Big interview: George Burley on Paul Hurst, Sir Bobby Robson, George Best and his 1,000 games as player and manager of Town
George Burley is rightly installed as an Ipswich Town 'legend'. As a player and manager he has been at the club during some of its very best years. HENRY CHARD, for Kings of Anglia, caught up with him
‘Legend’ is often banded about in modern-day football.
But what constitutes a ‘legend’?
A player who gives a club his all?
A player that falls in love with a club?
A player that brings success to a club?
Whatever the criteria, one man who ticks all those boxes – and more – when it comes to Ipswich Town – is George Burley.
As a player and manager, Burley has achieved as much at Portman Road as anyone.
Winning the FA Cup and UEFA Cup as a marauding right-back, then leading the club back into the Premiership as the manager – and back into European football.
Legend status confirmed.
OK, so it all ended in disappointment as he and Town parted company in 1985 with the Blues struggling in Division One.
But the boy from Cumnock, in East Ayrshire, couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead of him at Portman Road when he arrived as an apprentice in 1972 – the start of a long, long love affair with a club that saw him make more than 500 appearances and manage it more than 400 times.
Still living in Suffolk today and still loving the club he has given so much too – and has given him so much – he even wanted more, applying for the vacant manager’s job after Mick McCarthy left.
“I moved back to Ipswich four years ago with my family – my roots are here,” he said.
“I haven’t applied for any jobs because I am not going anywhere, I have moved enough and I am settled.
“But because the Ipswich job was available and I am an Ipswich fan, of course I was interested.
“Good luck to Paul Hurst of course. Hopefully the future is a bit rosier than it has been for the last 10 years.”
The 62-year-old has given his full backing to Hurst, the new Town boss, and believes the club should be looking at getting back into the top-flight.
“I think Paul is a great appointment,” Burley said.
“For the last three years I have been selected to choose the manager-of-the-month award in the Football League. Last season Paul was nominated numerous times and I keep an eye on what managers do.
“I like that he has been at a smaller club and worked hard and has shown what he can do. He deserves the chance to work at a bigger club.
“But Ipswich fans rightly have high expectations.
“We have had one play-off in 13 years and we haven’t won an FA Cup game for eight. We are producing good youngsters but not giving them the opportunity to be in the first-team for long periods.
“I am sure Paul is aware of all that and it is a big challenge – like all Ipswich fans I wish him well.
“I go to most home games and we all want a bit of success.
“We are a big club that should be looking to get back into the Premier League.”
You can hear Burley’s love of the club in the way he talks.
But it’s not surprising, Ipswich Town has been a huge part of his life.
So, where did it all start for a young Burley?
“I was playing schoolboy football for Scotland when I was 14 and I was asked to come and have a trial – me and a few other Scottish boys,” Burley said.
“We came down to Ipswich and really enjoyed it, me and another boy, Kenny Taylor got on well.
“Bobby Robson was there. Cyril Lea and Bobby Ferguson, it seemed a very friendly club that would give youngsters a chance. It was a big decision at 15 to leave school and come to Ipswich. But that’s what I wanted to do.
“Having other Scottish boys with me helped as no-one could actually understand me! I have got a decent Suffolk accent now, but I didn’t at the time.
“I was homesick but the enjoyment of the football was good and as I said, the club was friendly.”
Robson was always prepared to give young players a chance and Burley benefitted from that.
He got into the Town reserves at 16, and by 17 he was playing against George Best.
“I got into the reserves and played in the South East Counties League on the old practice pitch next to Portman Road – that was great,” he said.
“I was lucky enough to be picked as player-of-the-year in the SE Counties League and think I was the first Ipswich lad to do that.”
But it got better for Burley in a whirlwind start to his time at Town.
“I made my debut for Ipswich at 17 at Old Trafford against George Best,” he said.
“At the time it didn’t come any bigger or better than that. It was phenomenal.”
Success followed Burley at Portman Road from an early age and he puts much of it down to the trust Robson had in young players.
“We won the FA Youth Cup in 1972 and 1974 – that tells you the standard of players we had,” Burley said.
“Bobby was great, he was always speaking to you and was enthusiastic and working hard with you. You had that involvement and continual improvement as a player.
“I was doing extra passing, right foot, left foot and running. You were brought up in that environment and you knew if you were good enough you would be given a chance.
“I made my debut at 17 and never came out of the team.
“I know there were times I had a bad game but Bobby stuck with me. It was so encouraging. Bobby would stick by you – he made you better.
“We were in Europe for 10 years, won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup, so you can imagine the atmosphere around the place, it was tremendous.”
Burley was part of the Town side that won the 1978 FA Cup after beating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley.
And although that was the massive highlight of that great Cup run, it was another FA Cup game that season that holds a special place in Burley’s heart.
“People talk about the final but it’s the semi-final that sticks in my mind, when we won at Highbury 3-1 against West Brom,” Burley said.
“The whole town was electric for a month after that.
“The shops were all decked blue and white, everybody, and I mean everybody, was speaking about it – everyone wanted tickets. The whole town was buzzing.”
The FA Cup final was just the start for Robson and the Super Blues as the club embarked on the most successful period in their history. They became one of the top sides, not just in England, but also Europe.
Three years later, in 1981, Town won the UEFA Cup, although injury robbed Burley of a chance to play in the final against AZ-67 Alkmaar.
Burley looks back with fondness on how the team evolved in that period.
“We had two teams really,” Burley said.
