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Back in the Day: Chris Burns – Portsmouth, Northampton Town, Gloucester City, Cheltenham Town, Forest Green Rovers

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Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 09:00, Tags: Back In The Day

Chris Burns played for Portsmouth against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final in 1992 Chris Burns played for Portsmouth against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final in 1992

It’s not far short of 30 years since Chris Burns, one of Gloucestershire’s finest ever footballers, went toe-to-toe with some of the very best players from one of the great clubs, not once, but twice at the semi-final stage in the game’s leading club knockout competition.

The competition was the FA Cup of course – and back in 1992 it was a trophy that every club in the land was really desperate to win – and the now 52-year-old Burns, a Brockworth boy through and through, was in the Portsmouth side who went so, so close to producing one of the great cup upsets.

Only a goal four minutes from the end of extra time by Ronnie Whelan denied Portsmouth victory in the first game at Highbury – it ended 1-1 - and the then Division Two club took the Anfield giants to extra time again eight days later at Villa Park.

Again there was nothing to separate the two clubs after 120 minutes – the game was goalless - but it was Liverpool, with their greater experience of the big occasion, who edged the penalty shootout to book their Wembley final place, a final that saw them beat Sunderland 2-0.

That Liverpool team were chock-full with some of the great names of the game – Ian Rush, John Barnes, Bruce Grobbelaar, Steve McManaman and Ray Houghton to name just a few – but to this day Burns believes it was a tie that Portsmouth should have won.

In those days Burns was playing in central midfield – former Arsenal and England man Michael Thomas was directly opposite him - and he featured in all 240 minutes against the mighty Reds.
“It’s the one we let get away,” he said. “Over the two games we were the better side, we should have won. They were a fantastic team, so experienced, but we had a really good team - Darren Anderton, Mark Chamberlain, Andy Awford, Kit Symons.”

And Portsmouth certainly weren’t overawed by their illustrious opponents.

“Not at all,” said Burns, “we didn’t think like that. It may have been Ian Rush and John Barnes, but we had a job to do, we wanted to win the game.

“I just had to be as good as them on the day, I was up against Michael Thomas and over the two games I thought I was better than him, that’s what our manager Jim Smith told me.

“John Barnes, what a player. But he never got the better of me.”

So, does Burns look back at what might have been?

“No, not at all,” he said. “No regrets, I had a great career.”

He certainly did. The one-time Cheltenham Town, Gloucester City and Forest Green Rovers player made 90 appearances for Portsmouth from 1990 to 1994 and also played for Northampton Town, Swansea City and Bournemouth.

Born in Manchester – he came into the world two months earlier than expected when his parents were visiting the city – he learned his football in what was then a little village just outside Gloucester, the place that he has always considered to be ‘home’.

That village was Brockworth of course and he said: “My uncles used to play for Brockworth United.

“In those days there were two Saturday teams in Brockworth – Brockworth AFC and Brockworth United, they both played in Division One of the Cheltenham League.

“I remember one year they both got to the final of the Senior Cup at Whaddon Road,” adding with a laugh, “Brockworth AFC won, my uncles didn’t perform that day!”

His uncles were Colin, Dave and Phil Thomas – they were his mum Jean’s brothers – and they and his grandad, Alfred, played a big part in the life of the young Chris Burns.

And a big part of those early years was spent playing football.

“I was kicking a ball from an early age, I was kicking a ball before I could even walk,” laughed Burns.

He also supported Manchester United from a young age – well, he was born in Manchester!

Brockworth United wore the same red shirts as Manchester United and Burns recalled: “I grew up with Steve Coppell, Gordon Hill, Lou Macari, Martin Buchan, they were all top players.”

They were successful, too, which is more than you can say for the young Burns when he first started playing competitive football. Mind you, there was a very good reason for that.

“I started playing for Horton Rangers when I was about eight, we played our home games in Barnwood,” recalled Burns.

“Our team was all about the same age, but the problem was that we were playing in the under-12 division, that was the youngest age group that we could play in.

“It was 11-a-side and we were getting hammered every week, we were losing 8-0 or 9-0. We were good for our age but we just couldn’t compete physically with the bigger boys, we were too small.”

Things picked up for Burns when he moved to Matson Juniors at the age of 10.

“We were the best team around,” said Burns, who was playing regularly on the left side of midfield.

“I scored 167 goals in 26 games in one season or something silly like that and I think it is still a record for the Gloucester League under-12 division.

“It wasn’t just me, we had a very good team, I just seemed to be in the right position.”

