They don't travel well, the British. Everyone knows that. It's always too hot, too cold, the food's funny, we don't speak the language, or (worse) they don't speak English. The stereotype of British footballers transferred to clubs abroad, for example, has them signing, moving - and then scurrying back to Blighty, tail between legs, having by and large failed to get to grips at all with life away from home, never mind making an impact on the pitch.
Liverpool legend Ian Rush, with his, "living in Italy was like living in a foreign country," view of the abortive time he spent with Juventus is, of course, the classic example, although neither should former Middlesbrough midfielder Jamie Pollock's time with Osasuna in Spain - brought to an abrupt end after six long weeks as a result of Pollock's complaint that there was "nothing to do in Pamplona" - be forgotten. (His next club on returning from Spain was Bolton Wanderers.)
Mark in action in early 2000
But Mark Burke is a British player who most definitely breaks the mould, with four years in Holland, nearly two in Japan and shorter periods in Sweden and even Romania, where he became the first player from the UK to play in the domestic league. West Midlander Burke began as a schoolboy with Aston Villa, before moving at the age of 18 to Middlesbrough in December 1987. Three-and-a-half years in the north-east were followed by a similar spell back closer to home turf with Wolves, spent mainly scurrying after long balls launched from the back in support of local hero, striker Steve Bull.
It was in the summer of 1994 that Mark's career then reached a crossroads. Port Vale boss John Rudge was keen that he should make the short trip from Wolves to Vale, while at the same time Osvaldo Ardiles invited him to train at Tottenham with a view to a move to the real big time. Mark talks of this period now with a rueful smile.
"Rudgie was saying to me, 'You don't want to go to Spurs, come to the Vale,' and I said, 'Actually, John, I do want to go to Spurs (!)' So I was training with Tottenham, it was going really well and everyone expected me to sign. Then one day on the coach, Ossie Ardiles said, 'The board are putting pressure on me to make big-name signings, Mark, I don't think it's going to work out.' I thought maybe it was just talk, but then the following Monday, they announced the signings of Jurgen Klinsmann, Gica Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu - and that was that, really..."
Man of the match, no less
So Port Vale it was for the 94/95 season, but unluckily a serious shoulder injury in November put paid to the whole of the rest of that campaign – and it was John Rudge's contact in Dutch football that led to Mark lining up in August 1995 for Fortuna Sittard in Holland's Eriedivisie. "I'd always wanted to play abroad," he says, "and in fact there’d been talk of me going to Nagoya a year or two earlier, but nothing came of it." It's when discussing his time in Holland, though, that Mark's footballing passion becomes clear: coaching, and with it a desire to educate himself about the game and how it can be played.
"I learned more in a year in Holland than I had done in ten in England. All that happens in England when things are going wrong is that people talk about 'working harder', but these are professional players: they're already working hard. In Holland, players think about everything and they talk about everything. It can get a bit much when they go on for twenty minutes about something that only needs, 'When you go forward, I'll stay back,' but what then happens is that they really understand the system and what they're doing."
This being the case, it comes as no surprise to learn that Mark is at present studying for his coaching certificates, clearly inspired at least in part by experiences garnered with Sittard - which lie in obvious contrast with having been on the receiving end of English coaching. But the problem as far as he sees it at present is that nothing in England is changing. "Sometimes I watch kids being coached by Premiership clubs. They've got fantastic kit, all the facilities, but the coaching itself hasn't changed in twenty years."
And over the course of those twenty years, you can follow the lack of development via the results, as when Mark was presented with an opportunity to compare footballing cultures directly, when Fortuna Sittard hosted Everton. "It was only a pre-season friendly, but that game against Everton was our easiest of the year: we kept passing the ball - pass, pass, pass - and they just couldn't get it off us. We won 2-0 and it could have been six... In England, if you retain possession like that, people call it 'pretty football', like it's a bad thing..."
The Squirrels line-up, with Mark front and centre
Coach for the first two years that Mark spent in Holland was Pim Verbeek, an inspirational figure who was sorely missed after accepting an offer from Japan to take charge at Omiya Ardija's predecessor club, NTT Kanto. While Verbeek was starting to get to grips with the challenges in his new personal and professional environment, though, things were going less smoothly for Mark in Holland. "I didn't get on with the coach who came in after Pim left - Bert van Marwijk - and then, around Christmas 1998, we ended up having a big bust-up and I was out of the side for good. I knew that meant sitting on the bench until the season finished, but it didn't bother me because, by that time, Pim had asked me to join Omiya and I knew I was going over there."
