Former Glenavon ace Bobby Burns enjoying life Down Under

Bobby Burns is flying for Newcastle Jets in the Australian A League and while he hopes to return to more familiar shores this summer, the Hearts defender wouldn't rule out another spell Down Under before the end of his career. Brendan Crossan reports...

Bobby Burns got his big break with Glenavon

FEW players can see a pass quicker than Wes Hoolahan. So when Bobby Burns started tearing down the left flank he knew the former Republic of Ireland midfielder would find him.

Burns raced onto Hoolahan’s clever dinked pass and clipped a perfect cross for Steven Ugarkovic to bullet a header into Adelaide United’s net to make it a comfortable 3-0 win for the Newcastle Jets.

It was the perfect team goal. On the other side of the world Bobby Burns is playing the best football of his fledgling professional career, the kind of which will keep him firmly on Northern Ireland's radar.

A year ago, he might never have reached Hoolahan’s pass. Since he left Hearts last September for the south-eastern coast of Australia the Crumlin native has been working on improving his speed.

Speaking from his Newcastle apartment on Tuesday evening, Burns said: “We’ve done a lot of strength and conditioning and the gym exercises here are brilliant.

“They’re obsessed with running techniques. Our sports scientist here is a former Australian sprinter and he’s been working with me and trying to make my stride length smaller. He said my stride was too long. So I was able to work on making shorter strides to get my pace up and I’ve also worked hard on my crossing.

“The sports science here is incredible. There are far better sports science degrees in Australia compared to back home. Even when I went back to Northern Ireland U21s our sports scientist was telling me Australia have become the best at sports science in the world. I’ve learned so much in terms of preparation and hydration.”

Newcastle Jets are currently on a six-game unbeaten run – three wins and three draws - which has coincided with the arrival of new manager Welshman Carl Robinson and assistant boss former Rangers striker Kenny Miller taking over from the deposed Ernie Merrick.

A year ago, Burns’s debut season in the Scottish Premier League was beginning to take flight.

After moving from Irish League side Glenavon, the-then 19-year-old won the trust of Hearts manager Craig Levein in the latter part of the season but narrowly missed out on featuring in the Scottish Cup final that ended in a 2-1 defeat to Celtic back in May. Burns remained rooted to the bench at Hampden.

At the start of this season first team appearances at Hearts were few and far between with Burns making just one in 10 games. In mid-September, Hearts loaned their versatile left-sided player to Newcastle Jets of Australia’s A League.

Six weeks later, Levein was sacked by Hearts.

Given the swiftness of his loan move, the bouts of homesickness came in waves.

“I remember Christmas Day was horrendous, but I’d have to say Wes Hoolahan has been absolutely brilliant with me,” Burns said.

“He took me under his wing. I think he knew that there were certain times I was homesick. He brought me over so many times to his house for dinner with his family. It’s just that bit of company. His wife and two kids are great. We’d go and watch his kids play football.

“I grew up watching Wes playing. He is just an incredibly skillful footballer and an even nicer guy.

“So it was very, very tough. But the more you are somewhere, the more you settle. The hardest thing for me was that Hearts wouldn’t let me go out on loan until the end of the transfer window because I had other options in England and Scotland.

“When they weren’t letting me go I told them: ‘If you leave it late it makes it difficult for me to sign for somebody and get into the team before the season starts.’ And that’s how it panned it.

“I didn’t sign for the Jets until the middle of September and of course the season started soon after that. For three or four weeks I wasn’t starting, I’m in a new country, I’m learning how to cook and clean, and there are only so many times you can make beans on toast...”

But Burns has adapted well to the Australian way of life. During his side’s January visit to Melbourne where they faced Melbourne Victory he met up with former Derry footballer and Hawthorn Aussie Rules player Conor Glass.

“No matter where you are in the world the Irish always look out for each other.”

While in the southern state, Burns got tickets for the Australian Open and got to watch tennis legends Roger Federer and Serena Williams in action.

On the football front, the 20-year-old defender is absorbing all the lessons that Australia’s throwing at him.

The standard of the A League gets derided occasionally, especially when comparing it to some of the more illustrious leagues around Europe - but Burns says it has made him a more rounded player than the Scottish Premier League.

