By Mat Kileen
The journey into life as a professional footballer is different for different players. For Portsmouth centre-back, Christian Burgess, this root has been slightly more unorthodox than most.
Now 25, Burgess has been at the south-coast side since 2015 and was part of the team which lost out in the play-off semi-finals that same season to Plymouth Argyle. But for the ex-Arsenal youngster, the journey in professional football only began in earnest in 2013.
Yes Burgess started out in the Arsenal youth system, where despite not reaching it to the first-team or even the reserves, the effects of long-time manager Arsene Wenger were still felt. Christian said “I think his ethos definitely filtered down. The way he wanted to play football went through all the age groups and this was how you were bought up to play.”
Following his departure from Arsenal and a spell at non-league Bishop’s Stortford, Burgess decided to attend the University of Birmingham where he studied history, although he also considered applying for a scholarship at an American university. It was here that Burgess met ex-Wolves, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough midfielder, Mark Burke who was a coach for the university team. Through this connection, while in his second year, Christian was offered a two-day trial at Middlesbrough and performed well enough to earn a week-long trial later on.
“There was an element of luck about the way it came about” he explained before adding “originally it wasn’t about getting into Middlesbrough, it was about seeing how I shaped up against other lads in my age group.”
Following the end of his studies in 2013, Christian joined Middlesbrough and remained at the club for two years, during which time he spent time on loan at Hartlepool United and Peterborough United.
Reflecting on this part of his career and particularly his loan spell at Hartlepool, Burgess said: “It was much quicker than reserve football and you have to be a fast learner in order to adapt, so being there did me the world of good”. Christian also highlighted that he had seen, in his time in the reserves at Middlesbrough, the importance of playing first-team games, as some players who had not, were reaching the end of their time at the club and then not being picked up by other teams.
After just a year at Middlesbrough, Burgess left the club and joined Peterborough on a permanent basis. During the time Christian spent at the club, he played under then-Posh manager, Darren Ferguson, son of former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex. However, it would prove to be a brief stay at the Cambridgeshire club and at the end of the 2014-15 season, Burgess made the move south to Fratton Park.
Explaining his decision to join Portsmouth, the now Blues defender said “As a footballer, you get bought by the ambition a club has”. Christian went on to outline how when he moved to Peterborough and then to Portsmouth, both clubs sold him the dream of getting promoted and wanting to progress through the leagues.
The ambition of achieving promotion to League One was almost realised by Christian in his first season at the club, as Pompey made it into the League Two play-offs where they would face rivals, Plymouth Argyle. However, after drawing the first leg at Fratton Park 2-2, the Blues lost 1-0 at Home Park and the dream would have to be put on hold. Speaking about that experience, Burgess said “I thought we were a better side than them. There is a stat that if you get the home game second, you are more likely to go through but I kept telling the boys that didn’t matter”. Burgess also reflected on the injury problems that had hit the team around that time, including Ryan Allsop being bought in as an emergency keeper, along with the two injuries the team suffered early on in the match at Home Park.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, Pompey were once again among the favourites for promotion to League One. Given the club’s status as one of the biggest in the division, does Christian think there is added pressure on the team? “There is a lot of pressure to get promoted out of this league. I think you put more pressure on yourself as a player than there is from the club.” he said before adding “There will always be pressure on this club to get promoted out of League Two until it happens”. The Blues have slipped down the table from their early season position, in the automatic promotion places and the path to League One now looks as though it will lead through the play-offs.
When asked about the reaction of some fans towards the manager following recent games, Christian reflected on how he felt the team had been unlucky in defeats against Exeter and Wycombe. He added “I think what we’ve done now is go back to what we know best. We believe in ourselves as a team that can play good football”.
So despite an unusual start to his professional career, like any other player Christian is always looking for a challenge and at Portsmouth he appears to have found a club which shares his ambitions of one day returning to past heights by climbing their way back through the divisions. One thing is for sure, the hunger to achieve this shows no sign of letting up.
Article and photos by kind permission Mat Kileen and LMS Magazine.