The move from Holland to Japan was eventually made in June 1999, at a point when Mark's new club had only three months previously embarked upon their first season in the fledgling second tier of the J-League. "In 1998, they were basically an amateur side in the JFL. The players were mostly NTT employees, who were playing more or less as a hobby. They did their best and everything - but if they lost a game, it didn't really matter all that much. Pim turned them into a proper professional club. It's unbelievable what he did on his own and in such a short period of time. He's regarded as a god in Omiya now for what he did."
But not only were the Squirrels - under the influence of Pim Verbeek - experiencing a total transformation of culture and attitude when Mark joined, at the end of May 1999 an incident had occurred which shook the club from top to bottom. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported it like this:
"Omiya Ardija's Dutch striker Jeroen Boere... will stay in hospital for one month for treatment after being stabbed outside a bar in Tokyo on Friday 21st May and losing his left eye, club officials said on Saturday. Jeroen, 31, was stabbed in his left eye and left forearm in the Roppongi district around 4am on Friday and was taken to a Tokyo hospital where he had an operation to remove the ruptured eye. Police said Jeroen quarrelled with two foreigners, who reportedly appeared to be of Middle East origin, at the bar he was visiting with his wife and friends. Omiya officials said the operation was successful, but were apprehensive about his future playing career."
Jeroen Boere, pictured in his days at Southend United
Before joining NTT Kanto in the summer of 1998 - alongside fellow Dutchman, defender Jan Veenhof from FC Groningen - Jeroen Boere had played for several clubs in England, ending up in the second division with Southend United. At the time of his stabbing in Tokyo, he was the top scorer in J2 with nine goals in eleven games. He never played football again.
"Japan was the best place I ever played," says Mark. "The players were just so honest, so enthusiastic and completely without cynicism. As far as Omiya were concerned at that time, though, I don't think they recovered from losing Jeroen. They struggled to replace him, really. The Dutch always talk about a side having a strong spine and I believe that if we'd kept a team with Jan in defence, me as a playmaker in midfield and Jeroen up front, we could have won that league, if not in 1999 then in 2000."
Mark moved into a flat in Shiki City, just downstairs from his new colleague Veenhof and five minutes from the club's training ground. "It was such a pleasure living there. Every day after training, I'd catch a train in Tokyo with my girlfriend and just go around, stop and get a coffee or whatever. I loved the peace of Japan, the fact that you could go about your life relaxed, under no pressure… although I have to say I did get tired getting on and off the trains, up and down the stairs! No, I loved it and feel very lucky that I got the chance to live there and play football and see and meet so many interesting things and people."
The footballing side of things presented a new set of challenges. "What you have to remember is that the professional game in Japan at that time was only six or seven years old. In England, we have it in our blood because we've been doing it for a hundred years, but there was bound to be less of a real understanding of how a tactical system works in Japan: it was so new. But some of the Japanese players were brilliant technically - Yusuke Sato [now with Shonan Bellmare] had the best left foot I've ever seen."
As well as particularly rating Tuto, who in 1999 and 2000 was having his two most successful seasons in the J-League with Kawasaki Frontale and then FC Tokyo, Mark was full of praise for other players from that Omiya team: Seiichiro Okuno was "a very good player" and Masato Saito, "very good, a really intelligent footballer. I was in midfield with Tetsuro Uki [now at Shonan Bellmare with Sato], who could read the game and control the team defensively - I really enjoyed playing with him, he was a very mature player.
Blissful relief in the shape of Ardija’s away kit
"Aki Kosaka [now a high school coach] was a little midfielder / striker and I thought he was fantastic, so intelligent and with a great touch and feeling for the ball. He knew exactly the right weight and angle of every pass… Ken Iwase [now a kids coach with Urawa Reds] was someone with a big personality - a European personality - and he was another player I really liked. Oh, and you can tell them that Hideyuki Ujiie [now with Thespa Kusatsu] was just plain crazy!"
Despite the enormous changes to the club and the shock of the attack on Jeroen Boere, Omiya Ardija finished their first season in J2 in sixth position. Pim Verbeek left the club at the end of the year to return to Holland for family reasons, leaving then-assistant coach Toshiya Miura to take charge for the 2000 campaign. A defensive take on Verbeek's 4-4-2 led the Squirrels to fourth, although within an atmosphere of at times heated tactical debate amongst the players, Mark recalls in particular trying to persuade Toshiya Miura to select Yusuke Sato as an attacking midfield player more frequently.
Miura himself now acknowledges that his approach at that time was less than helpful: “I couldn’t forgive players for making mistakes then,” he says. “I expected perfection and the only time I spoke to them was to point out their mistakes,” and Mark confirms that there were problems as a result of this. “Miura only reacted to the players’ faults, which made everybody uptight. I think the main reason the team finished a little higher under Toshiya in 2000 was that we’d got used to each other and knew where everybody was and should be – but this had come from the hours that Pim had spent the previous year."
