A familiar name on the non-league circuit during the 90’s, local lad Brendan Burke was a teenage football prodigy who spent 3 years at United on schoolboy forms during the mid-80’s. I caught up with Brendan last year after he kindly agreed to share his recollections of those days.
RN: How and why were you a red, then?
BB: There’s only one team to support in Manchester! It’s funny really ‘cos my Dad’s a blue – I don’t really know if there was some rebellion going on. I was born in 1970 and I think the first time I saw United on telly was in the ’76 Cup Final when they got beat by Southampton…and I just loved the way they played…I suppose that was the first time I really became aware of it, when I was 6. Although they got beat I loved the red tops, the white shorts…just the whole effect of the Cup Final. I genuinely think that’s where my passion started from.
RN: Do you remember the year after?
BB: Yeah, I remember that a bit more vividly really…I think from 7 onwards you’re really remembering things. Before that, when you’re a nipper, you’re probably relying on what your parents are telling you. But yeah, ’77 was superb because obviously not only did we win it, but we beat the Scousers which is always nice!
RN: Were you always a good footballer as a kid growing up?
BB: Yeah, I was always in the back garden with little nets. My Dad worked for the BBC…he worked on ‘It’s A Knockout!’ and one of the best things he got me in my entire life was some netting from work. We strung it up on some trees near where we lived and it fit…full size nets. I was always kicking a ball about in the back garden…we’d take this netting out where I lived…all the lads used to come out and we’d play…it just progressed from there really. I used to play for school…because I used to play with my mates who were all 3-4 years older than me, it gave me a good grounding
RN: You played for school…was there a local Junior club you joined?
BB: Yeah. I played for school in Juniors, then I got asked to play for a Sunday League side called St John Vianney’s…just a church team…but we had a good set of lads and I was scoring 40-50 goals a season.
RN: How old were you at this point?
BB: I was 10 or 11, summat like that. It moved on then, I was a regular for the school team on a Saturday, playing Sunday league…got picked up for Manchester Boys…County level and all that kinda thing. Then clubs were coming into the equation…
RN: You won the Bobby Charlton Soccer School competition?
BB: There was an advert in the MEN and my parents were like, ‘do you want to go?’ It was during the 6 week holidays, so my mate Chris and I went…it was a residential thing for a full week. Anyway, we did passing, shooting , juggling…different disciplines that you had to do during the week and depending on how many points you got, you went through to a grand final which was on Mellands playing fields. We were supposed to do the juggling in the centre circle at Old Trafford before a home game vs West Brom,, but it absolutely pissed down and they wouldn’t let us on the pitch. We ended up doing it by the corner flag underneath the old scoreboard. You had to keep the ball up in the air for a minute – a bloke was there with a stop-watch and I did it. We’d been given tickets for the game and I was sat with me Mam and Dad; then at HT it came over the tannoy…’We’d like to announce the winners of the Bobby Charlton Football School’ Then my name was read out and we had to report to the nearest steward. There were three winners and we all got brought into the Executive Suite, Bobby Charlton and Sir Matt were there and it was ‘Congratulations lads, you’ve just won two weeks as the guest of Real Madrid!’
To go from filling out a form in the paper to playing in the Bernabeu was incredible…
RN: You played in the Bernabeu?!
BB: Yeah! There was a press conference in the trophy room at the Bernabeu, it was a big thing over there – all the Spanish press. Sir Bobby and Sir Matt flew over with us, after the press conference we’re walking in the bowels of the Bernabeu and the next thing we’re on the pitch with about 30 balls, tracksuits, training kit, free boots…Bobby Charlton was on the wing…’here y’are Brendan, knock that one in!’ So yeah, I can say I scored at the Bernabeu! It was fantastic over there, they really looked after us.
RN: Then you got signed up by United…
BB: I got invited down to go training. I suppose it’s called ‘Centre of Excellence’ nowadays, I went down and it kinda went from there. At the time, City were interested and Oldham Athletic as well cos I went to an Oldham School. Because I supported United though, there’s only one club I wanted to play for. I went training with United and they offered me Associate Schoolboy forms in 1984, just before I was 14. That’s when the relationship with United, in terms of playing, began.
