There is a Sanskrit saying Mata, Pita, Guru, Devam, which means Mother, Father, Teacher, God, in the order of how a person should prioritise each one in their lives. Not everyone is lucky to find a real Guru or mentor. Or to become one.
John Burridge, a.k.a. Budgie, played his last match in 1994 at the age of 43, to become the oldest footballer to play in a Premier League game. It’s hard to imagine how it must’ve felt to be in those studs and in that jersey playing the game that had become the reason for your existence for the very last time. But, rather than feeling nostalgic, Budgie knew that his last game on the pitch wasn’t the end of his football journey.
In 1998, with almost 30 clubs, 800 games and 771 league games under his belt, it was time for Budgie to find a new place on a new pitch. Tired of England, he debated between the USA, Australia, and Dubai, but somehow instead ended up on a plane headed for Oman, a country he knew nothing about.
Budgie arrived and set about observing the players in the Sultanate, quickly realising that many of the players had great potential, but lacked the international experience, training, coaching, and exposure necessary to make it big.
On one such scouting day, he spotted Ali Al Habsi, a 16-year-old boy from Mudhaibi playing for the 3rd Division. Although he was a striker, the boy had been put between the goalposts because of his big body frame. The kid could jump and stretch and dive like a basketball player, something Ali attributed to his Tanzanian roots.
Budgie took one look at him and knew the kid could go far. He approached Ali, introduced himself, and offered to coach him. Ali jumped at the chance.
Ali’s brother would drive him down to Muscat each day so he could train with Budgie early in the morning at the InterContinental beach and at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex. At that time, Ali didn’t know a word of English, so Budgie learned Arabic to better communicate with Ali and with the other players.
One day, Budgie walked up to Ali on the pitch. “You need to start learning English,” he said to Ali, who looked at him incredulously. “You’re ready. So you might as well start learning to talk English, because I’m taking you to Manchester United.”
The challenges began with the journey to Manchester. The federation wasn’t very supportive of Ali as he was a top division player then. And there were many naysayers who didn’t think it was possible to get Ali to play for Manchester United; that he simply wasn’t good enough for the Premier League. Undeterred, Budgie paid for Ali’s plane tickets and let him stay at his own home in the UK.
They made it to England, but there were many more challenges to come, most painful of which was the waiting. Ali’s applications to the big clubs kept getting rejected, over and over again, but Budgie kept trying. He was prepared to fight to the end to get Ali where he felt he deserved to be. Budgie loved Ali’s determination, attitude, and mentality and believed that Ali Al Habsi had the potential to be a better player than he had been himself.
After almost a year, at the age of 17, Ali finally started playing in the third team in Manchester City. A few games in, Budgie got a call. A scout had heard about a talented new kid from Manchester United and Manchester City.
“You shake my hand I will give $1,000 for his accommodation and salary and we’ll send him to Norway,” he said. A deal was struck and Ali headed to Norway, where he ended up becoming the best goalkeeper in the country.
After only a handful of games, Budgie and Ali applied for a work permit that would make Ali eligible to play for the Premier League. At the age of 19, he played his first Premier League game.
Budgie helped Ali Al Habsi bring Oman to the forefront of the global football stage. Ali set an example for many aspiring players from various Middle Eastern countries, inspiring them to step out of their comfort-zones and their countries to become better global players and represent their homelands on the world stage.
Budgie found his new role in the game he loves, spotting potential in young players and opening up international doors for Middle Eastern footballers whose talent, hunger, and ambition require the challenges and triumphs of an international pitch. There is tremendous potential in the Middle East and Oman, but Budgie isn’t sure if there is another Ali, yet. But, he is always on the lookout. —[email protected]