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Interview: John Burridge, football veteran

It's easy to be cynical about pop stars and other showbizzers required to check in to The Priory - there are so many of them and they're always so keen to talk afterwards, viewing their "ordeal" or "journey" as a badge of honour. But the footballers who have been patients comprise a smaller and more exclusive club, and those ending up at the famous clinic despite the longest of careers and the most cheerful of dispositions surely number just one - John Burridge.

• John Burridge is working as a football pundit in Dubai

Ah, but "long" and "cheerful" aren't anything like adequate enough when it comes to summing up the life and times of Budgie, the great goalkeeping eccentric. No-one played on for longer, it seemed, or for more clubs - all over England and with Hibs. And while we're at it, "eccentric" is a pretty weak word as well. Budgie was mad, wasn't he? Stark raving bonkers. That was easy to say before he ended up in The Priory and, when he took the field dressed as Superman and perched on crossbars to taunt the opposition, that's what we did say.

"You've heard about the tears of a clown, haven't you?" he asks. "Well, that was me when I finished playing. I couldn't deal with it. I started at 15 so I didn't have to go down the mines like my dad. At 43 I was the oldest player in the English Premiership. At 46 I was sat on the bench at Newcastle in tears, knowing it was all over. So I thought my life might as well be over, too.

"I was going to get pissed, take some pills, hang myself, I don't know what. I nicked some piping from a building site and was going to stick it in the car exhaust. I barricaded myself in the bedroom for four days. My wife Janet would come by: 'Do you want a cup of tea, John? Do you fancy fish and chips?' Without football, without that three o'clock buzz, I had nothing to live for.

"Janet rang up my old mate Kevin Keegan and I got sectioned. When the loony-bin beckons I thought they came for you in white coats but it was two big blokes in green boiler-suits who smashed down the door. They stuck a needle up my arse and I woke up in The Priory."

Burridge stayed seven months - "It was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," he says - and we'll return to The Priory later. Today he's in Dubai, having recently lost his coaching job with the Oman national team, but working as a television football pundit. Hibs' handstanding Skol Cup hero from 1991 is shorn of his curls now but, in every other respect, it's the same old Budgie, footballing rapscallion.

"Same 32ins waist, same 44ins chest," says the fitness fanatic. "I could still do a job for someone. Blackpool, one of my old clubs, have got a goalkeeping crisis and I'm thinking of phoning up Ian Holloway and offering my services." Budgie, 60 next birthday, doesn't need a CV. He can simply hand out copies of his excellent autobiography, packed with all the detail, some of it jaw-dropping, from a 771-game career.

Realistically, that job is going to be in coaching and he'd like to stay on in the Gulf. "I don't think I could come back to the UK now. I don't miss the rain or the petrol at 1.50 a litre, though I might make an exception for one of my favourite clubs." There were 30 of them in all and he puts Hibs second only to Terry Venables' Crystal Palace, the "team of the 80s", in his personal league table. He's just saying that. "No, honest, I loved my time at Easter Road, even though my first thought was: ‘What the hell have I let myself in for?'"

Following the failure of Wallace Mercer's outrageous takeover bid, Hibs had only escaped relegation through league reconstruction. "The atmosphere was depressing, the morale was atrocious and I thought: ‘Budgie, son, you've got work to do here.' The manager gave his first team-talk of the season. Bloody hell, Alex Miller was downbeat. He was full of these dire warnings. I was like: ‘Boss, we're only playing St friggin' Mirren.' That got a laugh right away."

Burridge doesn't just adhere to the belief that football is a branch of the entertainment industry, he thinks it's a slapstick caper dreamed up by Mack Sennett. But there's method in his madness. "Take the warm-ups I did on my own. If a player doesn't go out until five to three, the crowd hits him and the cold hits him. Folk thought I was showing off with all the somersaulting but that goes back to Palace where the head groundsman wouldn't let me take a ball on to the pitch before games." He laughs. "All right, some of it was showing off." The never-shy Budgie boasts that he's always been a trailblazer, with his extended, on-field limber-up being nicked from a Dynamo Moscow goalie. "I was the first in Britain to use gloves for dry conditions, brought back from Atletico Bilbao." And watching soccer in America confirmed the importance of theatre and fun.

For his two seasons at Hibs, he commuted from Durham, using a moped for getting to and from training and often taking detours round Edinburgh's New Town. "I loved the Georgian architecture," he says, setting himself apart from some of the capital's other footballing mercenaries. His fondest memories of course concern the Skol Cup.

"For the semi-final against Rangers, Alex Miller was talking up the opposition again. I was like: ‘But do they know they're playing against John Burridge?' I carried that attitude into the tunnel, warning Mark Hateley to keep out of my box and rubbishing Super Ally McCoist for being a failure at Sunderland. Our players, guys like Gordon Hunter and Mickey Weir, were like: ‘Go on, Budgie!' They ran out that night with real fire in their bellies." Hibs won 1-0 and he'll never forget the delirious scenes during the victory parade back in the capital after the final triumph over Dunfermline. "There were green and white scarves on almost every statue," says the keen student of Robert Adam civic design.

Like many who were to have the sometimes bizarre experience of lining up in front of Burridge, those Hibee Hampden heroes will, he says, have seen two sides to the man. "At training, in the gym, winning all the cross-countries, not smoking, hardly drinking, I was Mr Dedication. The guys used to tell me stories about my predecessor Andy Goram needing coffee poured down his throat in the changing-room to sober him up. But at all other times of course I was Mr Jackass."

