BY CHRIS CLARK
Playing in the Premier League, becoming Footballer of the Year in the country of your birth, playing, scoring and getting sent off at a World Cup, Craig Burley’s football career certainly had it all. The Scotsman then moved onto the world of co-commentary and punditry, his no-nonsense style has now found him the other side of the pond, I spoke to him to find out more about his career…
When you were growing up did you always dream of becoming a footballer?
That was the only thing for me, although I was pushed by my parents, I was obviously inspired by my Uncle George who was playing at Ipswich. We used to go to Ipswich every year on holidays when I was a kid. Bloody hell, I used to think Ipswich was Barcelona. I was a little kid from a small mining village in Ayrshire, Ipswich were massive to me.
Well they were at the time, they were winning trophies and near the top of the league
They had some great players; Terry Butcher, Alan Brazil, Eric Gates, my Uncle. However the two guys who impressed me most, were the Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen. They captivated me. I was spellbound. I wanted to play in England.
You signed for Chelsea as a 16year old, were there any other clubs interested in you?
As a young 14/15 year old whenever it was the school holidays, I would go for week long invitations at football clubs. The one I went to most was Stoke City under Mick Mills (Ipswich connection again!). However when it came down to it, it was between two teams, Arsenal and Chelsea. Arsenal were a mini version of what they’re now, a very well run club. Chelsea were not the club they are today, the facilities weren’t great, but I was more comfortable there. So I signed on YTS for £25 a week, and that was the decision made at 16.
When did you make your debut?
I was brought on when we were 5-1 down away to Nottingham Forest, under Bobby Campbell. There were 10 minutes left, and I thought thanks Bobby! We lost 7-1.
Subsequently you were managed by Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit, what was it like playing under those two legends of the game?
Glenn after leaving Monaco, actually trained with us for a while, before going to Swindon. Little did we know that he would come back. Under Glenn it was great, he started the Chelsea ball rolling by bringing in Mark Hughes and Ruud Gullit. I was disappointed to see him go, but you cannot turn down the national team job when it’s offered to you.
Then Ruud became manager
I played with Ruud for a year. He had been World Footballer of the year, 6ft 4 and a beast of a man. What a player. Glenn brought him in to play sweeper, but invariably he would end standing up front with Mark Hughes. It was wonderful to play with him. When he became manager everything was rosy, I was in the team, he was one of the boys. However later on in the season, results were indifferent. Players were unhappy. If you asked to speak to him in his office after training, he’d say fine, you’d get showered and changed but by then half the time he had gone back home to Holland!
So what was the break down between you and Ruud?
Things unravelled at the FA Cup Final in 1997 when he left me out. I had played in the Quarters and Semi’s, but I had a patchy season with injuries. Talks had been ongoing about a new 4 year contract and they offered me a testimonial, Kerry Dixon had got 4,000 fans at his testimonial, and he was a Chelsea legend. A testimonial was worth a packet of crisps to me! So I turned the contract down. On Cup Final day, we’re in the hotel at Cockfosters, Ruud wrote the team on the blackboard in the meeting room, and said “let’s go”. I wasn’t on it. I will never forget that feeling, I was gutted. Unlike some the FA Cup Final was like the Champions League Final to me, Chelsea were never going to win the league, this was my pinnacle. Looking around all the boys were shocked as well that I wasn’t in the side. I was flattened. I got on the bus to Wembley, and the route it took went past my house. I contemplated getting off.
You were that pissed off?
I was fucking mad. I was going to get off at Mill Hill, but it was only my mate and best man Kevin Hitchcock that stopped me doing it. I was gone, my head was gone. I was on the pitch pre-game at Wembley, it was upsetting. The funny thing was we went on an end of season tour to Brunei, Hong Kong and Thailand. He played me every game. I don’t think he liked me by that point!
Then I was off to Celtic.
Were you a Celtic fan growing up?
I wasn’t a fan to be honest, in fact I’m not a fan of any club. As a youngster I never watched Scottish football, I just loved English football. At the time I had no ambition to go back to Scotland, in fact I was talking to Crystal Palace and Coventry at the time. However I signed for Celtic, even on the day of signing I was walking down the steps at Celtic Park, and my agent’s phone rang. It was Steve Coppell asking if I was still available, I had signed for Celtic 5minutes previously! Once I arrived at Celtic though, I soon became aware of the size of the club and the history. It really sank in pre-season that fans were desperate for us to win the League as Rangers were going for ten in a row.
Henrik Larsson and I signed a day apart. I signed for £2.5m, and Henrik signed for £675,000.
I won’t say what the money was best spent on!
Hahahaha it’s safe to say we know!
Celtic did indeed win the league under Wim Jansen, what was he like?
