It has often been said that ‘Goalkeepers are Different’ and anyone that actually chooses to play between the sticks must have a different mentality from other players. Well, whether or not this is accurate is up for debate, but it is certainly true that there has been any number of, shall we say, ‘eccentric’ characters who have donned the gloves over the years.
One of the most colourful must undoubtedly be John Burridge, who at the age of 43 years, months and 26 days holds the record as the oldest player in the Premiership’s thirty-plus year history. In a career that fell only just short of three decades in length, ‘Budgie’, as he was known throughout the game, wrote himself into legendary status at ten permanent clubs during his main career, and up to another twenty in brief roles and cameo appearances in the last few years of his playing days.
Born in Workington in 1951, Burridge signed for his hometown club, Workington Town, and made his debut in a game towards the end of the 1968-69 season against Newport County. A 3-2 victory was secured and Burridge had made the first of the 771 appearances he would go on to make in his career.
Burridge played for Workington for two years and perhaps the highlight of his time at their Borough Park stadium came in a home match against Southport. Being brought up in a town better known for its Rugby League team than its footballing one, Burridge’s father was not particularly interested in the round ball game and would often speak to his son in the most disparaging of terms, regarding both the game in general and his offspring’s decision to seek a living through it.
So, it came as somewhat of a shock when Burridge Junior was laid out in a collision with a Southport striker and came to just in time to see his father charging across the pitch – pint glass in hand no less – to remonstrate with the Southport miscreant. As a full-scale punch-up broke out, Burridge had to plead with the local constabulary not to arrest his dad and eventually he was simply ejected from the ground.
Perhaps for the best, Burridge was transferred not long afterward to Blackpool, and so his life as a footballing nomad began. Blackpool in 1971 were a decent team that had just been promoted to the old First Division, and although the Seasiders would suffer an instant relegation, it was at Bloomfield Road that Burridge started getting some national recognition.
A famous televised match in 1975 at home to Sunderland was instrumental in Burridge’s career as he saved a penalty in extraordinary circumstances. With the score deadlocked at 2-2, Sunderland were awarded a controversial spot-kick with the Blackpool players and fans protesting long and hard at the decision. However, most vocal in the protestations was a white-apron-clad Blackpool steward who could be seen on television going absolutely potty.
The guy ran up and down the touchline gesturing wildly and causing such a scene that the kick had to be delayed. When he could finally be persuaded to get off the pitch, he took up a position directly behind Burridge’s goal and continued to flap his arms around wildly. Whether he did so to put the Sunderland penalty-taker, Billy Hughes, off or whether he was just so furious he couldn’t control his limbs was unclear, but nevertheless, Burridge pulled off a fantastic save to prompt wild celebrations from the said steward. The incident can be seen here on YouTube.
Incidentally, Mickey Walsh would then go on to score the winning goal for Blackpool with a strike that ended up being BBC’s Goal of the Season.
When Blackpool were unable to obtain promotion, Burridge was on the move again, this time it was to the Midlands and Aston Villa. Burridge signed for Villa early in the 1975-76 season for a £75,000 transfer fee, despite interest from Manchester United, whose manager, Tommy Docherty, saw him as the long-term successor to Alex Stepney.
Burridge’s time at Villa Park was relatively short, but was reasonably successful too. The League Cup was won in 1977 as Villa beat Everton in a second replay of the final at Old Trafford, and the club led by Ron Saunders was seemingly in the ascendency and heading for bigger things. Unfortunately for Burridge, a personality clash with Saunders was always only going to result in one conclusion, and after asking for a transfer, and Saunders signing Jimmy Rimmer from Arsenal as his direct replacement, Burridge was on his way again.
Moving ever further south with each move, Burridge now headed to the lights of London and to Selhurst Park, where Crystal Palace were beginning to make waves under the management of Terry Venables. By now, Burridge was gaining a reputation for his eccentricities which included warming up for matches by walking on his hands in his penalty area and sitting on the crossbar whenever the mood took him.
Vennables’ Crystal Palace side was an exciting one, and with the experienced yet still youngish Burridge in goal the Second Division title was secured in 1979 and top-flight football beckoned once again. A storming start to the 1979-80 season saw Palace briefly top the table and be labelled, “The Team of the Eighties,” and while that early promise didn’t quite come to fruition, the future at Selhurst Park did at least look bright.