At the end of 2000, he also returned to Holland with his by that time pregnant girlfriend. "I was training back with Sittard and trying to get myself fixed up with a deal. It happened that Rapid Bucharest were having a training camp there as well and they were looking for someone who played in my position. I got recommended and in the end I signed a short-term contract to take me through to the end of the 2000 - 2001 season in Romania.
All right, calm down
"Playing there was the exact opposite of playing in Japan. My memories of Omiya are the fantastic organisation and the dedication of the staff, but in Romania everyone's just battling to survive. Often the Romanian players wouldn't pass to me, because I as a foreigner was taking the place of one of them. Things like that changed after I scored the winning goal in one match, but then again some of the refereeing decisions were so bad it was just stupid - like a player would kick the ball in to touch and his team would get the throw-in."
After leaving Romania, Mark spent a brief period with Brommapojkarna in Sweden - "a good club, well-organised, but they just didn't have the money to pay me" - before returning to England and the Birmingham area. He now works in property development, while continuing to study for his football coaching qualifications. "I can coach until I’m, what, 55, so there's no rush - but I do want to get back into the game. I'll probably end up getting the sack a couple of times at first, but I want to get away from that idea that keeping the ball is ‘pretty football’. If we've got the ball, you can't score; it's as simple as that. That's not ‘pretty football’, that's just football."
One of the leading lights of Omiya Ardija's exciting start to life in J1 has been young defensive midfield player, Jun Marques Davidson. His muscular, authoritative performances have consistently helped not only to protect the Squirrels back line, but also to break up opposition moves and turn defence into attack. So smooth has been Marques' progression to regular first-teamer in the top division that there have already been suggestions that he might one day play international football - but, with an American father and a Japanese mother, which country would he play for? Go! Go! Omiya Ardija spoke exclusively to the man himself to find out...
G!G!OA So how did you first get into playing football when you were a kid?
Marques I started when I was in the third grade at elementary school, because all the kids in the neighbourhood played either football or baseball in those days. In fact I played both at first, but after a while I gave up playing baseball - it just didn't suit me, it wasn't really my type of game.
You might imagine that my father expected me to play basketball [given that he's named after a basketball player], but actually not. He in fact wanted me to do Japanese martial arts, like sumo or kendo, but even though I tried lots of different sports I was always most interested in football. I used to watch games broadcast from abroad and I didn't care about the J-League at all, so because of that I planned to play in Europe and decided that studying abroad was a way of working towards that.
At first, I chose a school in England, but the the priorities of the school were that schoolwork was more important than football, which wasn't what I wanted - it didn't really match my ambition. It seemed like a crazy idea to go to the US to train to become a pro, but I went over there every year and looked for schools every time. Eventually, I found a school that I liked and that had a great coach. Then later Omiya made me an offer and I immediately agreed to sign for them - it didn't matter to me that they were a J2 club, as long as I could play as a professional.
G!G!OA Who were your favourite players at that time?
Marques My favourite players were Rui Costa and Juan Sebastian Veron when I was a kid. I tied my ankles with tape just like Veron, and I noticed that he often used the sole of his boot to control the ball. I copied him and learned the technique myself, which is why I'm in the habit of doing it like that now. Right now, though, I'm supporting Chelsea - I like the Premiership in England and I'm supporting them because Jose Mourinho always seems like he's going to do something interesting.
G!G!OA Now you're playing every week in J1, what do you think are the real differences between J1 and J2?
Marques There's no doubt, the big difference between J1 and J2 is speed. But even though I have to think a lot during the game, I get a lot more pleasure out of playing now - the fans aren't the only ones who like a lot of action during a game, I enjoy it too. In J1, there's no-one who's uncomfortable in their role and I really like playing against opponents like that. In J2, it felt as if games were often just deadlocked because neither side really wanted to take the initiative and play a more attacking game.
As a player, I want to show the supporters some aggression and to get them excited about the game. As we go through the season, though, the other teams will learn more about us and how we play, so we need to think more about how to defend how to stop them scoring and in particular how to stop them scoring first. As for me, I want to be able to make more forward runs, because not only will it help the team but it will help me to get better as well.
G!G!OA What's your main ambition in football?
Marques I'm aiming to play for a team that takes part in the Champions League. It's a good thing to be ambitious, so I want to try for something even if I don't end up achieving it. Hopefully I'll be able to play in Europe in the future - whether it's in Italy or England or wherever, I don't mind. If I play in France, I can learn about the culture and that would be great. If I have the chance to play internationally, not for any particular reason, but... I'll choose Japan.