Wim came in under the radar like Arsene Wenger from Japan. Wim was magnificent, 90% of the players loved him. I had my best season ever, I scored 15 goals and I was voted Scottish Player of Year. It was soul destroying when he left, we basically did what no Celtic team had done in recent history, we had won the league. Jo Venglos came in after, and he was like everyone’s Great-Grandad, that was never going to work. Then Barnesy and Dalglish came in, and it was a whole new board as well.
Some players are not cut out to be managers, do you think that was the case with John?
I got on really well with John. His downfall at Celtic was that the people upstairs were ripping the carpet from underneath his feet. It was a very political time at Celtic. When I was on my way to Derby, JB phoned me the morning I was going to sign. The phone went, and the wife goes “It’s Barnesy” I thought “what the fuck does he want now” Barnesy was going don’t go, I want you to stay, the board are selling you.
Was it a desire of yours to get back to the Premier League, is that why you joined Derby?
It was a bit, but Celtic are a fantastic club to play for, magnificent stadium, brilliant fans. We had some cracking players there, Paul Lambert, Alan Stubbs and Henrik. I just wanted out of the goldfish bowl, it was suffocating at times. You got to a restaurant and everyone knows you, trust me it’s nice for a while, but in the end it’s too much. Christ, I don’t know how some players manage it for 10 years.
You have the distinction of playing, scoring and being sent off in during the 1998 World Cup. What did it mean to represent your country?
I loved it. Playing Brazil first up, people thought this could get messy. Let’s be honest, Scotland are never going to play in a World Cup final, so to play in the opening game, whilst obviously not as important as the final, but it’s still a significant game. It was a great experience, and we didn’t embarrass ourselves (Scotland lost 2-1).
What were the Brazilians like?
I played right hand side of midfield, so I was up against Roberto Carlos…boy he could run, he was a tricky little bugger.
Barring the final, I’d say that tournament was peak Ronaldo. What was he like?
Every time he got the ball something happened. He’d pick it up, and three seconds later, you see Jim Leighton making a save, or the ball whistling past the post. But remember they also had Rivaldo, Dunga, Cafu. They were some side.
In the final game, you had to beat Morocco to qualify. However you got sent off, was it deserved?
Oh yeah! I kicked the boy, I was stupid, my head had gone! Though Norway beat Brazil in their last game, so in the end it didn’t matter what we did against Morocco. So I played in the opening game, scored against Norway and got sent off against Morocco. If you’re going to a World Cup you’ve got to cram it all in!!
Winding down in your career, did you think about coaching/management? Or was punditry something you were always keen to get into?
I never thought about coaching or management. What I did was, and I will always say this to any young player, listen if you get a chance to do some media work do it. When I was at Chelsea, I was injured, and got asked by Capital Gold to commentate on a game, I said yeah…I was shitting myself, but I loved it! Then Sky got interested, that was just studio stuff though. Once I moved to Celtic, Sky were keen on me to do the Scottish stuff for them
Why were Sky so interested in your views?
Well Sky picked me, as I wasn’t frightened in what I was saying. I had an opinion, but looking back now on those times, I was wet behind the ears, but at least I got to understand the business, and if I liked it or not.
So you were commentating/analysing games whilst you were still playing. Did any of your forthright views lead to disagreements with players at the time?
No, not when I was playing. But definitely when I stopped playing. As soon as I went into the media full time, I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to hold back.
So what happened when you finally retired from playing football?
I got a phone call from Colin Davidson, who had just left Sky, to take over total control of Setanta Sports. Setanta had just bought all the Scottish football from Sky. Colin said to me, I want you to be the studio pundit, will you do it? So I took it. If I hadn’t took my opportunities when I was younger with Capital Gold, then stuff like this wouldn’t have happened.
Exactly, you weren’t sitting on your arse wanting for things to fall into your lap.
You’ve got to go and do it…you might be on £100k a week these days and think you don’t need it, but you’re a long time retired. You can’t just walk into it, at a later date. Some do, if your Thierry Henry for example. But us mere mortals have to earn our stripes.
Some of the pundits today are very bland
Well I decided as soon as I retired, I was now a pundit, and the coaches, players and managers were on the other side of the fence. So I basically put a crash helmet on and went for it, I didn’t hold back. I had managers not speaking to me etc. My boss at Setanta loved it, he said this is exactly what we want. Setanta then moved me onto the English football, and I didn’t change, and that’s why I’m in America now.
So when did you move across to America
I signed a 3-year deal in 2013, after Setanta went bust, I was working for ESPN and Radio 5 live, and the in-house Premier League channel.
How did you find all the travelling going to games in this country?
In the Setanta days it was easy, as I was doing one day a week. When I was working for ESPN/5 Live/Premier League I was having one day at home, and it was taking it’s toll on that front. Don’t get me wrong I loved the job, if I was a single guy I would stay in a hotel etc, but I had a wife and 3 kids. Then the job in America came up.
Was it an easy sell to the family?
