Interview with Mark Burton of Manchester City
Mark Burton is a full-time coach with Manchester City as well as working as a development officer with the English FA. Burton, the son of English-born parents, grew up in Canada playing in provincial and national soccer competitions. He came to America and attended and played at the University of Indiana before emigrating to England where he played for several years.
Three years ago Burton met CV Manchester Director of Coaching Jeff Illingworth and the two began discussing a number of ideas for both clubs. After hearing about the growth of local soccer in both interest and quality, Burton wanted the opportunity to come over and see for himself. Additionally, Manchester City has begun expanding its reach and influence and is looking for talent from around the world. SoccerToday had the opportunity to sit down with Burton and Illingworth to find out more about this growing relationship between Manchester City and CV Manchester.
What does it take to make it as a pro soccer player? What does a player have to do to be invited to Manchester City? Being a great athlete with terrific soccer skills is just the starting point. Knowing what to do with them, having a great vision on the field, along with a passion to train and the love of the game … these are a few of the things that separate those who have a chance to make it from those who do not.
GNN: Mark, thank you for taking some time with us. First, what drew you to Manchester City to begin with?
Mark Burton: Manchester City gave me my first opportunity. I’ve had many offers since, but I’ve been very happy there because I feel as a coach I am developing every year. If that ever stops, I’ll probably have to look for a different challenge, but right now the new coaches coming in to the club have brought in ideas that have pushed me further and helped me improve as a coach. It is important to always be learning.
GNN: How did you develop this relationship with CV Manchester Soccer Club in San Diego, California?
Mark Burton: I first met Jeff Illingworth as a development officer with the English FA three years ago, and he has been telling me about player development in Southern California. I was impressed with what Jeff told me. The level of play overall in Southern California has been improving and Manchester City has been expanding and they are looking for talent all over the world.
GNN: What is Manchester City looking for in a player?
Mark Burton: We are looking for athletic players with good understanding of the game and technical abilities, such as ball control mastery. We are really looking for smart players who know the game.
GNN: What age players are you looking to identify as possible candidates for your academy?
Mark Burton: At this stage, we’re not looking for any particular age. We’re looking at the specific level of a player. It takes a special type of player to be successful in soccer and make it as a professional.
GNN: Were you skeptical about American soccer before you came over?
Mark Burton: No, because I had spoken to Jeff before. Also, I’m a bit different from other coaches in England because of my background and where I’ve been. I grew up playing competitive soccer in Canada and come with an understanding of what is here. There is still a bit of an old skepticism in England about America and soccer, so some other coaches might be surprised, but I was not.
GNN: What did you think of the quality of the players you saw here?
Mark Burton: I was impressed with the quickness and the sense of the tempo of play. Many times, when games are played slowly, certain players look very comfortable on the ball, even impressive but when the tempo of the game increases they do not perform as well. In the EPL, the game of soccer is played very fast. That’s why it was encouraging to see the tempo of the game be faster than it was when I was here 7 years ago.
GNN: Last night you went to a match between the U15 All Stars vs a U17 team. What did you think of the performance on the field?
Mark Burton: It was good. The U15 All Stars certainly held their own; the score was 1-0. But in regards to identifying potential players, I thought the best players were on the U15 team.
GNN: What do you think are the most important attributes for a successful soccer player on Manchester City?
Mark Burton: I would like to believe that the perfect player could play anywhere, in any country.
To be honest, I think it’s between the ears. It’s about decision making, awareness and good game understanding as well as the technical ability. I think there are a lot of good players who don’t make it because they don’t have the belief and the willingness they need.
It is important to play a lot of soccer to develop a real understanding of the game. To get a lot of touches with the ball and play with players that are better than you, if possible. Players that challenge you to play better.
Watching professional soccer on TV is also a good way to learn a better understanding of the game.
Soccer isn’t like some sports where you have to be six-foot-four and two hundred pounds. That’s what’s great about the sport. When you talk about the best players in the world they’re all different sizes with different strengths and attributes. What they have in common is they all have the belief, all are confident players and they all understand the game. These great players all can make decisions quickly in tense situations.
To be great, players need to understand the concept of ball and man and the space between the two.
