Christian Burgess: The Hartlepool United defender keen to learn

Christian Burgess is not your average footballer. In fact, he is more like your average 22-year-old.

At the age of 18, he finished sixth-form and did the same thing that 30% of leavers do:  enrolled at university. In doing so, he swapped school and part-time football with Conference South club Bishop's Stortford for a history degree and BUCS Premier North at the University of Birmingham. The sensible decision.

Besides, if no club has signed you up by the time you are toasting your A-Level results in the August sunshine, it is surely time to let the football pipe dream go.

"I wouldn't say I'd given up on playing professionally, but it was looking less likely," said the former Arsenal schoolboy.

"I'd always been interested in history, and had no sort of idea what I wanted to do outside of football, so thought I'd study it at university.

Christian Burgess factfile

Christian Burgess
  • Born: Barking, Essex
  • Age: 22 years old
  • Position: Centre-half
  • Club: Hartlepool United (on loan from Middlesbrough)
  • Education: Teesside University, formerly of the University of Birmingham

"Naturally I wanted to play whilst I was there. I still had an aim of finishing my degree, then maybe going back in semi-professionally."

Like many of his peers, he embarked on his 'fresher' year - by his own admission - "having quite a bit of fun". But unlike the droves of undergraduates turned away after 20 minutes at the first-term football trials, the 6ft 5ins Burgess established himself in the heart of defence.

Mazy runs towards the opposition box became commonplace as a season of strong performances saw the Barking boy named captain - rare for a second-year player.

During 2011-12, while Burgess was adapting to the dual-responsibility of leading his team-mates and the added freedom of his second-year studies,  Birmingham enlisted the coaching services of former Middlesbrough midfielder Mark Burke.

A football nomad, Burke's career took him from Ayresome Park to Asia, and from Birmingham to Bucharest - five countries in total.

"Mark had a substantial impact on my aims and plans in football," Burgess explained to BBC Late Kick Off.

"He got me a two-day trial at Middlesbrough, and basically the concept was to see how good I was.

"Then, Mark's ambition was to try and get me a club in Sweden, but things went really well and just took off."

A handful of reserve outings later, Boro manager Tony Mowbray rewarded him with a two-year contract. Burgess would be swapping his daytime reading on The Great War, Hitler and Mussolini, and dimly-lit astroturf, for professional football and the £7m Rockcliffe Park Training Complex. 

I said this from the very start of Christian's time with us, if he masters the art of physical defending, he could be the next Gary Pallister or Alan Hansen

Hartlepool United manager Colin Cooper

But why not both? Transferring to nearby Teesside University enabled him to finish his degree part-time, over two years.

"The facilities were unbelievable compared to what I'd been used to," Burgess continued. "Obviously the football took some adapting to as it was such an increased standard.

"But for Boro to give me a two-year deal was a huge confidence boost. I thought 'hang on, I've got a great chance of making it here'."

Ten months of under-21s football followed before Mowbray unexpectedly started his resident scribe in the season finale at Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls were desperate for a victory that would secure Championship survival, so Burgess made his professional debut in front of 30,000 Wednesdayites at one of English football's iconic old grounds.

"That game is something I'll never forget, it's actually really difficult to describe what I was feeling," Burgess reminisced.

"It was completely different to anything I'd ever felt. I'd gone from a couple of people watching on the side, to that! Then the game started at such a tempo because they needed a result."

Boro went behind on nine minutes, lost 2-0 and no doubt quickly consigned the game to the history books. Burgess, meanwhile, hit them again, studying for his end of year assessments before embarking on his second Teesside pre-season.

While he scrawled away in the campus library, swatting up for exams, his boss in the Middlesbrough youth setup Colin Cooper was probably doing similar.

"Christian Burgess's move to Middlesbrough came as a bit of a surprise, but primarily because it is so rare for a player to be snapped up at the late age of 20.

"At university level, he stood out as a class act. His anticipation and ability to read the game was clearly superior, while he was rarely beaten in the air.

"For a centre-half, he also scored an impressive number of goals, memorably netting against rivals Loughborough in 2010-11 as Birmingham Uni finished second in the BUCS Premier North.

"I do not think it is a coincidence that since he left, Birmingham have struggled and are now playing in the second tier of university football."

The 47-year-old was tasked with leading relegated Hartlepool United back to League One, and he took Burgess with him on loan. The defender's prior knowledge of the coastal town was probably via the library, as Hartlepool's chief place in the annals of Britain comes as the first port bombed by Germany during World War I.

"At the beginning, League Two was a really steep learning curve for me because it was so much more physical than the under-21s," Burgess admitted.

"In my first game, we lost 3-0 at Rochdale and I gave a penalty away. But this season has been a good experience to learn the tricks of the trade as a defender.

"But it's not just learning how to deal with different strikers, or styles of football, it's things like long away trips and how to prepare yourself."

Cooper's trust did not falter after that error at Spotland. The only way the Essex lad would learn from his mistakes would be by playing - and he has started every league game since.

"I said this from the very start of his time with us, if he can master the art of physical defending, everyone can call him the new Gary Pallister, or Alan Hansen," Cooper told BBC Tees.

"He has that bit of extra ability. He can bring the ball down and step through into midfield with it. If he learns his trade as a defender, I think he'll play at a pretty good level.

"Having an experienced talker like Sam Collins alongside will help. Sam is playing well, but I think he wishes he could be as good as Christian."

With nine games of the season left, and six weeks until Burgess's dissertation deadline, he faces two busy months.

He does not not expect much help from his team-mates at Victoria Park, although there are a few History Boys on the staff.

"I try to teach some of the lads about what I'm studying but then they just take the Mickey out of me even more than normal," Burgess grinned.

"But there are a couple of clever lads at Pools and they try and test me. One of the physios, Ian Gallagher, is a good lad and we have a good bit of banter with it.

"This year it's been harder to fit the studying in, so I tend to take myself off to the library and get some work done."

Hartlepool currently have 49 points, putting them three adrift of the League Two play-off places

"We're really at that make-or-break stage of the season now," Burgess added. "But we have some good form, and hopefully can really move in on the top seven now."

A glance at the League Two archive tells us that should Pools sneak into seventh, they stand a strong chance of promotion - read Bradford, Crewe, and Dagenham since 2010. But he knew about the 1914 bombing, so is bound to know that.

Pools fans will hope he can swap reading history to making it, and help seal a first ever Wembley trip.

Christian Burgess was talking to BBC Late Kick Off's Lee Johnson.