Ben Mee interview: 'Everyone will enjoy English players doing well', says Burnley player

In a Premier League awash with foreign stars, Burnley buck the trend. Ben Mee tells Ian Herbert why the Clarets’ faith in domestic talent should be supported

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It is a truth that barely dare speak its name in a world where footballers fear their words being misconstrued, but you only have to analyse the squad lists to known that Burnley are the Premier League club with most tangible faith in the power of the English player. There are 16 of them in their ranks.

Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers has made a big statement of belief too, of course, and Southampton will probably field four Englishmen at Swansea. But it is in the surrounds of Gawthorpe Hall on the banks of Lancashire’s River Calder, where the Bronte sisters were once regular visitors, and where Sean Dyche’s players now train, that some of the English talents cast aside by billionaire owners are setting out in the top flight with something to prove.

Nathaniel Chalobah is the latest to arrive – one of no fewer than 26 Chelsea players currently on loan. Yet he is so tutored in the language of football media, he will not even venture to say that a good season for Burnley would be a powerful statement of English capabilities in the division with the highest percentage of overseas players. “To talk about English lads and foreigners – that’s not really my call,” Chalobah tells me.

Ben Mee speaks more freely – perhaps because he has done his growing up at Burnley, learning about senior football in the raw – and though there is clearly no grudge about the way a career at Manchester City, briefly playing for Roberto Mancini in the League Cup, slipped away, he does not mind admitting that it would be one in the eye for the English lads if Dyche and Burnley can hold their own now.

The high-tide mark of his City days came on a warm April evening in 2008, when he captained them to a Youth Cup final triumph over Chelsea. City were without their diamond – an injured Daniel Sturridge – but they sparkled anyway. They conceded desperately early before Mee, a central defender then, equalised (“a cross right on my head”) and the 3-1 win symbolised the triumph of City’s sustainable youth development creed over Chelsea money.

“We weren’t superstars or anything,” Mee tells me, in the rural sunshine of Burnley’s training ground retreat after a morning’s exertions. “We weren’t bought for any money. We were all local lads. That bond helped us through. A bit like here, we had a great team spirit, where everyone worked hard for each other. And it was fairly uncomfortable in that final in the end.”

 

Five of Mee’s team-mates had, like him, been coached since the age of nine at the Platt Lane centre, which under the stewardship of Jim Cassell had delivered 25 players to the first team with minimal resources over a decade. There was a simplicity about those days, with Cassell calling in to see him after he had graduated from youth to reserve ranks, just to make sure it wasn’t going to his head.

Holding the FA Youth Cup aloft holds no guarantees of bright lights. Manchester United’s Sam Hewson (now playing in Iceland) and Arsenal’s Jay Emmanuel Thomas (Bristol City) are two winning captains who will tell you that. But the challenges in front of Mee were exceptional. Precisely 137 days after the trophy was won, City’s world changed utterly when the Abu Dhabi United Group began their purchase of the club from Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Yes definitely – the news created doubts for us,” says Mee. “The money that came in was mad. It helped the club rise to the success it has. I got to train with some great players but I didn’t get the first-team opportunities there. I don’t look it as being a bad thing because I’ve made my career somewhere else. I’m happy with that.”

Sean-Dyche.jpg
Sean Dyche

 

His hopes remained alive as Mancini took Mee on pre-season tour to the United States in 2010 and then in September fielded him in the League Cup at West Bromwich Albion: a 2-1 defeat the Italian was glad to forget. Mee also played for England’s Under-21s that year, making his debut against Germany in Wiesbaden.

Then came the shifting sands familiar to so many Englishmen at top clubs. A loan move to Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City – Eriksson and Mancini are close – before a clamour to take him on loan again in the summer of 2011  which brought Derby’s Nigel Clough, Nottingham Forest’s Steve McClaren, Burnley’s Eddie Howe and Eriksson onto the phone. City were not urging Mee to resist another loan deal. There does not seem to have been a moment in time, before the closing of a manager’s door, when he was told to call it quits on City.

The move to Burnley has kept the 24-year-old close to his home, in Sale, the south Manchester rugby union stronghold where his enthusiasm for football grew out of his father’s amateur career in local Saturday and Sunday leagues. Mee still lives there. Not even the wildest optimism allowed him to believe he would be playing Premier League football barely two years after signing permanently for the Clarets. Burnley’s 1-0 win at Bolton last February strengthened belief in promotion as much as any game. His friends keep suggesting that the prospect of marking André Schürrle, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney – whom he has already faced – must put the fear of God into him, though Dyche’s approach is built around dealing with the doubts which can plague a footballer.

“His view on the game is different,” Mee says. “It’s based around him ensuring we have no fear. He knows because he has been there all the things that go through footballers’ minds: the doubts, what’s the reason they play. You’ve just got to go and get what you want out of the game.

“I think that’s a big thing about football. Rather than ‘I’m going up for the Premier League,’ it needs to be ‘Oh it’s just the Premier League.’ It’s the same game. We had a few meetings while we were out on pre-season in Austria – one in particular which helped the lads to realise that we can do this; we can go in and beat these teams.”

Chelsea and Schürrle for a  3-1 defeat in their opening game clearly provided a jolt of reality. “That was tough. Sharp. They were really good. That’s as tough as it is going to get,” he says. “It was ‘right that’s where you need to be’ and ‘I want to get to handle that level.’ Generally, you have to be concentrating a lot more. There are top players who can thread that pass. It is quicker.”

Mee, converted successfully to a left-back by Dyche, does not mind declaring that a season of survival for Burnley would be a statement of belief in English and Irish talent. Manchester United defender Michael Keane has joined Chalobah on loan at a club which also includes Kieran Trippier – a team-mate of Mee’s from the City Youth Cup winning team – and Dean Marney, who has taken the long way back after being released by Tottenham. Keeper Tom Heaton was let go by Manchester United.

 Dyche describes all this as a consequence of Burnley having no international scouting infrastructure and recruitment department. “We’ve built one over the last year and there’s more funding in place,” he says. “But we’re not ready to go to, say, Europe, and scout.”

Mee must wait until the depths of winter – 28 December – to play at the Etihad. “It’s good to see young English lads doing really well,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, bringing foreign players in is going to improve the Premier League but everyone enjoys seeing a group of English players doing well and I think a lot of people will enjoy watching that.

“We’re a group of British and Irish lads who are just looking to stay in the Premier League. Hopefully people can get behind us – if only for that.”

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