Sport League of Ireland

Monday 19 August 2019

'I just feel like I've got a better life here in Ireland' - Graham Burke on his return home after second stint in UK

After a 'crazy' year, Dubliner is back home for reasons that go beyond football

'If playing for Shamrock Rovers is the best thing for me, then I’m playing for Shamrock Rovers. I don’t care what anyone else says about it.' Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
'If playing for Shamrock Rovers is the best thing for me, then I’m playing for Shamrock Rovers. I don’t care what anyone else says about it.' Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A year ago this week, Graham Burke was Ireland's man of the moment.

He marked his first Preston start with an EFL Cup goal and followed it up with a Championship strike in a televised game with Stoke.

This followed on from a summer where he'd left Shamrock Rovers after a senior Irish debut in Paris against the World Cup winners in waiting and a fairytale goal against the USA at the Aviva.

"I thought, 'right, this is it'", says Burke, "Everything is falling into place."

His proud neighbours on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin's north inner city always knew that Burke was a talent. They wondered where this journey might take him.

What they weren't expecting was to see the familiar face back on their streets within a year.

Graham Burke scores on his Ireland senior debut, a 2-1 friendly win over the USA in June 2018. Photo: Sportsfile
Graham Burke scores on his Ireland senior debut, a 2-1 friendly win over the USA in June 2018. Photo: Sportsfile

"I've everybody stopping me and saying welcome home and asking me the same question that everyone else is probably wondering," smiled Burke on Friday night, fresh from his Rovers comeback as a loanee.

"Why have you come back home?"

The short answer is he never really wanted to leave that badly in the first place. When the 25-year-old says that the last two weeks have been his happiest in 2019, he really means it.

He is aware there are people who won't buy that. But speak to people close to Burke and they will say that he was conflicted about packing his bags for Preston.

Professionally, it was an absolute no brainer. No player in his position would have rejected the €350k deal that was quickly agreed.

But personally, it meant relocating just after he'd found a level of happiness that was absent during the bulk of his previous seven-year stint in England, which started at Aston Villa and ended in League Two with Notts County.

"I came back as a broken player," he asserts, "And I was rejuvenated here. I got going and then after a year and a half - a really short space of time - I'm off again.

"My time at Rovers was the most I ever enjoyed football. And then obviously the international thing and all the hype around me happened, and to have the opportunity to go and play in the Championship, it's something you can't really turn down.

Graham Burke has signed a one year loan which will keep him at Shamrock Rovers until July 2020. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Graham Burke has signed a one year loan which will keep him at Shamrock Rovers until July 2020. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

"My thinking was to go and give it a shot and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."

After 15 games with Preston, and 12 games on loan in League One with Gillingham, Burke started this summer fully aware he wasn't in Alex Neil's plans. Deep down, the playmaker recognised that he wasn't really the type of player that the Scot was looking for. 'Not his cup of tea.' No hard feelings.

It was the stint at Gillingham that guided his view on the next step.

He moved to Preston with his girlfriend Tamara, taking over a house vacated by Sean Maguire. But at Gillingham he had to share an apartment with a team-mate, meaning that Tamara had to come home.

And there was another significant factor at play. She's now expecting their first child.

Burke has two years left on his Preston deal and had options to go on loan at a lower level again. Others in his position would do anything to stay in England for appearances' sake, but his mindset was different. He wouldn't have left Ireland for a level below Preston so staying there for that existence made no appeal.

"I've done them lower leagues," he shrugs, "I've experienced them all.

"At Gillingham. I was playing but wasn't really enjoying it that much, or performing to the levels that I thought I should be. This summer, I was thinking 'Do I want to do something like that again? Or go to League 2? No. I didn't really want to do it.

"I was looking back here and thinking 'That's the most I've enjoyed football. It's the right place for me to go and express myself."

He confesses to envy when Rovers burst out of the blocks this year; there was a sense of unfinished business under Stephen Bradley.

"I was thinking I'd love to be a part of that," he says, crediting the young boss for restoring his love for the game. On trips back, he'd call out to the club to catch up with pals like Sean Kavanagh and Ronan Finn.

Graham Burke pictured in his Aston Villa days
Graham Burke pictured in his Aston Villa days

Environment

"They're not just teammates, they're mates. This is an environment where I'm happy," he continues.

"Other people may not see it this way but, being home and around everybody, I just feel like I've got a better life here."

He recalls long afternoons in England, at a loss when it became clear that things just weren't going to plan.

"My mind races," he says, "I'd sit there for hours deep in my thoughts, thinking 'This isn't working out'. What's happening? What's wrong?"

Now he can finish training and have a cuppa with his mother, or visit friends. "I don't think people realise the importance of being able to just do that," he says.

That's why there will be no apology for pushing to come home. "It's crazy to think it all happened in a year," he says, "I'm still one of the lucky ones that can say I played for Ireland. I can tell the grandkids."

Family and those who matter will understand the next chapter.

"People are going to speculate about it," he muses. "It doesn't bother me.

"No matter what you do in life, people are always going to say things about you. Their decision could have been different to mine.

"But I've made the decision for myself. If playing for Shamrock Rovers is the best thing for me, then I'm playing for Shamrock Rovers. I don't care what anyone else says about it."

Irish Independent

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