GNN: Are the attributes for a successful soccer player different for a defender than an attacking player?
Mark Burton: They all need the technical skills, of course. But mainly it’s a difference in mentality.
You have to want to be a defender – to sacrifice and do the ugly work like block shots and not get the glory of a striker. The ability to turn and change direction is very important. A defender usually has his back to the goal, so if the ball goes by him he needs to be able to turn and run. Most of the time strikers are going forward, so that’s a different concept. So a defender needs agility and athleticism. Playing other sports is great for developing that.
GNN: You see benefit in multi-sports training?
Mark Burton: I know Australia and South Africa are big on multi-sports training for their athletes, for this very reason. They believe they can learn from these other sports. I believe this is an advantage for American players. I know I learned more about being a good defender from basketball training sessions than I ever did in soccer training.
GNN: What do you think is the best way for a player to improve?
Mark Burton: Practice is important, of course. But the best way to improve is for players to know why they are doing things, not just do them as a robot.
Smart youth soccer players should understand the critical concepts and learn why they are doing what they are asked to do.
Youth soccer players should understand the bigger picture of the game and what is needed at the moment. I think you only get this experience by being put in these situations, so I recommend they play as much as possible.
If you have a passion and a real desire to be a soccer player, you want to be measured against the very best. The EPL has the fastest tempo in the league. The level of player has to be so good now. Our academy has superb players and we have had 26 players graduate to the first team.
Also, certain teams will ask you to do a job and play elsewhere – play a different position than you normally play, so this is where your overall game understanding has to be good – so you can play in other positions.
GNN: Is versatility important for a player?
Mark Burton: When a coach looks to pick the best 15 players in the area or the country, being versatile gives a player a better chance of making the team. If you’re stuck in one position and run into someone who is better than you, then you’re out of the team. You have to be able to adapt and play different positions because managers play formations. Also, managers change more than players do these days. If you’re on a team and a new manager comes in, you need to show why you’re valuable, so your versatility can matter.
GNN: Jeff, why do you think it’s important for today’s American youth to have the chance to meet someone from Manchester City and possibly train abroad?
Jeff Illingworth: I’ve been here in America for 30 years, and I think we tend to live very insular lives here. Nothing that goes on outside is really important. Soccer is a world game, and if these kids are going to develop they have to play it as a world game. They have to see the big picture and how other people play.
GNN: How do you think the youth players in San Diego compare overall?
Jeff Illingworth: I think our top youth players can play anywhere in the world.
I’ve taken teams from our CV Manchester Soccer Club to England to play against the Manchester United and Liverpool academies, and I took a team to Brazil last summer to play against some of their best youth teams. And the teams I took didn’t even have the best 11 players in San Diego. I believe if I took the best 11 from San Diego, we could play against, for example, any U15 team in the world.
GNN: What do you think is the difference in player development and training between Southern California and England?
Jeff Illingworth: Honestly, I look at the soccer coaches in England training and there are only so many drills you can do to develop players. I think we all do basically the same drills. I think there is a much bigger emphasis on kids having individual skill development and more of a soccer culture abroad.
I was surprised that Manchester City did not have as scouting program in Southern California. We have great soccer players here.
GNN: Mark, what is your philosphy for training youth players?
Mark Burton: As a coach, you’re trying to equip the players with skills and techniques that will help them in a match situation.
For example, ball juggling can help you master your ball control skills, but eventually you have to decide how that is going to help you in the game. You can be a great juggler and never make it as a professional soccer player. You need determination and confidence to succeed.
GNN: Jeff, what is your ultimate goal for this relationship with Manchester City?
Jeff Illingworth: I would love to have Manchester City ask us to send players their way. Not necessarily just from CV Manchester alone, because I think that would limit Manchester City.
I think because of my position as Director of Coaching and my knowledge from 30 years of experience in soccer here in America with local tournaments, ODP and USSF, that we could be a pipeline for sending the best players from the region to England.
Mark Burton: Sounds great. Jeff and I will be at the Surf Thanksgiving Cup and the College Cup this holiday weekend. What I am looking to see is if the passion for soccer is the same as with our English lads.
GNN: Thank you both for your time.