really liked him.

‘I’d played with him and Gary Pallister during my career and know the level of centre-halves Mogger looks for. I told him “this lad could do a really good job for you”.

‘Tony had taken me to the club to do some scouting so if I said someone was decent then they were going to have a look at them.

‘I’ll be honest, I thought he could play at the top level so I’m not surprised at all.

‘I was disappointed he didn’t play more at Middlesbrough. Sometimes it falls for you, but it depends on what’s going on at the club at the time and who they’ve got.

‘But I definitely think he could have played a lot of games for Middlesbrough, although that’s the way it goes sometimes.’

Yet Middlesbrough’s loss has undoubtedly been Pompey’s gain.

Since arriving for an undisclosed fee from Peterborough in the summer of 2015, Burgess has established himself as a fans’ favourite and is currently one of the Blues’ longest-serving players.

The 28-year-old has scored 12 goals in 208 appearances, while playing key roles when Pompey won the League Two title in 2017 and the Checkatrade Trophy last term.

And Burke believes Pompey has been the perfect club for the ex-Hartlepool man.

‘I still speak to Christian now,’ added Burke.

‘He’s had a few tough times when he’s been in and out of the team, but I said to him that it’s a perfect club for him.

‘He dropped to League Two to join Portsmouth but, no disrespect to Peterborough, Portsmouth is a much bigger club.

‘I told him it was a great move. It’s a big club with unbelievable support and if you do well you’re accepted into the local community.

‘It’s a real traditional club and it’s a great place for him to be and he’s showing that now.

‘He’s had some ups and downs but he’s taken his chance now.

‘I’ve told him that I want some tickets for Wembley for the final because I couldn’t make it last year!’

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