Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
Nah mate, it’s a goalkeeper.
But not just any goalkeeper. One of the best and most entertaining goalkeepers that there has ever been.
It was May 14th, 1983. Forty years ago, last weekend.
Wolves, having already sealed promotion to the top-flight by finishing runners-up in Division Two, were welcoming a star-studded Newcastle United side to Molineux which included Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott and Chris Waddle.
It was the final day of the season, a party atmosphere. But Wolves goalkeeper John Burridge- Budgie – decided to take it that little step further. As he so often did.
“We’d already clinched promotion and couldn’t win the league so there wasn’t really anything at stake in the final game,” he explains.
“I knew I was going to get the Player of the Season award and I was driving to the ground when I spotted a fancy dress shop.
“Well, I thought the fans were coming along for a celebration so I thought the crowd would enjoy something different – and I decided to dress up in a Superman uniform.
“’John don’t do that,’ my wife Janet told me. ‘You’ll look like an idiot’.
“But yep, I did it all the same, going out to warm up dressed as Superman and I think I wore the tights under my goalkeeping kit for the game as well.”
Funny thing is, that probably wasn’t even the daftest or most eccentric thing Burridge – ‘Superbudge’ – did during his two years at Molineux.
Or indeed during a career which also saw him jump up and sit on the crossbar during a game for Crystal Palace. Or be reported by a neighbour for late night noise when practicing his diving by flinging himself off his flat roof onto his garden. ‘Tales of Budgie’s madcap methods are legendary,’ said the then Express & Star reporter David Harrison. The two got on very well.
‘They don’t make characters like him anymore’, is a well-documented cliché about how football, and footballers, have perhaps changed over the last two or three decades.
In this case it’s not accurate. Purely because there is no past tense to the footballing trials and tribulations of John Burridge. He is still going strong. Very much so.
Now 71 years young, as recently as last November he was playing in a charity match at one of his many former stomping grounds, Hibernian’s Easter Road. And loving it.
We are speaking via video call to his hotel room on a lunch break during a week spent coaching goalkeeping coaches in Doha in Qatar. Burridge, who loves life in the Far East, is aiming to find the next talented keeper who might be able to head across to Europe, or England, and make a career. Just as he did in Oman, where he now lives, by discovering Ali Al-Habsi, who went on to become a success in the Premier League with Bolton and Wigan.
“I put so much into the career of Ali Al-Habsi and I had to pay to get him over to England,” says Burridge, who first spotted the keeper as a 14-year-old playing in the Omani Third Division.
He initially took him to train with Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson but was too young to have reached any of the criteria to land a work permit.
“He later went over to England and did brilliantly.
“I think I’ve had my reward with the opportunities I have had since and now opportunities like this workshop in Qatar.
“They have had the World Cup, and now I think they deserve a Premier League player.
“There is a magnificent stadium on every corner over here, and the country is sports mad.”
A fancy hotel room and the modern and plush new stadia in Qatar is certainly far cry from the extremely modest – to say the least – upbringing which Burridge experienced.
Spending his formative years in the small mining village of Great Clifton near Workington in Cumbria, the terrace house of the Burridge family had no hot water, no inside toilet, no cooker and certainly no television. It was a time when discipline was regularly delivered with a physical edge, especially if he hadn’t prepared a bath for his father when returning from a hard day’s graft down the pit.
It was also very much a rugby league area, but Burridge wanted to become a footballer. He wanted to be a goalkeeper.
“That’s the position where you stand out from the crowd,” he says. “The showman.”
He also got involved in boxing in his early teenage years, regularly fighting older opponents, experience which, coupled with that strong home discipline, shaped his personality.
“I’d say I had a bit of a strange upbringing, a bit different to most,” Burridge recalls.
“I had to learn how to fight, and I had to learn how to scrap.
“And that’s what I’ve always carried on doing, it’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
As a goalkeeper he was soon attracting admiring glances and indeed visits to his house – 38 Concrete Terrace – including from Stoke City manager Tony Waddington.
Who was promptly told to **** off by Burridge senior on hearing the financial terms of his offer.
Blackpool received similar treatment, but when local club Workington Reds threw their hat in, with the help of Burridge’s mother, his father finally relented.
“He told me I’d got two years,” the man himself recalls.
“Two years to make a career, and if I didn’t, I’d have to go down the pit like everyone else.”
The rest is history. Plenty of history.
Burridge was soon in the Workington first team, making his debut at 16 in the old Fourth Division. The first of well over 800 senior appearances, the launchpad to a career filled with drama, and filled with fun.
There is, naturally, far too much to document, but from Workington, he went on to illuminate Blackpool, winning the Anglo-Italian Cup and then, from there, to his first stop in the Midlands, with Aston Villa.
It was here that he was part of Villa’s winning League Cup squad of 1977, after a second replay against Everton, before the arrival of Jimmy Rimmer saw him head down South, on loan to Southend, and then permanently, to Crystal Palace.