RN: You were training at the Cliff?
BB: Yeah, in the big indoor facility there. I remember my Dad and my Grandad coming down with me, rolling into the Cliff in Salford and just…knowing. My Grandad was a City fan too but he went to watch United as well. That was the way it was with that generation, you watched City one week, then you went to watch United the next. He loved players like Edwards, Charlton…Eddie Coleman…the Busby Babes basically…Georgie Best. For me then to be coming into this world where so many legends had trained, at first it was pretty…I wouldn’t say overwhelming…but it was just gobsmacking really. As a 13/14 year old…it was kinda…’Wow!’ All these great legends who’d represented the club had come through these gates.
We used to train Tuesday and Thursday nights…it was just magical. It was superb to be in the inner sanctum of the team that I supported, y’know? It was amazing.
RN: Having been there a couple of years did you get offered the Apprenticeship?
BB: The way it was timed…in 1986 I would’ve been 16. Under Ron Atkinson, whose regime I was signed under…I was doing pretty well. Sir Alex came in and Archie Knox as his assistant. Eric Harrison and Jimmy Curran were still looking after us. Alex and Archie were reviewing everything…and that meant the juniors and schoolboys as well as the pros. Unfortunately we only got about 6 months with Alex before alot of us were deemed surplus to requirements. The only three lads that got kept on were Russ Beardsmore, Mark Robins and Gary Walsh…there was something said at the time, I dunno how true it was…as well as signing schoolboy forms, they’d had their apprenticeship built into it. It was a 4 year plan for them, rather than 2 years.
RN: What was the attitude of the 1st team towards the kids…did you have much interaction with them?
BB: I was lucky cos I’d moved to an Oldham school when I was at Secondary school, prior to that I was always in Manchester Schools…but my parents moved up to Chadderton. So I went to an Oldham school and their holidays were always a week or two behind the Manchester schools. It worked out brilliantly for me…I was going down to the Cliff and all the other lads had gone back to school so there were only a couple of us down there! It was brilliant because Ron used to make us feel part of it. The likes of Bryan Robson, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside, Arnold Muhren…all the lads you were watching on a Saturday as a fan…you were in the gym with ‘em and they’re coming over and having a kick about with you! Mark Hughes was really good with me…it was just incredible. One thing I’ll say about Ron, and I know things went pear-shaped for him a few years ago, but he always looked after lads like myself and made us feel really welcome. He used to pick us in the 5-a-side teams, we didn’t always train with the 1st team, more often it was the reserves…but then the odd time he would bring us into the fold.
RN: Who were the biggest influences on your career during your time at United? You mentioned Eric Harrison…
BB: Eric was the main point of contact in terms of our development. Eric was incredible. He was a hard taskmaster…if he wasn’t happy with you, he’d tell you. But it was all to encourage you and spur you on. I’ve seen him destroy some lads but it was on the basis of ‘you need to survive this and be stronger for it in order to become a player at Manchester United’. You might have all the ability in the world but if you didn’t have the mental ability…there’s a certain pressure that comes with representing Manchester United. Eric was the guy who tried to instill that in you from an early age.
RN: Did bad results for the 1st team affect the day-to-day atmosphere around the club?
BB: Under Ron it was always a happy-go-lucky atmosphere. He was a great showman, in spite of what he might have been feeling deep down, he always put a front on – he was a larger-than-life character. He was a very positive guy and it was infectious. We had some lean times during that period, the odd FA Cup or whatever was just seen as something we could build on. Obviously the league title was the holy grail. Robson, Moses, Muhren…they were all top class players. The next season was always ‘the one’, y’know? …it could be this year!
RN: Yep. Every summer was like that. In ‘84 when we signed Brazil, Strachan and Olsen, I remember thinking ‘now if we can just keep everyone fit’…
BB: It was a great place to be around. Getting within that inner sanctum and being a part of it was just incredible…especially being a local lad. To be mixing with those types of players was just fantastic.
