John Burridge represented the majority of English football clubs in his near-30 years in the game. Two of them, of course, were Crystal Palace and this week’s opposition, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Before the match, we got Budgie on the phone from his villa in Oman.
Over 40 minutes, he covers everything from Kenny Sansom to Ali Al-Habsi, gymnastics to the English sun and obstructive groundsmen to Lionel Messi. There’s a lot of laughing and a lot of swearing. We hardly ask a question.
He drinks a green tea, flips our call to a FaceTime and takes an enforced break through laughter after a story we cannot reproduce.
The same zeal which endeared Cumbria-born Burridge to south Londoners nearly 40 years ago still comes across via a crackly phone connection stretching 4,500 miles. “Palace is the best club,” Burridge says, having declared it was time to talk about the Eagles.
“I enjoyed myself better than anywhere of any club I’ve ever been," he continues. "I’ve had a few clubs. When I was at Palace, I was 26-years-old, prime of my life and I was the elder statesman. We had such a young team.”
Signing in 1978 for a two-year stint, Burridge joined the Eagles’ ranks alongside the likes of Sansom, Vince Hilaire, Jerry Murphy, Dave Swindlehurst and others.
At the end of the 1970s, Palace were an exciting team, known for their promising, dynamic youngsters and eye-catching, passing football - a style enacted years ahead of its time.
For the recently signed Burridge - then joining his fifth of 29 professional clubs - understanding Palace’s tactics had to be learned the hard way.
“I remember getting the ball," he looks back, laughing. "Kenny Sansom came and stood 10 yards away from me. He went: ‘Give me the effin’ ball.’ I didn’t know Kenny then, he wasn’t an England international.
“He was only 17 or 18 and said: ‘Give me the ball.’ I said: ‘Eff off!’ I booted it downfield. He was only 10 yards out and there’s a lad waiting 20 yards away to trap him. So I booted it again [the next time].
“He’s come back and shouted at me. He says: ‘Give me the ball. You’re giving it away.’ So I got the ball the next time and said: ‘Here you are, have it.’
“He’s put his head down and run up, one-two off Murphy and he’s 70 yards down the field. He’s played it into Swindy [Swindlehurst], got it back, got to the byline and flicked it back for Mike Elwiss to score. He’s come back and said: ‘Give. Me. The. Effin’. Ball.’ I said: ‘Son, if you can play like that, you can have the ball every time.’
“I look at our players [of ‘78] now and think: ‘What would they do with a good ball and a field that they play on now?’ The fields weren’t good in those days but we used to play great football. On the beautiful fields they have now, bloody hell, they could play some football. We had a great atmosphere as well. We had a great feeling in the club at that time.”
Alongside reliable, athletic performances between the posts, Budgie became known and loved for his eccentric nature, his often remarkable displays pre-match and his sharp, vocal mouth.
But for all his antics, fans were still taken aback one afternoon in 1979 as, averting their eyes from Palace’s league-topping win over Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, they saw Burridge perched atop the crossbar by the Whitehorse Lane End, merrily enjoying his new vantage point and leaving the net below him unguarded.
“We faced Ipswich in the first game of the season at Selhurst Park,” Burridge recalls. “Full house. They were one of the strongest teams in the league in them days. Powerhouses. We go 1-0 up in the first-half. Great. Second-half, we scored just after half-time: 2-0 up. We get another. Game over, right?
“So, down at the Whitehorse Lane, I thought: ‘Bo***cks to it.’ I climbed up onto the joint of the crossbar. I was sat there saying to the crowd: ‘Great game from up here, lads!’ They were wetting themselves.
“Football’s entertainment! If somebody did that today, you’d pay money to see it. I’d get binned off these days. Can you imagine?”
Mounting the goal frame wasn’t the only off-the-wall trademark of Burridge’s, however, and often the watching Selhurst crowd would instead see the ‘keeper far closer to the pitch, studs raised and hair grazing the turf. Just how did the pre-match gymnastics begin?
“In them days, I was a good gymnast,” Burridge says. “A fantastic gymnast at school. I represented the county team, Cumberland, at gymnastics. In them days, you couldn’t go out onto the field, people warmed up in the dressing room.
“You came out at five to three, that’s when you were allowed on the field. I played for Villa in a practice game at the start of the season in Bilbao. The Russian goalkeeper came out and he trained for 20 minutes before the game started. I thought: ‘that’s fantastic, I’m going to do that when I get back [to England].’
