Thursday 20 September 2018

Graham Burke: The multi-talented striker who once conquered Europe

Samir Carruthers and Graham Burke of Villa lift the Nextgen trophy after the NextGen Series
Samir Carruthers and Graham Burke of Villa lift the Nextgen trophy after the NextGen Series
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In April 2013, there was a rare good news story for Aston Villa when their U-19 squad were crowned champions of Europe.

They prevailed against Chelsea in the final of the Next Generation Series, a forerunner for what is now the UEFA Youth League, with a pair of penalties from a young Irish striker. His name was Graham Burke, a talented product of Belvedere who ended up as the competition's joint top goalscorer.

Jack Grealish, then an Irish underage international, was part of that team. Another Villa star in that Italian decider was Callum Robinson, who was then part of the English youth set-up.

Directions

The respective careers went in different directions from there. Just over five years later, Burke and Robinson would be named in a senior Ireland provisional squad on the same day. English hopeful Grealish is at Villa preparing for a play-off semi-final with Middlesbrough.

Robinson is a new convert to the Irish cause whose paperwork is only being processed, which means he will not be eligible for the proper friendlies with France (May 28) and USA (June 2).

After rebuilding his career at Preston, he will get a chance to play against Celtic in Scott Brown's testimonial on Sunday week (May 20) as it's not an official fixture.

Graham Burke’s Ireland call-up is a boost for all of the young players in the League of Ireland. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Graham Burke’s Ireland call-up is a boost for all of the young players in the League of Ireland. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Pending permission from his club, O'Neill wants Burke to play in that game too; that is likely to be his window to shine.

His inclusion is of particular interest because he's a League of Ireland player, who undoubtedly has the ability to perform at a higher level.

Technically, the 24-year-old would match up with players in the upper echelons of his profession.

His showreel of stunning goals make that point. O'Neill was at Tallaght last Monday week to watch Shamrock Rovers play Cork and watched Burke trap the ball skilfully and send a right-footer arrowing into the top corner from 25 yards. That is actually his weaker foot.

The question marks around the Dubliner have related to his application, his desire and his discipline. He made his debut for Aston Villa as an 18-year-old under Paul Lambert, but drifted out of the picture and loans at Shrewsbury and Notts County preceded an unhappy permanent move to the latter.

There was a danger he would drop out of the game, but his renaissance provides yet another example of why a vibrant League of Ireland is actually imperative for the long-term health of Irish football.

With a dwindling Irish representation in the Premier League and the Championship a competitive environment too, then a strong full-time set-up at home is essential for young players to either learn the game late or stay in it when they have gone off the rails.

Domestic

Millwall's Shaun Williams and Peterborough goalkeeper Conor O'Malley are the other new names in the 40-man list and they also owe their progression to the domestic game. Williams is another player that is extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet.

He's a deep-lying operator whereas Burke is actually closer to a number ten than an out-and-out striker.

There are similarities in style and background with Wes Hoolahan, another player with street football skills that were honed at Belvedere, but he carries himself differently on the pitch.

His club boss Stephen Bradley played five-a-sides against Burke on his summers home and noted his prowess. But his first year in Ireland was peppered by indiscipline and management felt he needed to really improve his work-rate and physicality.

"His ability is as good as anything we have seen in the league. Graham just needed to settle," said Bradley yesterday. "He got lost in the system over there in England."

O'Neill conceded that it can happen, and Burke has spoken about how he is personally happy back at home around friends.

"It can psychologically hit you," said O'Neill, alluding to Burke's Villa rejection. "He's starting to enjoy his football now, which is really, really important."

He's already attracting interest from overseas and involvement at a packed Celtic Park would certainly put Burke on the radar. O'Neill will allow some senior players to miss that game and come in for the France and USA encounters, but captain Seamus Coleman wants to be part of the full gathering after missing so much football.

Celtic fan James McClean is desperate to play in Scott Brown's testimonial too, but Shane Duffy is one of the players that will sit it out. Burnley's Stephen Ward misses the entire summer gathering due to a niggling knee problem that requires a break.

Aston Villa's Glenn Whelan is included, although O'Neill admitted he has not spoken to him about his Irish future. John O'Shea is included but will feature only in his send-off against the USA. His route to the top was direct, whereas the bulk of the current panel have taken circuitous journeys.

The challenge for Burke is to capitalise on this profile boost as motivation to get to another level. He will find an Irish dressing room packed with players who understand his position.

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