There was a lot more to it than that, of course, even at that tender age and the good times continued to roll for Burns when he joined Redwell Rangers at the age of 13, a team that were also based in Matson.

By the age of 16 or 17 he was playing adult football in Brockworth but he only played a few games at that level before he was snapped up by Sharpness, who in those days were playing in the Hellenic League and wanted a creative left-sided midfielder.

A season there and he was on the move again and again it was another big step up because it was John Murphy, the then manager of Cheltenham Town, who came calling.

Cheltenham were in the top tier of the non-league pyramid but while that was a challenge in itself for the young Burns, it wasn’t the only challenge.

“I played at left-back,” said Burns. “I didn’t mind because I just wanted to play but I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the strongest defender, I liked to get forward.”

In those days the main men at Cheltenham were the likes of Ray Baverstock, Kevin Willetts, Mark Buckland and Anton Vircavs, and Burns added: “I got a little run in the side. I got on really well with the boys, I still speak to a lot of them now.”

Burns also speaks highly of Jim Barron who he credits with helping him to really push on as a player when he took over as a manager.

“He played me at left-back at first but then he pushed me further forward,” recalled Burns.

“Jim Barron liked me quite a lot, he had faith in me and was a good manager for me.”

Burns was good for Barron too and it wasn’t difficult to see why. He had energy, work rate and was as honest as the day is long. He could also pass a ball and had an eye for goal.

“I think my passing was probably my strength,” he said modestly. “The big tuning point was when we played Alvechurch, I played centre midfield and I scored five goals.

“I thought then that I could play there, I always wanted to be a Bryan Robson or a Lou Macari.”
Both were heroes of his growing up and Burns got the chance to play against the former England captain towards the end of his career.

That game was at Old Trafford but playing at one of the greatest grounds in world football couldn’t have been further from Burns’ mind towards the end of his three-year spell with Cheltenham.

Jim Barron was no longer at the club and Burns said: “I’d stopped enjoying my football. One week I was in and then the next week I was out. I lost interest and I thought about quitting and going back to play local football.”

That’s when fate – or in this case a good friend – intervened because Allan Gough, the one-time Gloucester City player, suggested he go for a trial at Portsmouth.

The south coast club were managed by Frank Burrows, who Gough knew.

“He told me go down to Portsmouth,” said Burns. “He got me my big break, he told me I’d got something.”

And Gough was absolutely right because within three days Burns was signed by Portsmouth.

“They signed me for £35,000,” said Burns, “Cheltenham snapped their hands off, but Frank Burrows said they would have doubled that!”

Burns’ initial deal with Portsmouth meant that he was earning roughly the same money that he got as a bricklayer/semi-professional with Cheltenham.

Not that that bothered him one jot.

“I just wanted to be a professional footballer,” he said. “It was what I had dreamed about all my life.”

There was to be a shock just around the corner, however.

“Frank Burrows signed me on the Wednesday and on the Friday he was sacked,” said Burns.
He was replaced by Tony Barton, the man who won the European Cup with Aston Villa in 1982, and Burns said: “I signed for them in the March and played for the reserves until the end of the season.

“I loved it at Portsmouth, I really enjoyed myself. There were some really good players at the club – Mark Chamberlain, Paul Walsh, Graeme Hogg – they were so nice to me, it was really good.”

And he was soon rubbing shoulders with the club’s star players for real in the heat of battle.

“I made my debut at the start of the following season,” said Burns. “It was at Blackburn and they were the favourites to win promotion to the Premier League, we drew 1-1.”

By now Jim Smith had taken over as manager of Portsmouth. He was one of the great characters of the game back then and was a proper football man.

He was a decent manager too – Burns rates him as the best boss he played for - and took charge of a number of clubs including Newcastle and QPR. He was always pretty popular with the fans during his time at Portsmouth and Burns said: “Fratton Park was amazing; the supporters were absolutely fantastic.

“Everyone still seems to know you even after 25 years. I still get people coming up to me and telling me I was a cracking little player.”

Burns has retained quite close links with the club.

“I still play for their legends team,” he said. “I play alongside the likes of Darren Anderton, Paul Walsh, Guy Butters, Svetoslav Todorov, Hermann Hreioarsson and Linvoy Primus.”

And those people who know Burns won’t be surprised to hear that he gives those games absolutely everything he’s got even though he’s now into his sixth decade.

“When I was playing, Jim Smith always said play every game as though it could be your last,” he said. “He said you never know what’s around the corner. It’s the same when I play for the legends.