“The one that won the FA Cup and the one that won the UEFA Cup – after the Dutch boys, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen arrived.
“Unfortunately, I had my knee reconstructed in February 1981 after a game at Shrewsbury, so I missed the last couple of months of the season and I missed the UEFA Cup final.
“But the whole run up to the final was fantastic.
“The achievements were unbelievable. John Wark held the record for the number of goals scored in one tournament for years, and we were renowned as a great passing football team all over Europe.
“We would go to Scandinavia and have so many fans there as they used to watch us on TV and enjoy watching us play. Training was all about passing and movement and the style changed from ‘78 to ‘81 – it evolved and the UEFA Cup was the pinnacle.”
Town agonisingly missed out on lifting the Division One title in the same season they won the UEFA Cup, so close, but so far for Robson’s men.
“What we achieved that season was magnificent,” Burley said.
“We didn’t have the biggest squad and we were always going to get a few injuries that hampered us. Ok, we didn’t win the league but in the ‘70s and ‘80s only Liverpool were more successful than us.”
But all good things come to an end and Burley left Ipswich as a player in 1985.
He had spells with Sunderland and Gillingham before heading north of the border to Scotland, where he dipped his toes into player-management.
But the lure of East Anglia remained.
In June 1994 he headed back south as player-manager of Colchester United.
He played seven first-team games and managed the club for 20 matches, eight of which they won, before returning as boss to Portman Road the following November.
“I was always interested in the managerial side of football, even as a player,” Burley said.
“I did my coaching badges in the latter part of my career and became player-manager at Ayr United and Colchester, and then got the Ipswich job.”
It was a move Burley and Town fans were delighted with. But it wasn’t a smooth road that lay ahead. Much heartache and much balancing of the books was gone through before the return to the Premiership in 2000.
“It was never easy trying to get back into the Premiership,” Burley said.
“Every year we had little money and had to sell a player.
“We didn’t have a benefactor. David Sheepshanks was a great chairman and we had to balance the books every season.
“There was a belief from the fans and they enjoyed what they were seeing.
“Of course there were disappointments, big disappointments, missing out in the play-offs. But there was always a belief we would get promotion.”
And Ipswich Town did.
Wembley 2000 and that play-off final against Barnsley is still talked about among Town fans as being up there with the Division One victory, FA Cup and UEFA Cup final victories as one of Ipswich Town’s greatest-ever days.
It was a glorious day as Town fought back from going a goal down to beat the Tykes 4-2.
“There was no better way of getting into the Premiership than the way we did it,” Burley said.
“Even now, 18 years on, living in Ipswich, people still talk to me about that play-off final and getting into the Premiership and travelling Europe.”
The first year back in the Premiership could not have gone much better for Burley’s Blues.
Town ended fifth, Burley was the Premiership manager of the Year. Ipswich were the talk of the country – European football was also back on the Portman Road fixture list for the 2001/02 season.
“It is still the highest finish of any promoted team to the Premier League from the Championship,” Burley said.
“We had a group of players who had come through the play-offs for a few years and they were a good team.
“We played above ourselves to finish fifth. We won at Anfield – which I never did as a player with all the great Town teams I played in – and to keep that standard going was always going to be hard in the second season.”
And so it proved.
Ipswich made a terrible start to that second campaign back in the Premiership, winning just one of their first 18 games.
However, they then went on a strong run of form, winning seven out of eight which looked to have secured their survival. But they then suffered more setbacks – relegation was confirmed on the final day of the season after a 5–0 thrashing at Liverpool.
“I had seven years as manager at Portman Road – four play-offs, one promotion, European football.
“We lost a few players and a few players we brought in didn’t settle into English football. Selling Richard Wright before the start of that second season was a big blow and in my opinion, we never replaced him with a top class keeper.
“But the seven years were great, apart from the relegation.
“What we achieved back then, you can’t compare it to now.
“I’m the third most successful manager in Ipswich’s history and the only Town manager who won the manager-of-the-year award and when you think of Sir Bobby Robson and Sir Alf Ramsey, they set very high standards.
“Of course we didn’t want to get relegated but it happened and you look at the positives and I am proud of what I achieved at Ipswich.”
Burley and Town went their own ways the next season after just three victories were collected from their opening 10 Division One fixtures.
It was a sad time for the Ipswich-loving Burley and fans, who so wanted him to turn the team’s fortunes round.
It wasn’t to be.
Following his departure, Burley went on to manage Derby, Hearts and Southampton before landing the Scotland job in 2008.
But he admits he struggled with international management.
“I found international management hard and it was a big decision to leave Southampton because I enjoyed it there,” he said.
“We had three or four different chairmen and were struggling financially but we had some great young players like Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana.
“But when you are offered the national job you have to give it a go.
“But my strength is being out on the training ground and bringing young players through which I did at Ipswich.
“I was good at that.
“It was the same at Southampton, but as an international manager you only get the players for one or two days every month and I found that hard.
“It was something I didn’t enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being back in Edinburgh but the actual job, I couldn’t put my stamp on the players and I couldn’t get the best out of them when I was with them for so little time.”
Burley has been out of the game since a short spell as manager of Apollon Limassol in Cyprus ended in 2012.
Today he’s a regular at Portman Road.
He still has a burning desire for the club to do well and desperately wants success for a club that has meant so much to him – and what he has done so much for.
If you are looking for Ipswich Town ‘legends’ – and there are a few to be fair – George Burley is front and centre.
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