Football: Burton out to end his dual identity

Derby's Reggae Boy is confident of a striking show at the World Cup with Jamaica. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
With his compact frame, shaven head and penchant for precious goals, Deon Burton bears a certain resemblance to Ronaldo. But while the Brazilian's legend stretches from the Maracana to Milan, Jamaica's principal striker goes from adulation to anonymity every time he crosses the time zones between the West Indies and the East Midlands.

Last autumn, Burton helped the Caribbean cricketing stronghold to reach the World Cup finals for the first time amid celebrations that turned into a 48-hour carnival. Within days, he was playing before a few hundred diehards for Derby reserves against Nottingham Forest.

As a colleague with club and country, Darryl Powell has been ideally placed to observe Burton's double life. When I ask Burton about being voted Jamaican sports personality of the year (ahead of Courtney Walsh and Merlene Ottey) and whether he could walk through Kingston unrecognised, it is all the rangy midfielder can do to stifle a laugh at my naivety.

So what would happen? "I'd be mobbed," replies Burton. "Or something like that." Would it be the same in the streets of Derby? "I don't think so."

The Pride Park duo are among seven "Reggae Boyz" who were born and bred in England of Jamaican emigrants. Both previously played for Portsmouth, who, coincidentally, have Paul Hall and Fitzroy Simpson in the squad, but their journey to France 98 has been anything but the equivalent of a cross-channel hop.

Burton, 21, originally went to Jamaica with the Pompey pair when they were invited for trials by Jamaica's Brazilian coach, Rene Simoes. He planned to do nothing more arduous than lie on the beach, yet ended up joining a training session. Soon he was spearheading a World Cup quest.

Remarkably, the Reading-born attacker did something even Ronaldo never achieved. He scored in his first four qualifying matches, goals which earned a lucrative place in the finals for a country who did not even enter the competition in 1986 because they could not afford the entry fee.

Powell, a 27-year-old south Londoner, was in the next wave of Simoes' recruits from the Premiership. He is used to answering charges that he and his ilk are depriving "genuine" Jamaicans of their big break.

"No one wants to take someone else's place. But in football, wherever you are in the world, that happens," he says. "Not all the players who got England qualified made it to the finals. All managers want to keep strengthening their squad."

They insist there has been no ill-feeling. "All that the players want to know," Powell claims, "is that you want to play and that you're good enough."

Both men "feel" Jamaican rather than English. "Unquestionably," asserts Powell. "My parents were born and raised there. I've also got uncles there. I've been back, and I have a strong feeling for the island."

For all that, there are inevitably differences between the home-based players and the Anglos. On a superficial level there is the dressing- room banter. The locals tend to talk in dialect, or patois. Although Powell's father, friends and relations all converse that way, Burton admits they "speak a bit fast for the boys".

There is also a pronounced contrast in playing styles. The indigenous Jamaicans are closer to the South Americans than to Europeans, they argue; reggae with a samba beat. "They play at a slower tempo and their touch is very good," Powell says. "It's really weird: the first day I was with them I was wondering 'can they do it?' and I wasn't sure they could. But I couldn't get the ball off them. They're like Paulo Wanchope at Derby in that respect. They just flick the ball off with their chests. You think it's just hit them but it always goes to a team-mate."

Despite the poor standard of pitches on the island and facilities that are basic by British standards, both believe that several Jamaicans could succeed in Europe. In particular, Burton nominates a 19-year-old winger, Ricardo Gardner, as a player who could cash in on interest from Germany, Spain and France.

"They've already got raw talent," he says. "What we've brought is that bit of discipline and professionalism. Combine the two and it's a good squad."

At Derby, and previously at Portsmouth, Burton and Powell have become accustomed to the blunt Yorkshire geniality of their manager Jim Smith. (Sample: "Someone told me Deon would be the star of the World Cup and we'd end up selling him for pounds 15m. I'd said we'd take pounds 7m now and forget about the other pounds 8m".)

Simoes is a more cerebral character, forever devising strategies on his lap-top computer and seeking ways to foster the spiritual dimension within the camp.

"He does prayer meetings in the dressing-room," Powell explains, "That may be unconventional for England but not in Jamaica. The church plays a big part in the community there so for them to pray is perfectly normal.

"At Derby we sometimes talk to a psychologist. With Jamaica we talk to God, and that's how we get our strength. He also took the boys into the slums of Trenchtown to show them how the people that they're representing live."

Burton highlights Simoes' tactical acumen - "He notices everything, sees what's going on" - and is sure Jamaica are ready for Argentina, Japan and Croatia, their first World Cup opponents in Lens on 14 June.

"Igor (Stimac), Derby's Croatian defender, came to spy on us in a friendly at Manchester City last month. They're a good side, but we knew that from Euro 96," he said.

Powell watched Argentina's win in Brazil on television. "They were awesome. I played against (Ariel) Ortega against Sampdoria and he was fantastic then too.

"I also saw them beat the Republic of Ireland in Dublin. The Irish lads did well, but Argentina could beat anyone on their day."

As for Japan it transpires that Chelsea's Jamaican defender, Frank Sinclair, is a J-League connoisseur. "He tells me they're technically gifted," says Powell. "It's going to be a hard, hard match."

There has been talk about Jamaica providing a respite from the win-at- all-costs mentality; the Barnsley of France 98.

"It's not going to be a party," Burton says. "But a chance for the players to show off their talents and let the world know what our country is all about."

Spoken like Ronaldo, although Burton's comparatively European appearance has earned him the nickname "German" in Jamaica. Another layer of identity for the man with the double life.