RN: You’ve talked about the interaction you had with the 1st team, were there any other perks to being a youngster there?
BB: We used to get boots. In those days Adidas World Cup were the be-all and end-all. They had a tongue on ‘em you could fold over…you looked like a proper player!
RN: Puma King.
BB: Yeah, but at that time the kits were always Adidas…with the Sharp Electronics sponsor on.
RN: Adidas Tangos!
BB: Yeah, after the 82 World Cup…still the best ball ever. The B team used to play in the Lancashire League Division 2 on a Saturday morning; we’d get in a beat-up, old Ford minibus which Jimmy Curran would drive and set off to Chester or Liverpool or Crewe, depending on who we were playing. We’d always get back to Old Trafford for early afternoon and each be given a pair of tickets for that afternoon’s game in A Stand.
RN: Did you go with your old man then?
BB: Even though he was a blue he loved the fact he could get into Old Trafford and watch a proper team! In those days I was going in the United Road with my mates so I’d give the tickets to my Dad who’d go in with a pal of his who was a big red…so he’d give me a few quid and I’d go off with my mates.
So yeah, tickets and boots…but you just generally got looked after. You didn’t have to bring any training kit, everything was there for you. You just had to bring your boots and that was it!
RN: It’s been widely documented there was a something of a drinking culture around the club during that era. As a youngster, were you aware of that?
BB: Yeah. As I said earlier, it was a bit happy-go-lucky. The Ron Atkinson regime and the Alex Ferguson regime were two totally different ball games. Ron wanted to portray a sort-of positivity…even though things were perhaps not going as they should do. It was well known to be honest…and it filtered through to the younger lads that…well…the ‘legends’, let’s say… were having a good session now and again. The accepted script was that they were still doing it on the pitch on a Saturday…and in training. I think they were left to get on with it in the hope it was all a team bonding process that would lead to success.
RN: Playing for the B team, what were the fixtures like against Liverpool or City? Was there a different level of intensity to those games?
BB: To me, perhaps more than to lads who were from outside of Manchester, I knew what it meant…even at that tender age of between 13 and 15. Liverpool were the dominant force, City were our neighbours…even though they weren’t a threat at the time. To me, it was just about wearing the shirt. Even if I’d played only one game for the B team and a bus had hit me the next day, I’d have died a happy lad. I’d pulled the shirt on, no matter what level it was at…I’d pulled the shirt on and represented the club.
RN: Was there a lot of sadness when Ron Atkinson left?
BB: I’ve got a lot to be thankful for to Ron as it was under his scouting regime I’d been picked up. I think the criticism was that…under Ron the press used to come into the Cliff and they were probably tipped off about the team before the lads who were involved were. He wanted that openness…
RN: I’ve heard that before…
BB: He wanted that openness but I think there’s got to be a certain distance…which obviously Sir Alex later brought in. I felt sorry for Ron when it all kicked off years later. Obviously what he said was wrong…I couldn’t understand it as he’d been a pioneer in introducing black players into the game whilst at West Brom. Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson, Remi Moses…Ron was also a great guy for man-management, finding out what players needed individually.
RN: I’ve always said he would’ve made a great international manager. Taking a group of players to a tournament…
BB: He was tremendous. He used to let on to us young lads as much as he would the major stars we had at the time. It was sad…but I think at the time there was a general consensus that it was definitely the right thing to do. You couldn’t fail to have noticed what Sir Alex had achieved at Aberdeen. It was a time for new optimism and obviously the league title was what we cherished…not only the supporters, but the playing staff too.
RN: Was there a noticeable change around the place when Fergie arrived?
BB: As juniors we were all concerned that we were coming up for our apprenticeships and alot hinged on the fact that we needed to perform. I dunno – under Ron I might have got an apprenticeship , I might not…there was a definite feeling though that ‘this guy’s coming in to change this club and make it successful’.
I suppose with any football club or business, if a new boss comes in you’re starting from scratch…
RN: Everyone’s on edge?