Yeah relatively, myself and my wife are the same age (43), so we did it. For the first six months in America was tough, with all the bureaucracy. It’s stuff like, you can’t get a phone, as you can’t get credit etc. They say you need to show 6 months bank statements, I’d only been here 6 weeks! It’s frustrating. We had to leave the eldest son at home, as he couldn’t get a work visa. That wasn’t easy.
So moving to the American role, do you commentate on games?
Not primarily, we do a show called ESPN FC, which is 6 days a week (Sunday to Friday). Which is now re-entering the UK market in August, which will be on BT. We occasionally do commentaries, but we do them from the studio in Connecticut, for example on Wednesday I commentated on Barcelona and Manchester City. Obviously we won’t go to a lot of games for the cost, but we will be going to the Champions League final in Berlin for a week.
So when you cater for a North American audience do you have to dumb down the analysis, or do they get it?
As ESPN is global, we have to cater for a number of audiences. So sometimes in a show, we will do a segment 3/4 times, depending on the audience. For example, Far East, North American and Carribbean. So we could have 5minutes on a MLS segment for North American, but we won’t go into as much detail for the Far East. Saying that I’ve got to go onto ESPN Sportcenter for 5mins about Liverpool v Manchester United and I’ve got to keep it generic. If I start going “well the left back was too far round” it’s not going to work on there.
So how long does the 30 minute show take to record?
Basically it takes about 2 and half bloody hours to do! A lot of stuff is electronically driven, and a lot of stuff ends up on the website www.ESPNfc.com
Well the days of the family sitting down and watching TV together are long gone now
Yeah, we had a big meeting a couple of months ago, and the boss of ESPN International said we don’t see ourselves as a TV company anymore, we see ourselves as a multi-media platform. That’s how a lot of these companies are driving their business. It’s just not what you do on TV anymore.
Do you want to talk about the Torres tattoo?
Hahahaha!! Fucking hell that grew!
That took a life of it’s own that did!
I remember his first ever Premier League game for Liverpool away to Villa. It coincided with Setanta’s 1st Premier League commentary, so I was at the game. Fernando Torres that day was brilliant, for 18months/2years I thought he was the best in Europe. I’m flummoxed to see the change in the guy now. Stupidly at the end of one segment, I said if he scores in this Barcelona game or Madrid derby whatever it was, I said I’ll get a tattoo. So the day of the game, I had a bit of trouble parking the car, so I missed the first 5minutes. I get into the office, and people are saying he’d already scored!
Bet they were giving you absolute pelters!
Oh aye, so we decided to go ahead with it as a mock
Would you have done it for real?
No way! I’m not that much of a mug. So we did the mock-up, I have to say, it didn’t look like him anyway! We ran it on the show, and the next thing I know it’s all over the place.
Oh yeah it went viral
It’s in the Italian newspaper, Spanish newspapers. Somehow it get’s into the Latvian and Russian press. It’s on a Spanish news podcast, not even a sports broadcast. It was getting out of hand, so we decided to come clean and say it wasn’t a tattoo! It was a bit of fun, but I can’t believe how viral it went.
Well that shows the way of the world now, say something now, that’s your lot!
I was getting guys on social media saying your the man, well done. I felt like saying come on guys!! It was a bit of fun, but I won’t be doing it again.
Moving back to sensible matters, you’ve been a pundit for nearly 20 years now, what advice would you give to aspiring pundits?
One of the things I learned early on, to get longevity in this game you’ve got to be a team player. You just can’t pick a microphone up and make it happen. You’ve got learn how the VT and the replays work, how the match director works. You’ve got to work really closely with them. I had the good fortune of working with one of the best in the business, Grant Phillips who is absolutely pleasure to work with. You have to earn the respect of the camera boys, and make-up artists. I get the feeling that some of the pundits now are just dipping their toes into it.
They’re not particularly keen on it?
Yeah, it’s like they’re just doing it for something to do until a coaching job pops up. So they’re scared of giving an opinion in case they upset someone. These people are being paid to do this job, say something. God they grate on me! I cannot stand the modern pundit, who doesn’t have the bollocks to say how it is against his old team or manager.
For example Carragher and Souness really laid it into Mourinho after the PSG game, I’m not so sure they would have done the same if it is was Brendan Rodgers
They still have their club ties and don’t want to upset their old club. There is too much WE around in the modern punditry. We don’t care over here (America), we will lay into everyone.
Do you think you will stay in the States?
Yeah I think so, as long as they want me. Soccer over here, as they call it, is getting big. Manchester Utd played Real Madrid in the summer there was 120,000 at the game. Phenomenal. I’m happy working in the studio, being 30 mins from home. I’ve done the hard yards, I’ve been to and from games for 10 years. Being at a stadium 4 hours before kick off, there’s more to life than that.
If you can put up with not seeing grass for 3 months, then Connecticut is a great place to live!
It’s not a bad life is it?
Yeah, it’s not bad, but none of us know what’s round the corner. I’m just enjoying what I’m doing.