George Burley: 'Gareth Bale could go into anyone's first team'

Brian Viner Interviews: Kieron Dyer, Theo Walcott, Tom Huddlestone. Few current managers have a better record for developing brilliant young players than the Southampton boss. His latest prodigy has as much talent as any of them - all he needs is a bit of patience
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The initials GB loom improbably large in the story of George Burley, which began in earnest on Saturday, 29 December, 1973. That was the day he made his debut for Ipswich Town, at Manchester United. He was 17 and his formidable job was to mark another GB, George Best, who, coincidentally, was making his last League appearance for United at Old Trafford.

Now, more than 33 years on, Burley's evolution as a football man can be defined by yet another GB; indeed, another 17-year-old, the Welsh prodigy Gareth Bale, whom Burley has persuaded to stay at Southampton despite some covetous drooling by Tottenham Hotspur and, for that matter, Manchester United.

Burley's experience in 1973 is significant in his treatment of Bale: he has not forgotten what it feels like to be a wide-eyed, knock-kneed 17-year-old and he has not forgotten how his own manager back then, Bobby Robson, dealt with him and his parents. When Robson told him the day before that he was starting against United, a thrilled Burley rang his parents in Scotland, who swiftly packed a case and pointed their car down the M6. The next day, as the Ipswich coach drew up outside Old Trafford, Robson pulled the teenager aside. "Are your parents here?" he said. Burley pointed out two smiling faces in the throng. Robson promptly went over and gave them tickets for the directors' box.

"That was typical of Bobby," Burley says. "He thought about your family - were they OK, were you OK, were your digs OK? He tried to bring you up as a person as well as a player. I played for him for 12 years and he is by far the biggest influence on me, football-wise. I spoke to him just last week, and I still ask his advice. In the summer I was interested in the boy [Michael] Chopra at Newcastle, so I asked Bobby about him. He said, 'Yes, he's a good player, he'll score goals for you'. So I got straight on the phone to Newcastle, but unfortunately they'd already done a deal with Cardiff." A wry smile. "And he hasn't been a bad player for them."

Ipswich lost 2-0 to United that day and a furious Robson considered it the worst performance of a season in which - it seems scarcely credible now - the East Anglians had already disposed of Real Madrid and Lazio in the Uefa Cup. Yet he was delighted with his young debutant, whose performance, according to the following day's Sunday Express, he cited to excoriate his other players. "I told them, 'Any money you earned today you should give to George Burley. That kid of 17, just coming into the side, was superb. And we let him down'."

Burley, a less charismatic, less overtly passionate character than Robson, has not boosted Bale's confidence quite in that way, but it is clear enough that the lessons from his mentor have been applied to the task of keeping the prodigy at St Mary's. "The key for Gareth, for me and for his parents is the progress he has made since I gave him his debut, and how much he has enjoyed himself here. I've said to them I think Gareth needs to stay another season after this one. To move at such a tender age is a gamble, and he doesn't need to gamble. I had Richard Wright at Ipswich and he went to Arsenal too early, which was his undoing, I think. At the end of next season Gareth could go into anyone's first team, but he's not yet the finished article."

Nor is another graduate of Southampton's youth system, Theo Walcott, whose departure, also for Arsenal, Burley considers to have been a mistake. "I think Theo would have developed more by staying here. He went to one of the best clubs in the world with one of the finest managers, but we have the right environment here for youngsters to develop."

Could it be that Walcott, belatedly recognising this, advised Bale to knuckle down and not stare dreamily out of the transfer window? Do they talk? Burley gives what is best described as a mischievous grin. "All the time, I think. They were brought up together. When you're coming through academies and youth teams you're very close to your team-mates. I know they chat a lot."

And is Bale as good as the hype would have us believe? "Only time will tell. But he has all the potential to be a world-class player. Seven or eight months ago he was playing in the youth team, and since his game has developed extraordinarily well. He has great energy, a quality left foot, pace, he's a great user of the ball, and it all develops naturally from the left-back position. Sometimes you work with talented young players but you can see that they don't pick things up. You realise you're saying the same things over and over. Gareth, like Kieron Dyer, who I had at Ipswich, picks things up so quickly.

"Bringing youngsters through is one of the best things about this job and one of my strengths, I think. I remember seeing Kieron as a 15-year-old, going along to the Chelsea training ground near Heathrow with my assistant, Dale Roberts, who's passed away now. The boy was so tiny. We wondered whether he would ever develop. But we watched him for about half an hour, took him on and he never looked back. It's nice to see him playing for England again. If not for injuries, for me he would be one of England's best midfield players now."

