Football: Budgie recapturing Blyth spirit

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The Independent Online
John Burridge forged his reputation as a first-class goalkeeper with Blackpool 26 years ago. On Saturday, at the age of 45, he will be back between the posts at Bloomfield Road.

John Burridge has always been known to his friends and colleagues as Budgie. He has long been regarded as something of an odd bird, too. Even when he first ventured into the top flight, as a 19-year-old fledgling, the Cumbrian custodian stood out from the conventional football crowd.

"I was a young kid from the wilds of Workington," he said, recalling his debut day in the old First Division. "I only had one set of clothes - a turquoise half-mast suit - and the lads really took the piss out of me.

"I just hid at the back of the team bus. When we got to Goodison Park I was too embarrassed to warm-up with the rest of the team."

The season was 1970-71. Everton were the reigning champions, with a team featuring Brian Labone, Howard Kendall and Joe Royle.

The teenage Burridge, though, stood out in a Blackpool team captained by Jimmy Armfield. On Saturday, 26 years after his clean-sheet debut, he will be standing between Blackpool and a place in the second round of the FA Cup.

Three weeks short of his 46th birthday, Burridge is still keeping goal, and still keeping clean sheets. As keeper-manager of Blyth Spartans, he returns to Bloomfield Road for a tangerine dream of a first-round tie.

"It's like going home," Burridge said. "I spent five years at Blackpool. I did my growing up there. I met my wife there and I played in a great team under Bob Stokoe. There was Jimmy Armfield, Tommy Hutchison, Tony Green, Alan Suddick, Glyn Jones.

"At the end of that first season, 1970-71, we beat Bologna 2-1 to win the Anglo-Italian Cup. I've not been back there to play since I left, in 1975."

It was before his Blackpool days that Burridge began his Football League career. He was only 17 when he kept goal for Workington against Newport County towards the end of the 1968-69 season.

In the 28 years since then he has clocked up 799 appearances in the English and Scottish Leagues and stood between the posts for 23 clubs. Just two years ago, in April 1995, he was keeping a clean sheet in the Premiership as a 43-year-old stand-in for Manchester City against Newcastle.

Only now is Budgie preparing to forsake his goalkeeping perch. Working on both sides of the fence for a club in the lower reaches of the UniBond League has become too great a burden.

"I could still play in the Premier League," he said. "I coach at Leeds three days a week and when Nigel Martyn's away on international duty I get roped in for the first-team five-a-sides.

"I know I could still handle it at the top but I want to make a success of being a manager. Reluctantly, I'm coming away from the playing side because it's killing me to do both jobs. It just can't be done."

One of football's received wisdoms is that successful management cannot be done by even single-minded former members of the goalkeeping union. Burridge cites Dino Zoff, Mike Walker and Mervyn Day and points to his collection of coaching badges. FA, Scottish FA and Uefa... he has the full set.

At times it has seemed that Burridge has been a marble or two short of a full set, but he points to the method in the apparent madness of his old habits.

He was ridiculed for fuelling on rice and beans, instead of the obligatory pre-match steak. He was pilloried for using hypnosis tapes. And he was dismissed as a clown when he started performing his acrobatic warm-up and goal-celebration routines.

"I was classed as a nutter in the 1970s," Burridge said. "But everyone follows the diets now and the hypnosis has been accepted as sports psychology.

"The somersaults I did are par for the course now too. I was just ahead of my time."

On Saturday, the people of Blyth will be hoping Burridge can take the once-mighty Spartans back in time: to recapture the Blyth spirit which took the Northumberland club to within two minutes of the FA Cup quarter- finals 20 seasons ago.

The Spartans of 1977-78 were held to a draw in the fifth round by a contentious late Dixie McNeil goal at Wrexham. They lost the replay 2-1 at St James' Park, in front of 42,157.

"We've got a great FA Cup tradition," Burridge said, "just like Blackpool. We've got a good side, too, a very good side. We won't be going to Blackpool just for a day out. We're going there to win, or to get something out of the game. That's for sure."

You could see the conviction in Burridge's eyes. In fact, you could see the conviction around them, too.

"Just an elbow at Runcorn," he said, explaining the matching pair of shiners in dismissive fashion.

Clearly, it takes more than a little industrial wear and tear to ruffle the goalkeeping feathers of the veteran Budgie.