For seven consecutive games, Burns marked players that had either played in the English Premiership or the Bundesliga or featured in the last World Cup.

Among them were former Swedish international Ola Toivonen (Melbourne Victory), former Cardiff City player Craig Noone (Melbourne City), former Celtic and Norwich City striker Gary Hooper (Wellington Pheonix), Alexander Baumjohann, formerly of Bayern Munich, former Red Star Belgrade striker Milos Ninkovic (both Sydney FC) and Australia World Cup stars Robbie Kruse (Melbourne Victory) and Josh Risdon (Western United).

Markel Susaeta (Athletic Bilbao), Diego Castro (Getafe) and Alessandro Diamanti (West Ham United) are other notable names plying their trade down under, while former Celtic midfielder Joe Ledley has just joined Hoolahan and Burns at the Jets.

“That’s the way the A League works. Because there is a salary cap the Australian clubs pump a lot of money into their forward players. It’s been great for me because I’m able to get a really high level of competition where I’m marking these good players.

“But people don’t appreciate the heat the games are played in,” Burns said. “You hear people saying: ‘It doesn’t seem as intense.’

“I’d like to see them running in 36/37-degree heat. This has been the hottest summer in Australian history. We played two games in 42 degrees and when you watch it back it looks a bit slow.

“But, for me going back to Scotland next year, my fitness levels will be so much higher. I suppose there’s not as much explosive intensity in the A League but we run further distances. It’s a totally different style, it’s been unreal learning, especially me coming from Scottish and Irish football which is ‘get it, put it in the channel and play long balls’.

“Here, we have to keep it. Since Carl Robinson has come in we’ve been unbeaten in six and we’re flying. We play really good football, we get it down and pass it, it is so enjoyable to be part of it.

“I’m actually learning to be much more composed on the ball, much more confident because when I was at Glenavon if you tried to play a ball into midfield you’d be absolutely terrified. If it didn’t work twice you were getting subbed off.

“Now I got an unbelievable apprenticeship at Glenavon. We played to our strengths, but now I’ve improved my passing, my composure and my crossing.”

Despite their modest ninth place, the Jets could yet steal a top-six berth and compete in the end of season play-offs. That’s if the Australian A League gets that far.

With the coronavirus spread, league officials have ordered the remainder of the games to be played behind closed doors. There is the added complication of Wellington Phoenix – the only New Zealand club in the A League – having to self-isolate for 14 days after they flew into Sydney for fixtures.

Aussie Rules is also proceeding but with all their games will be closed to the public.

“Basically what they’re going to try and do is pack our league into three or four weeks and get it finished by the middle of April, so if there is a big coronavirus spread they hope to just about get it completed.

“Obviously with the travelling for games over here it’s very difficult to play too many games in a short space of time. The PFA and the players are pulling their hair out. At the same time, I can understand the league trying to get the games played.”

If all goes according to plan – with the emphasis on the ‘if’ given the global pandemic – Burns expects to be back in Edinburgh at the end of the season to see out the final year of his contract.

Australia has been challenging but an extremely rewarding period for Burns. Some days can be longer than others. Because of the searing heat, the Newcastle Jets squad sometimes train early in the morning.

He could be back in his apartment for 10.30am with a vast ocean of time to manage.

“I started volunteering for McDonald House, a charity where you help make meals for kids who are sick and play football with them. So I do that once or twice a week and I’m doing my university degree.

“The longer you stay the more friends you meet. The people of Australia are great too. Even though you’re a million miles away everyone speaks English.

“I’m playing a wee bit of golf and there are lovely cafés here. Newcastle is quite quiet, especially when you’re 20 and single. It’s a big family town. It’s people with families who have maybe moved up from Sydney. There is a real nice family vibe to it.”

Although he’ll return to Tynecastle in the summer, he knows he may be playing his football elsewhere next season. The most important thing to the former St Malachy’s student is playing.

"I could've stayed at Hearts, stayed on the bench and just took my money. But to come out here has been an incredible experience. I’m so glad I did.

“And I’m not stupid either. I might have to leave Hearts. I’ll see what options there are for me, but Australia has been a great life experience, and I would like to play here again at some stage of my career.”

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