John Burridge: Football’s greatest vagabond

Ben Mountain
Ben Mountain
Ben Mountain
Contributor

We’re pretty much used to transfers these days; deadline day after deadline day has passed us by and the excitement of a big name move has somewhat worn off. Imagine how it would have felt after 29 moves: welcome to the life of John Burridge.

John Burridge, otherwise known as ‘Budgie’, is not an easy man to describe.

We could list every club he played for in a desperate attempt to whip up an image of the fella. But that would take ages. And neither you nor us want that.

We’ll say this instead; Budgie was an English goalkeeper who had made nearly 800 professional appearances for 29 different clubs in just 28 years. He’s famed for entertaining an adoring crowd with handstands, flips and other head-spinning acrobatics.

But Budgie was more than just another nutty ‘keeper. He was an innovator; one of the first footballers to warm up on the pitch pre-game, wear goalkeeping gloves for every match and visit a sports psychologist whilst maintaining a healthy diet.

Tragically, the fella also became suicidal as the sport he loved was taken away from him. Some saw him as a money-following vagrant, others a ground-breaking and hilarious sportsman. Andy Gray describes him as an “Oddball, crazy, madcap, loony (and an) eccentric man”.

Like we said, then, a difficult man to describe.

Having grown up in the mining town of Workington as a child, Burridge describes his childhood as “absolutely horrendous”. Growing up in a town where “men were men and the women knew their place”, Budgie became quite the tough guy in quite the old-fashioned area.

Faced with working down the pit, where he was “frightened to death”, Budgie dedicated himself to football. And boy it shows.

His entire life became centered around the sport, even by modern standards. Starting at his home town club, Workington, Budgie did not have an easy entrance to the sport. Playing as a 15-year-old reserve ‘keeper, the poor fella had his nose broken only two games in by the towering tank of Jim Fryatt.

But that didn’t stop him. After two solid years as a teen with Workington, Burridge’s big break came.

Shortly after the passing of his father – though Budgie “had to keep playing, it was the best way to cope with the situation” – the young shot stopper was shipped off to the relative dying giants of the time, Blackpool.

Bob Stokoe, a legendary manager in the north, had snapped up Budgie as a fresh-faced teen for £20,000 and a four-year contract. That was far and away the most stability the ‘keeper would ever enjoy.

What followed was a creditable taste of glory for the youngster as Blackpool stormed to victory in the 1972 Anglo-Italian Cup.

After that was a mesmirising tapestry of transfers. Having finished his four-year contract with the Seasiders, Burridge went south to Aston Villa.

We won’t go on, but you can guess how the list of following transfers looked.

However, despite the frequency of his moves, Budgie wasn’t heading to any old ‘Mickey Mouse’ clubs. Far from it. By the end of his career, the man can say to have played for the likes of Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United and Manchester City. He was also regularly in contention for a spot in the England national team, although it sadly never materialised due to the imperial presence of England’s ‘keepers over the ’70s,’80s and ’90s.

Though what sets Burridge apart from the other footballers of his era, asides from his vagabond lifestyle, was the warmth and embraces of football fans across the country for him.

Story after story followed Budgie and he became a fan favourite wherever he went.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for some of the authorities he worked under. Bust-ups with managers, chairmen and coaches alike were frequent occurrences in the man’s life. One former chairman described him as a “f**cking mongrel” and another manager had told him, “You’re cancer. Don’t you come near me” after a transfer disagreement.

Quite the strong words.

But Budgie’s status as a unique and forceful innovator in football can’t be doubted.

And this makes his steady demise all the more sad. Having upped sticks and left England for Scotland towards the tail end of his career, Budgie finished in a miserable fashion. In just two years, he’d moved between eight different clubs and racked up only six games between them.

This eventually culminated, at the age of 46, in the start of a painful breakdown. One day, whilst helping Kevin Keegan by coaching at Newcastle, Burridge simply broke down.

“I was on the bench with Kevin Keegan and his staff at a game against Arsenal one day, and I just started crying. Kevin asked what was the matter and I said, ‘I just want to play’.”

Sadly, Budgie had hung up his gloves by this point and could no longer face the footballing world without him playing in it.

From football’s funniest fool to a crying, lost and directionless cast-out, Budgie hit rock bottom in the late 1990s.

Having locked himself in his room, contemplating suicide and rejecting any form of help, Burridge says that this is how he felt.

“I hadn’t shaved, I hadn’t brushed my teeth for days. I was a complete mess. I’d got depression and I had got it bad. I’d been called mad often enough in my career – for walking on my hands during warm-ups, doing somersaults, sitting on the crossbar during games, having brawls with my managers, sleeping in my goalie gloves, following the same diet as African tribesmen.”

“None of that was seen as normal behaviour, but I hadn’t been mad, just ‘Mr Dedication’ – someone who was way ahead of his time. But this was a whole different ball game – I was in meltdown and maybe this time I was mad.”

“I just wanted to crawl into a corner and die.”

But, mercifully, Burridge found help. When his wife, Janet, and Kevin Keegan decided it would be best to have him sectioned, “men in green boiler suits… stuck a needle in my arse with a knock-out drug and sent me to sleep.”

From here, Budgie went into the Priory and found solace in his problems when he realised that he was surrounded by bereaved widows, drug-addicted children, manic depressives and alcoholics:

“And I’d have to stand up and say I was suicidal because I was 47 and couldn’t play Premier League football any more.”

John Burridge

Today, having successfully confronted the issue, he now works on TV in Oman and had helped to nurture the Reading ‘keeper, Ali-Al-Habsi.

With the breakdown, managerial brawls and moving days behind him, Burridge now enjoys life in the Middle East.

But his legacy will forever remain in Britain.

Budgie; the nutter, the innovator, the journeyman. And we still haven’t fully described him. We told you it’s not easy.