RAIN and sleet are lashing off the glass facade of Almondvale Stadium. Wind howls through reception whenever the door is opened. It’s a far cry from mingling with Zico, Johan Cruyff and Hristo Stoichkov on sun-kissed American astroturfs.
However, Richie Burke, having swapped Washington for Livingston, doesn’t regret choosing his new life. Furthermore, he is here to develop kids with a continental mentality and hone them into first-team footballers. All of that against the backdrop of Scotland’s sodden climate.
Burke is Livingston’s technical coach and acting assistant manager to Gareth Evans, pictured right. Born on Merseyside, his background is colourful and diverse. He played almost his entire career abroad after being shunned by Liverpool and Everton for “lacking British grit”. He turned that supposed weakness into a strength in the United States to play with and against some of the game’s superstars. Now, he wants to impart his knowledge to the children of Livingston’s youth academy and help them become continental-style players.
It is no mean task. A mere glance out the front door underlines the difficulties he will face, and that is before he even considers the Scottish mentality.
“Kids want to repeatedly smash balls into a goal here. In America, they want to juggle and master the ball,” says Burke in broad Liverpudlian. That’s what he is here to change. Burke arrived in West Lothian last summer and slowly began exerting his influence after a career of keeping the ball and working on technical skills.
We wander through to the corridor outside Livingston’s dressing-rooms, where banter is flying thick and fast. Burke is at the thick of it due to this visit from a journalist and photographer, but the ribbing is delivered with respect. Well, mostly. He laughs it off. He may be an unknown in Scotland but this kind of environment has been his life since his days as an England schoolboy internationalist. The days when Scotland routinely produced top-level footballers like Gordon Strachan and Kenny Dalglish. Burke remembers it well and wants to help recreate even a portion of that prosperity.
He will attempt to do so with a mentality and approach that is completely different to anything else in the country. Burke was recruited by Livingston last year to help continue the gradual expansion of their youth development. He will do things his way. Players will be taught control, skill, technique and patience with the ball. At no point will the desire to win supersede any of the above.
“I’ve been in America a long time and I look at things differently,” he says with a shrug of the shoulders. “I have a bit of an American mentality and my view of things is different. I thought that, with a different outlook and approach, we could make a big impact at Livingston. I know there isn’t a lot of money in Scottish football but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.
“We have kids coming into our micro academy, which we set up after I came in, from the age of five. We aren’t creating football players at that stage. All we want to do is start them off with the right principles. I find that, especially in Scotland, attitudes towards youth development is way behind America. It’s like it’s in the dark ages. I want to get kids connected to this football club and emphasise the important things about player development. Winning and losing doesn’t really matter. Touches, control and mastering the ball are important. Stefan Scougall went off to play for Scotland Under-21s against America and came back saying the Americans were unbelievable, so much better than the Scots. That’s a travesty for me. I played for England schoolboys against Scotland and Scottish teams were always great. Every single academy had Scottish kids in their teams. Now it’s as if Scotland has accepted that America, a much younger footballing nation, are better. I’ve found that a bit of a shock. The truth is they aren’t better. There are very good players out there, they just aren’t encouraged to do the things continental kids do. I think it’s more of a cultural thing.
“We are a club that will live or die by our ability to produce and sell players. Young Danny Mullen has made his debut and done really well. Big Coll Donaldson is a fantastic centre-back. Kyle Lander is another forward who is close having done well in the reserves. That dressing-room through there is full of quality young footballers. I think, as does [Livingston director of football] John Collins, these boys have the potential to go on and have a good football career either here or elsewhere.”
Burke’s move to America at the age of 18 changed his own footballing outlook. “I remember phoning my dad and saying, ‘I’m playing against Zico this weekend’. By the way, I’m not coming home.” His team, Washington Diplomats, included Cruyff and Wim Jansen. He then spent two years in Australia before returning to the States to finish his career. Then came coaching roles at DC United and the chance to work with the likes of Stoichkov. Burke has learned how football should be played properly rather than how to fight, battle and scrap for victory.
“I’m not going to be conceited enough to say I’m making a massive difference at Livingston but we do want to produce something different here,” he continues. “If I give you some tools and ask you to build me a shed, God knows how it will turn out. But if I give you a blueprint, instructions, equipment and tools, you can guarantee I’ll get a better shed. All our young players have been given the tools they need.
“We play what I consider to be a more continental system, a European-based system. Everybody nowadays goes on about Barcelona, Barcelona, Barcelona. I was very lucky to take DC United over to play Barcelona, but we benefitted just as much playing against Espanyol and Tarragona Gimnasia. I want to take things right back to basics. If the potential is there, I want to take a young kid at five years of age and develop him right through our football club in a pathway that defines what kind of footballer he’s going to be. It’s a project which won’t bear fruit in the next year, but maybe in the next five years it will. The roots of Barcelona’s programme were set by Johan Cruyff many, many years ago.”
But what happens when the delicate continentals reach first-team level and are confronted by the stereotypical British opponent, ready to do battle? “It’s a concern, I have to be honest,” says Burke. “I don’t want to start knocking the entire coaching fraternity here because I don’t know that many people. I believe some folk may be a roadblock because they’re so focused on results, finances, saving their job or refusing to take risks. However, when you focus on player development, it has to be the single most important factor.
“I don’t believe in playing balls back to front. I don’t believe in passes with less than a 50-50 chance of success. I played with so many continentals and South Americans and they would slaughter you if you gave the ball away. Quickly, you learn to believe in ball retention. The two popular phrases we use at this club to instil a different mentality in our kids are ‘ball retention’ and ‘ball recovery’. Keep the ball as much as you can, and if you lose it work to get it back as quickly as you can.
“The next phase is what you do with the ball when you have it. I don’t know if there are enough football clubs focusing on this. Mick Oliver, the SFA’s national scout, said he watched our reserves against Rangers not long ago. He said we passed them off the park. Our boys were up against guys with Champions League experience that day. Mick took notice of a couple of our players because they stood out against that level of opponent.
“Rangers and Celtic have great players but they are so results-orientated. They have to win, but at some stage you need to replace the winning emphasis with player development for the good of the game.
“We are a small, provincial football club. I think we’ve made an impact for people to recognise we play good football. The hope is that every single kid who comes through that front door, wears the Livingston badge and represents this football club, has that edict and philosophy. They need to know that, at this club, this is how you play.”