His time at Selhurst Park included winning the Second Division title in 1978/79, as well as sitting on the crossbar when 4-0 up against Ipswich, before then following boss Terry Venables to Queens Park Rangers.
The arrival of a plastic artificial pitch at Loftus Road played havoc with the Burridge body – “I used to look like Robocop the amount of padding I was wearing” – and having been openly critical of the change in surface, and then refusing to play, that was when the keeper arrived at Molineux.
‘Wolves have gone bust’ screamed the front page of the Express & Star in July 1982. It was the Bhatti Brothers, Manchester-based property developers, who came to the rescue by striking a deal with the administrators, the deal fronted by former striker and fans’ favourite Derek Dougan.
Their ownership would ultimately turn sour when they were unable to purchase additional land behind Molineux, but it was into this environment, ahead of the new season, that the 30-year-old goalkeeper checked in.
At the start of the season, it was difficult to imagine those celebrations, and the crowning of Superman, would follow at its conclusion.
But under a bright young manager in Graham Hawkins, himself a Wolves fan and former player, and wily assistant Jim Barron, a blend of youth and experience within the squad saw the team promoted reasonably comfortably behind QPR.
Burridge was reunited with former Villa team-mate Andy Gray – the two met up again in Qatar last week – and at one point kept eight league clean sheets in succession, as well as saving two separate penalties from Gary Bannister in a 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday as the season neared its crunch.
“That promotion was so important, because I reckon if we hadn’t had that good season, they might have tried to knock the stadium down and build a supermarket,” he suggests.
It was a season of much triumph, but was it a shock? Well not as much as the shock which Burridge experienced doing one of his much famed pre-match warm-up routines.
“I was well into the weights at that time and keeping myself in shape but Wolves didn’t have a gym,” he explains.
“But in the dressing room there was this bar off the floor that went all the way around, so I improvised and used it for pull-ups.
“There were a load of wires hanging down from the ceiling leading up to the lights and, the one day, the bar had worn down the wires above to the extent that a load of electric volts came surging through.”
Burridge makes a sizzling noise, to accentuate the point.
“I felt it zap through my body, before I was able to let go, and drop to the floor,” he adds.
“And that was before a game!
“But all that other stuff, the walking on my hands, the somersaults, people used to think I was doing it for show – it was actually my warm-up.
“In those days the groundsman wouldn’t let you take a ball onto the field to warm up, so that is why I did all the gymnastics.
“They couldn’t stop me doing that, but it wasn’t for show, it was about preparing for the game.”
There were many ways in which Burridge was ahead of his time. They called him mad, but, if he was, there was a method to that madness. His diet, salads even when his team-mates were celebrating with fish and chips, or loading with carbs such as baby food, pasta and potatoes, and making fruit ‘smoothies’ long before they were fashionable, was pioneering.
“I was dedicated,” he insists, “I didn’t drink or go out.
“Maybe I was ahead of my time in a lot of ways, but I always used to say: ‘what else is there in life apart from football?’
“That was what mattered in life, it still does.”
Of course it mattered, but so too does Burridge’s family. His time at Wolves, with wife Janet and then young children Tom and Emily, was a particularly happy one off the pitch.
Living in a lovely Georgian house in Ormes Lane in Tettenhall, he remembers Wolves as a ‘fantastic club’, and one where he was very much at home.
On the pitch however, things never quite kicked on for Wolves from that first promotion season.
Hawkins wasn’t given anything like the budget needed to survive back in the top division and, even though Burridge continued to perform heroics, and Wolves produced the odd result of note like wins at Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion, relegation was inevitable.
By now Burridge had grown frustrated. He didn’t feel his contract was affording him what was deserved after helping the team initially return to the top-flight. A common theme of his career.
“I think I played a part in saving Wolves in that first season,” he says. Both literally and metaphorically.
“When I went to a club, I gave a dressing room life.
“I did it at Wolves when they had nearly gone out of business, and did the same with Hibernian later in my career.
“I was happy at Wolves, I loved it there, but they wouldn’t give me any more money and what I felt I deserved.
“That seemed to happen at every club I went to, I went in and did a job and gave it everything but then if I asked for something more, it never happened.
“That is why I had so many clubs, I’ll be honest, I went where the money was when it came down to it.”
For Al-Habsi later in his coaching career, read perhaps Tim Flowers during Burridge’s time at Wolves.
For while he was at loggerheads with the Molineux hierarchy and wasn’t featuring in the first team following relegation, he was playing a part in the development of a young protegee who would go on to play for England and win the Premier League.
“Tim would travel in from Coventry, and I trained with him every day,” he says.
“I was my own boss then, I would coach myself and the other keepers, and I think my dedication rubbed off on Tim.
“When I moved on to Southampton, and was getting a bit old, I told Chris Nicholl to go out and get him.
“Tim was a good lad, a very good goalkeeper and brave as a lion, and I was delighted to see him go on and achieve what he did.”
Burridge would also move on himself as Flowers became the established number one at Molineux.