Then the wheels started to come off. A ‘difficult second season syndrome’ kicked in and Venables was soon on his way to Loftus Road and Queens Park Rangers. Burridge was initially devastated to be separated from Venables as the two men had formed a lasting relationship both professionally and personally, and while Burridge had ultimately struggled under the tough regime and unblinking aloofness of Saunders at Aston Villa, he had thrived under the more personable and flexible ‘El Tel’.
It was to nobody’s particular surprise, then, that Burridge would soon become one of the Palace players accompanying Venables across London to Shepherd’s Bush. Also making the journey would be players such as Clive Allen and Mike Flanagan.
Unfortunately for Burridge, Queens Park Rangers became pioneers of English football when they installed the first astroturf pitch in the football league in the summer of 1981. It was a crude and basic offering, totally unlike the sophisticated synthetic pitches of today, and Burridge immediately hated it, stating it was likely to take up to five or six years off his playing career if he continued to play for QPR. The hardness of the surface meant that he had to be padded up before training and games, and even then the force and tear and wear on his knees, ankles and back joints meant he was in constant agony.
As much as it pained him to part ways with Venables again, Burridge put in a transfer request and ended up at Molineux playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers. This would prove to be another two-year stop off, in which the highlights were promotion from the Second Division and a match against Newcastle United in which Burridge appeared dressed as Superman.
This particular event came about as a result of a bet Burridge made with Newcastle talisman, Kevin Keegan, in a match at the end of the season. As a joke, Burridge was warming up in full Superman regalia when Keegan came over and dared him to do the same during the match. Up for the joke, Burridge did just that and played in full Superman kit with a pair of regular shorts on over the top of his tights.
After Wolves, Burridge moved on to Sheffield United, Southampton, Newcastle and Hibernian over the next decade, becoming pretty much a legend at all four clubs. He was involved in further pushes for honours, but was unfortunate to never receive international recognition throughout his career.
His successful spell at Hibs included a run to the Scottish League Cup Final in 1991 where Dunfermline were the opponent. In the semi-final at Hampden, Hibs were drawn against Walter Smith’s Rangers side who were both the cup holders and league champions at the time. A 1-0 victory over the ‘Gers was secured mainly due to a Burridge master display to secure the final spot.
In the Dunfermline ranks on cup final day were future Premier League managers, David Moyes and Billy Davies, but they were helpless to prevent Hibs from running out 2-0 victors and thus providing Burridge with another medal for his collection.
After his time at Hibs was up, Burridge moved into coaching while making himself available as a player for any club that needed short-term cover between the sticks. It was under this arrangement that he was coaching at Newcastle United under his old buddy Keegan while being a backup keeper at the same time when any number of clubs came calling for his services. These included; Scarborough, Lincoln City, Enfield Town, Dunfermline again, Aberdeen, Dumbarton and Falkirk.
It was during this period that Manchester City made a move to secure his services on a loan basis. Sitting on the bench as back-up to Tony Coton, Burridge was close to Premier League action if not quite in the middle of it as he would spend most of the week at Newcastle and then just match days and one other with City.
In April 1995, the two sides met in a Premier League encounter with City in relegation trouble and Newcastle needing points in their pursuit of a European place. Worried about a conflict of interest, Burridge approached Keegan to make sure he was happy with him being on the bench for City at the weekend. Keegan assured him there was no problem as there was no way Burridge would actually play in the match. Was there?
Well, as if scripted, Coton got injured just before half time and so Burridge was on, becoming the oldest player to turn out in the relatively short-lived history of the Premier League. The second half saw Burridge use his experience and knowledge of the Newcastle players he trained with every day to his advantage and played a blinder in what eventually turned out to be a goalless draw. After the game, Keegan had to admit he had made a mistake in letting Burridge be available for the game, but could do nothing more than take it on the chin.
Burridge would play another three games for City before going back on the loan-deal merry-go-round.
Eventually, Burridge bowed out of playing league football and spent time as player-manager at non-league Blyth Spartans, but even then he was still coaching at Newcastle and also at Leeds United. It was a heavy workload, but Burridge was able to cope for two years before finally resigning, though before he did so there was still time for an emotional return to Blackpool where he had made his name all those years ago.
Drawn out of the hat away to Blackpool in the first round of the 1997-98 FA Cup, the Blyth Spartans side, complete with their 45-year-old player-manager goalkeeper, put up a more than credible performance before bowing out 4-3 courtesy of a very late winner.
It was an apt ending to what had been a fantastic career for John Burridge. A true legend of the game.