BB: Yeah…and we were no different, everyone was fighting for an apprenticeship. I eventually got released in May 1987, 6 months after Sir Alex had come down. I remember the feeling being that we hadn’t really been given a chance…they’d only looked at us for a short period of time. We always knew when Sir Alex or Archie Knox were coming to watch us play…but at the end of the day you can’t knock the guy. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life, wanting to play for the club I’d supported as a boy and being released…your world falls apart…but how can you have any bitterness? He ripped up the youth model, started again and brought in the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Nicky Butt, the Nevilles…you’ve just got to hold your hands up. He started over again and ultimately that was the right thing to do, even though it wasn’t the best news for me at the time.
RN: What vibes did you pick up from the 1st team?
BB: The likes of Gordon Strachan had worked with Sir Alex before at Aberdeen of course. He was saying to the 1st team lads, ‘look, he’s really gonna put the cat amongst the pigeons at this club’… because of the culture that had developed. But in fairness, there were a lot of positives – it wasn’t all negative that this ‘boys club’ was gonna be broken up. There was a genuine feeling he was coming to the club to try and deliver what we all wanted…what we’d been waiting for, for all those years. If certain people or players were gonna be victims of that cull or whatever you want to call it… it was all about the longer term goal or vision.
RN: The characters at the club at the time, who was sound…and was there anyone you tried to steer clear of?
BB: Not really, no. To be honest there weren’t many who were up their own arse. I’d be in the gym at the Cliff doing weights or whatever…the program that had been set out for me…and you’ve got Bryan Robson there recuperating from his latest injury! They could see you’re this nervous 14-15 year old…Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran…they were guys that just had a natural charm about them in terms of bringing you into the fold, whether it just be a conversation or having a bit of craic with you. Remi Moses…well he was a bit of a hard nut, so you were always thinking ‘shit – is he gonna be like that off the field, as he is on the field?’ But Remi was great – when he knew you were a Manchester lad there was a real affinity there. Don’t get me wrong, there were some cunts there who were junior players, but the 1st team lads…they were spot on. Dunno whether you can use this but there was a Welsh lad there, Deniol Graham…
RN: Went on to Barnsley didn’t he?
BB: A big time Charlie. He’d signed for Man United and thought he’d made it. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good player but he still had a lot of work to do. One of my mates, Tony Hopley from Blackley…he was a pocket dynamo, a top player but he had the temperament of Cantona…in France.
BB: He was off it, absolutely off it! One day, he’d had enough. Tony was a forward, Deniol was a forward…they were always vying for the same position. One day we were in the showers at the Cliff and Tony says to me ‘Bren, just stand at the front of the showers here, make sure no-one comes in’. I’m like ‘why, what’s the script?’ Tony was a year or two older than me and says ‘just fucking stand there for us, our kid’. Next thing he comes out the showers and just grabs my arm, I’m like ‘Kinell mate, what’s going on?’ Tony goes ‘I’ve just sorted that cunt out on behalf of the changing rooms!’ I popped my head back round the corner and Deniol’s sat in the corner with birds going round his head, Tom & Jerry style.
RN: Have you stayed in touch with anyone from that era?
BB: A few lads, yeah. Ashley Ward was there at the same time as me, he went on to have a good career in the game…I see him now and again. Spoke to Billy Garton via email a few times…a lad called Nicky Welsh, Keiran Toal who went on to play for the ROI. I’ve known Keiran for about 30 years, we grew up together.
RN: You met Ron again quite recently, didn’t you?
BB: I was at a do up in Saddleworth, at the White Hart. It was a Sportsman’s Dinner type-thing and Ron was a guest speaker, doing a Q&A. I was up there with a few of my mates and they were like ‘go on, go and have a word with him!’ Then one lad’s going, ‘I bet you weren’t even at United, you cunt! That’s why you won’t go over!’ I’m going ‘no, no – he wont remember me…he’s seen so many players in his life and I didn’t even play for the 1st team’. I didn’t want to mither him…next thing one of the lads brings him over and he’s like ‘Brendan! How are you doing?’ That was magic.
