Footaball: Burley still has youth on his side

Ipswich's boyish manager is close to taking his home-grown team into the top flight at last. By Clive White
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The Independent Online
EVEN TOWARDS the end of his career, at Sunderland, George Burley looked like the boy eternal. It was hard to imagine his lissom frame, which seemed wholly unsuitable for the rigours of the professional game - much less so for a defender - ever suffering the ravages of time. "Even now, he still looks 22," said his team-mate from those days, Alan Brazil. "Me? I look more like 52, yet George is three years older!"

Bobby Robson, his manager at the time, used to call him Peter Pan, but the game did catch up with Burley, long before time did, in 1981, when, in an FA Cup tie at Shrewsbury, he suffered cruciate ligament and cartilage injuries which ought to have finished him as a player. It was certainly the end of his season and he missed the final rounds of the Uefa Cup when that unforgettable Ipswich team of Muhren, Thijssen and the rest finally did themselves justice.

Injuries like that, even at the age of 24, tend to make a player take stock of his life and Brazil believes the experience changed Burley, even though he made a complete recovery and ended up playing 500 games for the club. "It was a shock to him," he said. "He realised his career could have been over. He changed his lifestyle as a result of it and was suddenly into looking after his body and prolonging his career. He was always one of the lads who, when we had a great success, would go out with the rest of us and celebrate, but he became slightly distant after that."

Brazil admits to having had his fall-outs since with his fellow Scot, who is now close to realising his dream of steering the club he played for 14 years from the age of 15 back towards the top flight. The relationship between former team-mates is never easy when one moves into the media business, as Brazil has done, and becomes a pundit. But the Sky commentator is prepared to give credit where its due.

"When I see George I'll shake his hand and tell him what a fantastic job he's done," Brazil said. "No money to spend and forced to sell players and yet here we are on the verge of Premiership football."

This is the season when Burley's Ipswich have to dispense with that "nearly man" tag after losing out two years running in the play-offs if the club is not to suffer a more serious break-up of its coveted playing staff. In each of those seasons Ipswich made an appalling start only to finish like an Olympic sprinter on speed or something stronger.

In response to their go-ahead chairman David Sheepshanks' plea to "hit the ground running" this time, Ipswich promptly hit the ground firing blanks, going four games without scoring a goal, since when this impotency has been passed to the opposition in the form of a record 24 clean sheets.

They enter the finishing straight with a critical match at Bolton today, while Bradford City, their only serious rivals for that second automatic promotion place behind Sunderland, have a Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield on their hands. The situation could not be more finely balanced: both teams are level on 80 points and, though Ipswich have a game in hand, Paul Jewell's side have scored 11 more goals.

"It's going to be tight, it could go down to the last day," said Burley, now a youthful 42-year-old. "We've got a difficult run-in, but we've shown tremendous consistency all season and with Kieron Dyer back soon we can stay in second place."

Burley expects his precocious midfielder, who broke his fibula four weeks ago, to be back in two or three weeks' time to help restore Ipswich to the division where he spent most of his career. Anyone who watched Ipswich during the late 1970s and early 80s tends to get a bit nostalgic when talking about the old days at Portman Road, but Burley is not the sort to get all dewy-eyed. "I loved every moment of it and I appreciated the standard of the players I played with, like Thijssen, Muhren, Wark, Beattie - we had 11 or 12 internationals. But those days are finished. I get a great kick now out of producing young talent like Kieron Dyer and Richard Wright, giving them their debuts at 17 and seeing them progress through towards full international honours."

Nor are they the only ones whom the Premiership has its beady eye on. Others include a local centre-forward, James Scowcroft, and two of Burley's most prudent purchases, the striker David Johnson, a former team-mate of Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford, whom he bought from Bury, and the midfielder Matt Holland, once of West Ham. All of them want to be seen in the Premiership, but such is the club spirit engendered by Burley that all of them would prefer that it was in the blue and white of Ipswich.

"There's no doubt that at some point some of these youngsters will want to go for financial reasons," Burley said. "But I think that they appreciate that we're the best club for them for now. Players like Wright, who has played almost 200 games and is still only 21, may not have achieved what he has done elsewhere. We talk to their agents and they appreciate that their players are at the best place for them."

As someone who was developed in the market garden country of Suffolk, Burley is well versed in the art of growing your own, and he accepts that the regular sale of the young talent he has nurtured is a fact of football life so long as Ipswich remain outside the Premiership. The club runs at an annual loss of just over pounds 1m a year, hence the sale this season of Mauricio Taricco (to Tottenham), Alex Mathie (Dundee United) and Danny Sonner (Sheffield Wednesday), having resisted all offers last season.

Trying to remain solvent while pushing for promotion requires, as Burley says, "a fine balancing act", and just to test his sense of equilibrium further this season he has twice lost his right-hand man as other clubs have plundered his coaching as well as his playing staff, with, first, Bryan Hamilton leaving to join Norwich as their director of football and then his replacement, Stewart Houston, heading off to Tottenham to reunite with George Graham. It only needs Glenn Hoddle to return to work for John Gorman, his new No 2, to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of departures.

But Burley is unfazed by it all, just as he was as a player, from the day he made his debut as a 17-year-old at Old Trafford marking George Best in the Irishman's last United home game. "I've got my own beliefs, so nothing will change no matter who comes in," he said. "They'll fit into our style."

Ironically, one of those old boys could do their former club some mischief in Ipswich's quest for promotion. Part of that difficult run-in which Burley speaks of involves an away game against their promotion rivals Birmingham City, where Mick Mills, who made a record number of appearances for Ipswich, is first-team coach.

Robson is often described as Burley's mentor and yet he never saw his young full-back as managerial material. "I thought he might be a coach one day, perhaps work with the kids because he was a boy at heart, but not someone who would run a club," the former England manager told me from the Netherlands, where he is concluding his contract at PSV Eindhoven.

"He looked more like a school teacher than a footballer. He had this funny little right-arm action when he ran, a sort of windmill movement. He was always very, very professional. The injury he suffered was a nasty one: we had to teach him how to walk again, but he was determined enough to recover from it at a time when many players didn't. But he's surprised me how well he's done as a manager. He's got success working under considerable restraints."

Success on a similar scale to that which Robson enjoyed during his 13 years at the club may sadly never be repeated by a club of Ipswich's stature, yet Burley is upholding Ipswich's proud tradition of producing great talent. Now they just need promotion to hold on to it.

"They're in a better position than they've ever been since they got relegated," Robson said. "If they don't go up now they will have blown their best chance."