“When I went to the Palace, I went out onto the field and the groundsman says: ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘I’m going to warm-up.’
“He said: ‘Not with that ball you’re not. You can warm-up on the side, yeah, but you’re not going on the field.’ So I walked out of the tunnel on my hands.”
And speaking with the fans?
“You didn’t speak to the crowd. You weren’t allowed. I used to like it, it would take the pressure off me. When I made a great save I could turn around to the crowd: ‘Have that!’
“Terry [Venables] used to say to me: ‘Come on, Budgie, same again.’ I’d say: ‘Terry, I’m the best goalie in the league, you don’t have to tell me that.’ I was building myself up. I was nervous as hell and didn’t believe it but I had to be at the front when we were lining up, shouting.
“Managers would sign me and would actually tell me: ‘You’re not the best goalkeeper I’ve ever seen. But you’re the best organiser and you’re the best motivator. That’s what I bought you for.’ Because I had that personality to lead people into battle. I wasn’t frightened.”
Fast forward to Burridge’s life after hanging up his gloves - a move which troubled the now 67-year-old, sending him into a troubling spiral that culminated with five months in The Priory Hospital - and the former ‘keeper is still embedded in the sport, uncovering former Wigan Athletic shot stopper Ali Al-Habsi in his role as goalkeeping coach for the Oman national team.
Europa League appearances and 131 caps for his country later and Al-Habsi may be viewed as an Oman stalwart, a shoo-in to break into football and thrive at the highest level.
But, for the first player of Gulf Arab origin to play in the Premier League, transferring to England was a near-insurmountable challenge.
“I found this lad playing in the third division [of Oman]," Burridge explains. "We worked on him for two years. I pulled him out of the third division and got one of the coaches to play him in the first division.
“After two years of working every day with him in the gym and the field, I brought him to the national team and they refused to bring him in at his age. I said: ‘Look, I’m the goalkeeper coach, I’m bringing him in as number three.’
“The first choice ‘keeper got an injury to his thumb and I said: ‘Play Ali. He’s playing. I’m the goalkeeping coach and I’ll take full responsibility.’ They played him and he was our best man.
John Burridge made his Palace debut 39 years ago today! 🤸🔴🔵 pic.twitter.com/eNkrACM3HA— Crystal Palace F.C. (@CPFC) March 18, 2017
"I said: ‘If you’re going to go for a trial in England, son, you might as well go right to the top.’ So I rang up Alex Ferguson.
“It was strange when I rang up Carrington. I had a lady on the phone and I said: ‘My name’s John Burridge, I played football in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.’ She didn’t know me. She says: ‘Give me a minute.’
“Another lady comes on, she didn’t know who I was either. I said: ‘I need to speak to Alex, please. Just tell him it’s Budgie, here’s my number.’ She says: ‘That’s a strange number. Where’s Oman?’
“A couple of hours later and Alex rang. He said: ‘What do you want, Budgie?’
"‘I’ve got a goalie for you, Alex.’
"‘How big is he?’
"‘He’s six-foot, five.’
"‘Is he as crazy as you?’
"‘He’s more crazy than me, Alex.’
“I paid the airfare and all his hotel bills were sorted out by Manchester United. They wanted to sign him but he couldn’t get a work permit. I took him to Kevin Keegan around the corner at Manchester City. He wanted to sign him. Couldn’t get a work permit.
“I took him to Sam Allardyce at Bolton and he said: ‘Budgie, if Manchester United can’t get a work permit and Manchester City can’t, I can’t get a work permit.
“But he said: ‘What I’ll do is pay $5,000 every week, his salary, and we’ll send him to Norway. If he’s the best goalkeeper in Norway, we’ll get the work permit.’ I said: ‘Okay, Sam.’
“We sent him to Lyn Oslo and he was the best goalkeeper in Norway for two years. He came to England and got a work permit. I wouldn’t give in. He’s a very good goalkeeper.”
Today, having coached in Malaysia, the Philippines and India, Burridge is living in Oman - “I can’t live in England. Sometimes I go back to Workington to see my sisters. Four days and I’m bloody freezing,” he explains - and is perfectly content in his new job: live streaming matches in Spain for Asian audiences on Facebook.
He ends with a wistful close: “I eat right, I’m in bed early. I’m the same dedicated Budgie that I was. They say: ‘What’s it like in retirement?’ I say: ‘I’m waiting for the phone call. I’m waiting for somebody to ring me. I haven’t retired yet.’
“I’m still playing.”
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