RN: Did it come as a hammer blow when you were released?
BB: Yeah, I was doing okay under Ron and making progress. Then in 1987, about April-May time, Archie Knox brought us all into the office and told us one-by-one that we weren’t going to be offered an apprenticeship and would be leaving. It was heartbreaking because I’d given a lot up, all my mates were going out to youth clubs on a Friday night but I’d have a game Saturday morning. So yeah, it was hard to take.
After that I went to various different clubs and had trials. I got injured playing for Crewe against Chester City, Dario Gradi asked me to go down. We were 2-0 up after about 10 minutes, I’d scored one and set one up – then this Scouser went right over the top on me and I did my knee ligaments. I was out for about 6 months after that…I still wanted to be a pro, but the only way was down after United. Anyway, I phoned Crewe back up after I got sorted but they were like ‘oh, we’ve moved on – we’ve not got anything down for you’.
By then I was applying for jobs, a mate of mine was working at Nat West and said I should apply for a job there. I’d realised by then how fickle a career football was. My Dad had always told me to get a trade, get qualifications and I’d done alright in that respect…I wasn’t an academic genius but I’d held my own in terms of O Levels and stuff. I got a job and became a bit disillusioned with the idea of football as a career, I was still playing with my mates on a Sunday but by then I was following United all over the country. I’d missed out on so much in terms of what my mates were doing, between 16 and 19…I wanted to have a bit of ‘me’ time.
Then I was in the Red Barn in Chadderton one night, and this guy Mick Lavery says to me ‘you’re wasting your time here, what are you doing tomorrow?’ He was the manager of Oldham Town, a local NW counties league side. Do you remember ‘Jossy’s Giants’?
RN: Yeah – Sid Waddell wrote it and Robbo made a cameo appearance…
BB: That’s right. Their ground was where it was filmed…they got floodlights off the back of that! Anyway he says to me ‘come and play for us against Droylsden, I’ll pick you up here tomorrow at 1.30pm’…he knew about my background at United. So I turned out for them, we got beat 4-1 but I scored…and I absolutely loved it. That set me on the way to a semi-pro career, I played about a dozen games for Oldham but then Mick said to me ‘you’re too good for this level, you need to be playing in the Northern Premier League…
RN: Evo-Stik League as it is now.
BB: That’s right. A mate of Mick’s called Mark Hilton, who’d played for Bury and Oldham Athletic was manager at Mossley at the time…so I went there. This was 1989 and I was 19. You had ‘Madchester’, the Hacienda, raves…I was lovin’ life. I had my job at the bank and a few quid in my pocket from playing semi-pro football every week. Over the next couple of years…
RN: I’ve Googled you, you became a bit of a legend there!
BB: I did alright. After a couple of years at Mossley I moved to Witton Albion who were in the GM Vauxhall Conference at the time. I then played in the Conference for the next 10 years or so. In 1995 I moved to Stalybridge, they paid a club record transfer fee for me…£12,000, which was a lot of money for that level. I had a few years there and was made captain, as I had been at Witton. We had a bad couple of years and got relegated but I stuck with them…wanted to bounce straight back but it just didn’t happen. Clubs were knocking at the door and I eventually signed for Altrincham. I’d got back in the Conference but by that time I was having real problems with my back…at first I thought it was just a bit of wear and tear. Unfortunately, at 29, I had to pack it in…that was 1999 so it was a bitter-sweet year for me, with United winning the treble as well.
RN: Do you still go to the match now?
BB: I’ve always had a season ticket in K-Stand but share it out with mates. I don’t get to all the games cos of one or two family issues over the last couple of years. But yeah, I still get to games…it’s still a great buzz. Although playing there was only a short period in my life, I feel proud to have been a part of it. I’ll never forget those days.
A top lad and a top red, thanks to Brendan for his time and allowing access to his scrapbooks. Thanks to Mrs Pat Burke for compiling said scrapbooks all those years ago.
Copyright Red News – 2011