His spell at Hibs, though, was to end in familiar fashion: abruptly, following a row over money and a punch-up with the manager. The book reveals that Burridge has always a keen sense of his own worth to a team. But do the blow-outs - with Bob Stokoe, Ron Saunders, George Graham and the rest - hint at a kind of madness; that of all the mad goalies in the world, Budgie is up there with the maddest, swinging on the crossbar with Oliver Khan and Rene Higuita?

"Mad? I fought with all those managers because I was right. I was revolutionary, me. I was Bosmaning before Jean-Marc Bosman. Those dry gloves of mine - Peter Shilton and Pat Jennings would turn up at the house trying to blag a pair. Do you know that when the staple football diet was steak and chips, I was bringing my own blender to the team hotel? I studied the diet of African tribesmen and learned how the guava could help me. Mind you, I couldn't always find them in Grimbsy and Lincoln and some of the other places I played. You definitely have to be different to be a goalie. Not all great guys are normal, you know." But all geniuses are mad, yes? "Precisely!"

The very different John Burridge grew up in the Cumbrian mining village of Great Clifton. In a scene straight out of a grimy, monochrome, oop-north kitchen-sink movie, Stoke manager Tony Waddington rolled up in a big car hoping to sign the goalie prospect on five quid a week, but ruined his smart suit when he slipped on the contents of a piss-pot and was sent packing by the old man who, a bit sozzled, dismissed football as a "poofs' game". Dad liked booze, rugby league and the camaraderie of the pit. The lad, already set on an alternative path, rejected all three and signed for the nearest club, Workington, the first of the 30, where everyone called him Budgie.

The only person who knows him as John is Janet, mother of his two children. Oh, and Uday Hussain, son of Saddam, except not any more because during the conflict in Iraq he was taken out by a Special Forces Task Force. "Just before the war kicked off, I was interviewed by him for the job of goalkeeping coach with the Iraq national team. There was one flight a week to Baghdad and this old Russian cargo plane was full of highly desirable stuff Iraq couldn't get because of the sanctions including, oddly enough, salad cream. Uday was an educated chap, quite charming and he was offering me $200,000 a year. But I'd heard stories of the team being flogged and forced to have baths in raw sewage after bad results, and I fancied I'd have ended up being shot." Burridge's biggest regret is not being part of the Aston Villa team which won the European Cup, having continued on his travels just before the 1982 success. In his book, however, he is honest enough to admit they probably wouldn't have triumphed if he'd stayed. "I felt under a lot of pressure at Villa and I was too young to cope with it," he says. The ever-innovative Budgie sought a novel-for-the-time solution to his problems. "At Palace I got a psychiatrist to hypnotise me. I paid him 1500 to listen to my life story and make me a motivational cassette. ‘Tick, tick, tick ...' it began. My team-mates took the mickey something rotten. But I was able to visualise games before they happened. I knew I was going to play well."

Don't think, though, that Burridge was ever soft. To stop big, ugly centre-forwards blocking him off at corners, he'd assert authority with sharpened studs. "Like arrowheads they were, right down on the ... I think it's called the metatarsal now. Yes, I was a ruthless b*****d." He made a few enemies in the game, and because he switched clubs so often, there was always a chance they would get their own back further down the line. Ossie Ardiles, on the receiving end of some Falklands War-themed abuse he soon regretted, ended his first stay at Newcastle on taking charge at St James Park, just as quickly as George Graham had shown him the door at Leeds. After Hibs he returned to Newcastle only to be confronted by Arthur Cox who, at Derby, had tried to stop him signing for Sheffield United by locking him in a room (Budgie flew out of a window when Cox went to fetch tea, and his last glimpse of his gaoler was in his rearview mirror, smashing the teapot on a motorway's central reservation).

Who's maddest? That day it seemed to be Cox, who was big enough to let Burridge stay at Newcastle as reserve keeper with a nice little sideline as a goalie rescue-service sorting out other clubs with broken-thumb emergencies "for a couple of thousand quid and a nice hotel for the night". Then came his breakdown.

"First therapy session at The Priory I stood up and said: ‘My name is John Burridge, I'm 46 and I'm here because I can't play football any more.' There were two sessions every day, you got woken at 6am, the place I'd only rate a three-star with no TVs in the rooms and no garden but I loved my time there - ha ha, probably because they talk my language. It was drug addicts on the top floor, alcoholics on the first and I was on the ground floor with all the other depressives. We made each other laugh every day, but there were people with sadder stories than mine, women who'd lost families, and they put no longer being able to stand between two sticks into proper perspective."

This rumbustious football life, including a conviction for dealing in counterfeit sportswear and being the victim of a serious road accident, definitely won't suit everyone. "When I die I want it to be on a football field, maybe a massive heart attack or a brain haemorrhage." Crikey, I say, has he developed any other interests? "Come on, what else is there?" But Budgie isn't ready to fall of his perch just yet. "I'd go back to Hibs if they gave me total control and I'd bring over some of the great young talent there is in the Gulf. What do you want your club to be? Politically correct or fun-packed? But it'll never happen. I'm just too bloody outrageous."

lBudgie, by John Burridge with Colin Leslie (16.99, John Blake) is published on 4 April.

 
 
 

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