There are too many clubs to mention, eventually he almost became a ‘keeper to rent’ with his love of the game ensuring he would go and play for anyone in need of a number one, wherever they were situated. From Enfield to Aberdeen, Witton Albion to Queen of the South, a payment, and hotel stay, for one or however many games, and it was a case of, have goalkeeping gloves, will travel.
There were highlights – a League Cup success with Hibernian at the age of 39 – and lowlights, one of his appearances during a positive spell with Newcastle was the 4-1 defeat to Wolves on New Year’s Day in 1990.
“Steve Bull, what a player, so quick and such a good goalscorer – imagine him and Andy Gray together,” he says of that day’s four-goal hero.
Burridge also remains the oldest player to make a Premier League appearance. And therein lies another story.
It was towards the end of the 1994/95 season – a year before Newcastle went so close to winning the Premier League – and Burridge was working for the Toon as a player/ goalkeeping coach.
He was also, in agreement with boss Keegan, and in keeping with the final stretches of his career, on the books as cover at Manchester City, sitting on the bench as deputy to Tony Coton.
Only then, Newcastle were travelling to face City at Maine Road.
“I remember checking with Kevin and telling him a few days before the game that I was going to be on the bench,” says Burridge.
“He said there wasn’t an issue, and when I reminded him again a couple of days before the game I was getting on his nerves – he said it was me who had the problem with it, not him.
“I’d been training with Newcastle in the week and linking up with City on a Friday, so when the Newcastle lads arrived, I welcomed them in and had a cup of tea in their dressing room.
“Then, sure enough, Tony Coton’s knee went in the first half, and I had to come on at half time.
“I went on and kept a clean sheet, making a few decent saves including a one-on-one from Ruel Fox and a shot from David Ginola heading for the top corner, and the game finished nil-nil.
“I think I ended up getting man of the match and the result helped Manchester City stay up, but I’m fairly sure it’s something that wouldn’t be allowed to happen these days!”
Burridge actually played out the remainder of the season for City, including, on the final day of the season against Queens Park Rangers, appearing at the grand old age of 43 years and 162 days, the Premier League record which remains to this day.
There were more temporary callings to follow, alongside coaching Leeds goalkeepers Nigel Martyn and Paul Robinson, and the continued work at Newcastle. When it came to football, Burridge simply couldn’t get enough.
Many would fit him neatly into that category of goalkeepers being that little bit different, a bit crazy, eccentric. Clearly he was very much cut from his own cloth but Burridge would also put his characteristics down to a single-minded and intense love of the game and desire and determination to succeed.
And that in itself, brings its own pitfalls, or it did, when he was no longer able to pull on the gloves and take his place between the sticks.
During his career he was one of the first to make use of psychology, the workings of the mind, and went to see a hypnotist, who clarified his thoughts and helped him remove negativity.
“I had it all on a cassette and would listen on the way to games from the hotel,” he confirms.
“People probably thought I was a freak and an idiot, but I didn’t care, I was just dedicated to being the best that I could be.
“It would be about picturing certain things, of where players were going to put the ball, of me saving it, and so often it would work out that way in the games.
“I always believe that if your mind is right, your body follows, and it became another essential part of my pre-match build-up, making sure I was perfect in my mind.”
Later on however, it was a different kind of psychological support which was to prove even more important for Burridge and his family.
Not far off the age of 50, and without that matchday buzz to look forward to, Burridge effectively barricaded himself into a room at home, unable to think clearly, with dangerous thoughts eating away at his mind.
“I was suicidal,” he admits. “Nobody would take me, I couldn’t play football anymore, and yet I was still fit and ready.
“I was in meltdown and it felt like I had nothing to live for, even though I quite clearly did.”
It was Burridge’s wife Janet who contacted Keegan and, between them, managed to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, leading to a five-month stay in the Priory clinic.
When he came out, revitalised and refreshed, he decided it was time to make a fresh start away from the UK, and, with thanks to his former boss at Sheffield United Ian Porterfield, headed out to Oman.
He has remained in the Gulf ever since, in different jobs, including not just discovering Al-Habsi, but also a long stint for the Oman national team. As well as different work within the media. As shown by leading the goalkeeping workshop in Qatar, Burridge is still very much keeping busy.
“I’m 71 but I feel as good as ever, and I love football, so why would I ever want to stop?” he declares.
He has many ideas on the current game, on playing out from the back, on goalkeepers who lose the ball in dangerous situations to the cost of their team. But that is a completely different discussion, one for another day.
For now though, he remains one of football’s great entertainers, who represented approximately 30 clubs – including Wolves – not only with distinction and dedication, but also a healthy dose of fun. Just as football should be.
Having greeted me at the start of the interview as ‘Chuck Berry’, he gets to his feet as we finish, to deliver a word-perfect rendition of one of the American rock pioneer’s biggest hits.
‘Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens.
‘There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode.’
Johnny be good. Or be Superman. Whatever he is, John Burridge will certainly never be dull.