Burley driven by instinct for the basics

Ipswich thrive with the big boys thanks to a manager keen to promote the game's skill factor
Click to follow
The Independent Football

For too long, Portman Road has come to be regarded as much as a temple as a football stadium. Even the construction work being carried out apace to add to the capacity of the South Stand fails to disguise the stadium's importance as a place where homage is paid to the deeds of the past. As you arrive at the ground, you feel the desire to genuflect to a statue of its much-loved son, the late Sir Alf Ramsey, after whom an adjacent road is also named, and the name of Bobby Robson will forever be uttered with genuine affection.

For too long, Portman Road has come to be regarded as much as a temple as a football stadium. Even the construction work being carried out apace to add to the capacity of the South Stand fails to disguise the stadium's importance as a place where homage is paid to the deeds of the past. As you arrive at the ground, you feel the desire to genuflect to a statue of its much-loved son, the late Sir Alf Ramsey, after whom an adjacent road is also named, and the name of Bobby Robson will forever be uttered with genuine affection.

Yet, as much as distinguished former managers can define a club's status, they can also have an intimidating effect on their successors. George Burley appears to have eluded that menace. Whether the good burghers of the Suffolk market town will ever feel compelled to instruct the sculpting of his likeness remains to be seen. If current progress is maintained, it is not inconceivable. At the very least, the dapper Scot, whose six years as manager at Portman Road followed - after a six-year hiatus - 14 years as a stylish full-back with the club, has brushed-stroked for himself a significant stained-glass window in Ipswich history. He has done so quietly, meticulously and under financial constraints.

Of the promoted clubs, Charlton, Manchester City and Ipswich, the latter were inevitably the club most expected to find themselves in immediate peril after three play-off attempts. Even Burley laughingly recalls that he felt a chill through his still-lean, ultra-fit frame when the Premiership computer produced an opening fixture programme that included Manchester United, Leeds and Arsenal. The fact that his team are unbeaten against that trio, including a victory at Elland Road, suggests that Ipswich are a more formidably-assembled threat than the sceptics contended.

"The pleasing thing is that we haven't just put 10 menbehind the ball and gone for all-out defence," said Burley. "We have tried to impose our beliefs on the game, and give ouropponents problems. If you just sit back and try to catch them on the break you're asking to be hammered. We have gone in punch for punch against the big boys and not been found wanting.

"People like to remember back to the Seventies and Eighties and, before that, to Alf Ramsey. That's understandable. But all credit to the players. They're standing up proudly in their own right now - getting to Wembley, achieving promotion, then doing well against the top teams. I feel that interest in the town is even greater than in the days when I played in Europe nine out of 10 years and won the Uefa and FA Cups.

"We've played the top three clubs of last season and we haven't been overawed at all. It's nice to be able to go to the training ground the Monday after drawing with Arsenal and saying, 'Hang on, we can compete against the best'. That gives us great confidence. We go into every game looking to win now."

His strength lies in acquiring players relatively cheaply, then maximising their abilities. He lists a few: Matt Holland, his captain, unwanted by West Ham and purchased from Bournemouth; striker David Johnson, signed from Bury, who has been leading scorer for the last three years; Jamie Clapham from Tottenham; and Jim Magilton from Sheffield Wednesday.

"These players haven't been the finished article, been at lower League clubs, or not been playing regularly for other clubs. You've got to work hard to get the best out of them, on and off the field, sometimes get them mentally right as well as technically right on the pitch. Then there's someone like Hermann Hreidarsson; there's a lot of work he needed to do with his game - and we paid £4m for him."

It was when he moved to Lawrie McMenemy-led Sunderland that the concept of management first attracted Burley. "I did my preliminary [coaching] badge there, then got my full badge, and did a managerial course as well. You've always got to be willing to learn. I'm sure even Bobby Robson will say that he hasn't stopped doing that."

The former England manager was, inevitably, his mentor. However, Burley insisted: "I could never emulate Bobby Robson, except in our mutual passion for the game. It's a drug for him, very hard to turn your back on. I think I'll be the same myself when I'm 60-odd.

He added: "People doubted us when we sold Kieron Dyer and Mauricio Taricco, but all the time we actually got stronger as a squad because of the quality of players we brought in. This summer we've been able to buy and not have to sell, and Hreidarsson and John Scales have been two excellent acquisitions."

Improvements to the rearguard have not all cost money. Some have merely required patience. "Our big bonus has been Titus Bramble coming through," said Burley of his England Under-21 defender. "He joined us when he was 13. Now he's 6ft 3in, 14-and-a-half stone, and grown into his body. He's been a colossus. Some of his performances, against Arsenal and Leeds, have been outstanding for a 19-year-old."

Burley was once equally appreciated by the connoisseurs of Portman Road. He received his first view of the club as a 15-year-old YTS boy from Cumnock, East Lanarkshire, signed by the man he still calls "Mr Robson". Two years later, he made his debut as a full-back. At a full-house Old Trafford. Faced by George Best. "Although we were beaten, Mr Robson spoke highly of my performance and I never looked back."

You suggest that we won't see the like of the Northern Irishman's impish skills again. Burley doesn't totally agree. He believes the academies will, in time, generate such excellence. Yet he does admit it concerns him that too many youngsters emerging into the professional game do not possess the basic attributes. It was more than the misty-eyed nostalgia of a 44-year-old when Burley maintained: "As a country, we're just not producing the quality we used to, boys who have mastered the basics: heading the ball, controlling the ball and passing the ball. The simple fact is that they're not practising and practising like we did 20, 25 years ago. If the basics aren't right, the rest is immaterial. You might run through six cones and dummy five bollards and shoot at the end of it. Fine. But unless there are basic techniques, controlling it, kicking the ball straight and chipping it, you may as well not bother."

He added: "It's not just football. It's about society. There are so many conflicting interests. They've got computers, they've got TVs. At 17, they've got cars. Practice, they say, makes for perfection, and kids don't play in the parks any more, in the schools, or the streets."

The Ipswich manager believes that schools should make their contribution by allowing talented pupils to train with professional clubs in the afternoons, then complete their studies in the evening. It's a system that appears to work in Holland and France. "As a kid, I practised before school, at school and I played three, four hours a night afterwards. As an apprentice here, I was practising half an hour before we started training, and then afterwards.

"I always wanted to improve my passing and I used to think like a golfer. I thought to myself, 'I've got a three-wood, a six-iron and I've got a pitching wedge in my leg'. I could make all those shots with it, but it didn't always happen. So I practised basics, passing and chipping the ball endlessly to a friend. Those kind of things have got to be worked at. But I just don't see that type of dedication from young kids these days."

Dedication. It's a word that sums up the Burley attitude to Portman Road, just as it did Ramsey's and Robson's before him. One day, it may just reward him with similar accolades. For the moment, survival will do just nicely.

Comments