In the first in a series of interviews with a number of Hull City’s most influential players of the last few decades, HCST talk promotions, cruciate ligaments, and Ashbee ‘smashing in to opponents’ with ‘Big’ Ben Burgess – the Tigers’ top goal-scorer in their historic 2003/04 promotion campaign.
Following shorts stints at Australian side Northern Spirt, Brentford, Stockport and Oldham, after coming through the youth ranks at Blackburn Rovers, Burgess was signed by City in March 2003 by manager Peter Taylor. ‘Big Ben’ went on to form a formidable striking partnership with Australian Danny Allsopp as City finished 2nd in Division Three in 2004, contributing to the Tigers’ first promotion in 19 years.
For many Hull City fans the 03/04 season represented the start of the club’s ‘Golden Decade’ – the beginning of the Tigers’ journey to the top tier of English football. After decades of underachievement and disappointment, the 03/04 season represented a sea change, not only on the pitch, but also in the mood around the club and the City as a whole. This is a view shared by Burgess.
“My first year at Hull was one of the best of my career. Playing in front of over 20,000 passionate fans every other week is a great experience, regardless of division. I fell in love with Hull and we bonded fantastically as a team.” Burgess explains.
“There was me, Boaz, Delaney and Alton Thelwell who lived within about 100 metres of each other. We spent all our time together and became very close which helped on the pitch.”
During his time at City Burgess played alongside the likes of Ian Ashbee, Andy Dawson, Ryan France, and Boaz Myhill, all of whom went on to represent the club in the top flight. While the potential of some of these players, notably young goalkeeper Bo Myhill, was clear to see from the outset, few predicted the likes of Ashbee, Dawson or France playing at the top level of the game.
“I knew Boaz was destined for great things. He’s the best keeper I’ve played with and he was doing so well at such a young age at Hull. The others I knew were great players but nobody could have dreamt of the success the club and themselves would go onto have. It was testament to how hard each of them had worked to reach the top of their profession.”
He recalls, “Ash was an inspirational captain and almost dragged the team through some games on his own. People hated playing against him and watching him smash into the opposition would lift everybody.”
Like Ian Ashbee, who had a short stint playing in Iceland prior to joining the Tigers, Burgess served his footballing apprenticeship playing abroad. After coming through the youth ranks under managers Brian Kidd, Tony Parkes, and Graeme Souness at Blackburn Rovers, ‘Big Ben’ spent time on loan in Australia, turning out for the Sydney based side Northern Spirit FC, during the 2000/01 season.
“The experience was wonderful and unique. I was only just 18 and had played a couple of first team games under Graeme Souness, but then he decided I could go on loan. He said my options were Rochdale or a team in Sydney who were owned by Glasgow Rangers at the time.”
“I had my own apartment and car and had to learn to fend for myself. I had a great time there and even managed to get the U21 player of the year for the League.”
Short stints at Brentford, Stockport and Oldham followed before Burgess signed for Peter Taylor’s Hull City in 2003. Burgess admits that Taylor’s presence, along with the apparent ambition shown by the club during this period, played key roles in his decision to sign for the Tigers.
“He [Peter Taylor] was the major factor in me signing. The previous season I’d played against his Brighton team for Brentford and was impressed with his style of play and how he was as a person. He also had a fantastic reputation as a coach” He explains.
“I was not enjoying my time at Stockport County under Carlton Palmer and was craving a manager to believe in me, and a club that was ambitious. We finally got the deal done on deadline day and as soon as I’d spoke to PT and was shown around the ground I was really excited.”
Just three months after signing, fellow striker Danny Allsopp joined Burgess at the KC ahead of the 03/04 season. Burgess and Allsopp hit it off immediately, scoring 33 goals between them in the league, leading to what many City fans consider the best Hull City strike partnership since Chilton and Wagstaff.
The 6’3” target man recalls, “Peter Taylor obviously thought we had elements of our game that would complement each other but even I was surprised how quickly we gelled. I just knew instinctively where Danny would be and he would make fantastic runs to get onto my flick-ons and through balls. His finishing was brilliant and off the pitch we got on just as well.”
Unfortunately, ‘Big’ Ben suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury against Huddersfield Town during the second-to-last home game of the 03/04 season, subsequently missing much of the side’s 04/05 League One campaign. This injury not only affected Burgess’ Tigers career, but also his footballing career more generally.
“Without doubt that injury affected my whole career. Up until that point I’d started every game for Hull and started over 50 games the season before at Brentford. Subsequently I struggled to play midweek games due to not being able to walk from the Saturday fixtures.”
He adds, “It’s hard to say whether I would have played at a higher level but the fact that I could only train twice a week certainly didn’t help me achieve my potential.”
Burgess left City in 2006 after struggling to recapture his regular place in the Tigers’ starting XI, choosing to join League One Blackpool for an initial fee of £25,000. He went on to earn two promotions with Blackpool, including promotion to the Premier League after a play-offs victory in 2010.
“I was lucky to go to a team like Blackpool who had the early foundations of a great team and a similar team spirit to the one I’d left behind at Hull” Burgess explains.
“The club itself and finances were a million miles from Hull but somehow through excellent managers and determined players we went on a similar journey to that of Hull’s. The promotions were wonderful moments alongside some great teammates.”
After short spells with Notts County, Cheltenham Town, and Tranmere Rovers, Burgess hung up his boots for the final time in 2010. Since retiring he has trained both as a sports journalist and a primary school teacher.
“There are elements of the game that I do miss like the camaraderie and the great feeling you get when you achieve something special as a team” Burgess reflects.
“Conversely I do not miss being unable to walk for three days after a game or the constant rehab and solitude of being injured! I finished at the right time.”
Burgess scored 24 league goals in 70 appearances for the Tigers between 2003 and 2006, helping to kick-start City’s climb up the football league ladder. When asked about his fondest memories from his time at the Circle, Burgess recalls, “Scoring any goal at the KC was always a wonderful moment. The biggest highlights were the standing ovation on my comeback and then the sheer relief I felt when I scored my first goal since my comeback against Brighton at home in front of a packed KC.”
“I really enjoyed the feeling of standing in the tunnel before each game in that first season with teammates I loved and who I knew would run through brick walls for each other on the pitch.”
Greg Whitaker (@Greg_Whitaker)