“I’ve always been like that all my life whether I was playing for Cheltenham, Brockworth or Portsmouth, it’s my drive that got me through.”
Burns stayed with Portsmouth for four years and only moved on because he wanted regular first-team football.

“I went to Swansea on loan where Frank Burrows was manager, he was a great guy,” said Burns. “He tried to sign me but Portsmouth wanted £120,000.

“I went to Bournemouth on loan when Tony Pulis was manager – he was another great guy.

“Then Ian Atkins rang me and said he wanted me at Northampton. I was available on a free which I found bizarre because Swansea had offered £60,000 for me two months previously.”

Burns played more than 60 games for Northampton and enjoyed playing for Atkins.

“He was another really top manager,” he said. “He treated me like his own kid.”

Burns clearly got on with the majority of the managers he played for, so why does he think that was the case?

“I always gave 100 per cent,” he said. “I was a different man when I crossed that white line. I’d have kicked my own mum if need be! I always wanted to be a winner, that’s why I had such a good career.”

And he’d have played longer in the full-time game had it not been for the pull of Brockworth.

“I’d got two boys,” said the now father of three grown up children who will have been married to their mum Beverley for 30 years this year.

“They’d already been to two or three schools and I was starting to get homesick. I still had 18 months on my contract, but I wanted to get the boys back to Gloucester, I wanted us to settle down.”

So, he came home and played for Gloucester City for three years at a time when the club were going toe-to toe with Steve Cotterill’s Cheltenham in the second tier of non-league football.
It was a fight to the finish, but it was Cheltenham who got their noses in front in the final weeks of the season, a season which provided the launchpad for their subsequent remarkable drive into the Football League.
Burns could have rejoined Cheltenham when he left Northampton but was nonetheless delighted to see his old club do so well and especially their midfielder Keith Knight, who remains one of his great friends in the game.

After three years at Gloucester, Burns made the short trip across the county to Forest Green where he linked up with manager Frank Gregan.

A runners-up medal in the FA Trophy followed – they were beaten 1-0 by Canvey Island in the final – before Burns returned to Gloucester to become player/manager.

It was a position he was to hold for close on five years – Keith Knight worked alongside him for a period – and it’s certainly a period that is looked back on with great fondness by City fans, a period that included a promotion and run to the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy.

“It’s hard work when you haven’t got much of a budget,” he admitted. “We got a load of local lads in and it went really well, I enjoyed management.”

He has since taken charge of Cinderford Town, Bishop’s Cleeve and Brockworth Albion at various times and says he’d like another go at being the main man.

“It would be good to have a half decent budget so you can show how good a manager you are,” he said. “Money talks, you just have to look at the Premier League.”

In between those various managerial jobs, Burns, who these days works as a bricklayer with two of his three sons, took himself off to Spain for a year.

Of course, it was football related, because he linked up with UD Horadada, a club who play in the Valencia League.

“I really, really enjoyed it,” said Burns. “I went to see if there was a coaching job, but I joined in the training and they said they wanted me to play. They said I was the best player, I was 40!”

Burns’ youngest boy, 21-year-old Harry, has just returned from Spain after playing for the same club - Burns senior has many, many connections! – and when he came back to England, he joined another of his father’s former clubs, Bishop’s Cleeve.

Dad watches him play whenever he can. He also watches Brockworth Albion play and is actually signed on the for the club’s reserves, who play in Division Two of the Cheltenham League.

He’d played only once for them this season at the time of writing but said: “We won 3-1! I’ll play if they’re short but fortunately that hasn’t really happened!”

Burns clearly loves his football as much today as he ever did, and he and Keith Knight will regularly take themselves off somewhere around the county to watch a midweek game.

That’s where it all began for Burns, of course, and he said: “It was always the dream to be a professional.

“Up until the age of 22 I still thought I had a bit of a chance. When I went to Cheltenham, I thought I must be quite good. I was 19 and I always had belief.

“I used to think, ‘You’ve got a great chance, don’t waste it!’”

He most certainly didn’t. He played against boyhood hero Bryan Robson – Manchester United beat Portsmouth 3-1 in a League Cup tie – in a game that also featured Ryan Giggs.

“It was 1-1 for a long time,” recalled Burns.

Robson was past his best by then but was still obviously a very good player.

So, who was the best player he played against?

“I played in a pre-season tournament at Ajax when I was at Portsmouth,” said Burns. “I played against Clarence Seedorf; he wasn’t a bad player!”

Nor was Chris Burns!

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