It is a distinction he predicts for another former protégé, Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone. "I gave Tom his debut at 16 at Derby and I don't think he missed a game for two years after that. I used to so enjoy watching him in training. He's able to weigh a pass magnificently and, although he's six foot four, that's not his main attribute. In fact, he sometimes needs to use his strength and power more. I played him at the back a lot, which was not his favourite position, he didn't relish heading the ball. But he read situations so well. He's such a clever player."

For those who remember Burley's own playing days, it is slightly disconcerting to sit in his office, at Southampton's training ground on the edge of the New Forest, listening to him reminisce about the players he has guided and clubs he has managed. Tomorrow he takes his team to West Bromwich (his pre-season tip to win the Championship), whose manager and assistant manager, Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus, played for him at Ipswich. Moreover, it is the first time he and Mowbray have pitted their wits against one another since he was managing Hearts and Mowbray was at Hibs, which means the former Hibs boss will be looking for revenge: Hearts won the Edinburgh derby 4-0 that day, as Burley guided the Jambos to their best start in the league for almost a century, only to be rewarded with his P45.

It is an episode he prefers to gloss over, not least, perhaps, because Vladimir Romanov, the autocratic Lithuanian owner of Hearts, tried to justify the sacking by making unsubstantiated allegations about Burley's personal habits.

"From day one things weren't right there," he concedes. "The Romanovs had a different mentality, and once they realised I wasn't going to change, things were always going to come to a head. But it was great to go back to Scotland, and I had a great rapport with the fans and players, especially the Scottish ones." This I interpret as a dig at the Romanovs, Vladimir and his son Roman, who seem to be turning Hearts into a facsimile of the Lithuanian national team. "Paul Hartley said just a couple of days ago we had something special going there," Burley continues. "Unfortunately, it fell apart."

He left Tynecastle in October 2005 with Hearts flying at the top of the Scottish Premier League, and so I ask whether he thinks, had he stayed, he might have looked down on Celtic and Rangers all the way to the end of the season? "I think we had a good chance, if I'd been given free rein," he says, a little wistfully.

His stock, I venture, remains high in Scotland, and I have heard that he was in Rangers chairman David Murray's mind following the sacking of Paul Le Guen? Denying this, Burley rather over-sensitively thinks that, by suggesting his stock is high in Scotland, I am implying that it is not so high in England, which is not what I mean at all. On the contrary, he has had manifest success wherever he's been, and was the proud recipient, as he reminds me, of the most prestigious honour a manager of an English club can get: in 2000 his peers voted him Manager of the Year, recognising the undeniably huge achievement of steering Ipswich into Europe within a year of being promoted. Additionally, it's fair to say that Burley laid many of the foundations on which Derby, Championship leaders and conquerors of Southampton only last weekend, are cheerfully building.

But, I persevere, does he not sometimes yearn for a really top job, if not in Scotland, then with one of the leading Premiership clubs? His is a mightily impressive CV, but is it destined never to carry the name of a seriously big outfit?

"I like working with clubs with potential," he says equably, "and at Ipswich we fulfilled it. You might get more money at a big club, but for me there's more fulfilment taking a club like Southampton into the Premiership and then into Europe. For me that's more enjoyable than working with one of the top four clubs, although I'm not saying that a club like this can't get near the top of the Premiership. Reading are showing that just now."

But Reading, like Wigan and, indeed, Ipswich before them, might yet find that next season sees them return to earth, or even the Championship, with a bump. "Yes, that's true. The second season [after promotion] is the tough one. You get promoted and the next year the players are playing on adrenaline, maybe over-achieving. The whole club's on a high. But they can't always sustain it, then you're trying to replace them. You mention Wigan, and I think Everton found it tough as well, the year after they got into the Champions League. At Ipswich the European thing knocked the stuffing out of us. We reached the third round of the Uefa Cup, and six games in Europe as well as Premership football was too much for us. We'd have been better finishing mid-table and pushing on from there."

With all that experience under his belt, Burley is well placed to deal with whatever position Southampton, currently fifth, finish in this season. "Even if we don't go up, the club is getting stronger and we have a nucleus of good young players coming through. But we're ready for promotion. There would need to be changes, but yes, we're ready."

And with that glimpse into the near future can we just, finally, return to the distant past? Bobby Robson might have praised Burley for his performance against the greatest of all GBs all those years ago, but how did Burley himself think that he'd done?

"I remember being very pleased, even though we lost," he says, and chuckles. "After George Best had nutmegged me three times, I felt I did OK against him."