A GROUP of young Livingston players are playing footy tennis beside the tunnel inside Almondvale Stadium. Manager Richie Burke looks on from the comfort of a leather seat in the directors’ box. The boys are jovial, occasionally loud, but never rowdy. Burke revels in watching the camaraderie foster.
Behind the players, the pitch where his fate as Livingston manager rests is bathed in sunshine. A gentle breeze wafts through the main stand, although Burke is a breath of fresh air all on his own. He wants to promote a positive brand of football in West Lothian and stresses players must enjoy their work to succeed. Those down below are doing just that.
Livingston begin the new Scottish Championship away to Paul Hartley’s Alloa on Saturday with the Liverpudlian’s philosophy underpinning everything they do. A specific possession-based style of play will be the theme: “I think that’s basically what the board have brought me in to do – improve the football club, improve the first team, improve the financial well-being and improve overall standards. It’s not something that happens overnight,” says Burke. “My analogy is always like if you are making improvements to your house. Say your bathroom and kitchen are outdated and you want to upgrade them, It takes time to get that reconstruction done, which is what we did at the end of last year when we renovated the squad. Adding in the young players is like taking time to get used to those new fixtures or that new bathroom. That’s what’s going on here right now.
“We believe we’re assembling a squad for the future at Livingston. I know a lot of the fans and people who are huge Livingston supporters anticipate the new season hoping to get promotion and things like that. Our outlook is to take a two-year plan and evolve players into our system and into the way we play. Your philosophy very often defines you and our philosophy is clear. We want to pass the ball and keep the ball, but this year we want to add more of a cutting edge in the final third.
“We’ve worked on our movement and getting numbers into those zones so we’re educating the young players to play that way. We don’t just want to keep the ball in our own half and go backwards all the time. You can keep the ball going forward and with a momentum that’s targeted towards the goal. What we need is penetration in the final third and myself and Burchy [Mark Burchill, player/assistant manager] have been very big on that recently. We want players to make more risk runs and take a chance by going beyond the back four.
“There is no point in possession for the sake of possession. That’s a lot of the misconceptions about Barcelona. Everybody gets possession rammed down their throats but, if it goes nowhere and doesn’t attack the goal, why are you doing it? Without overhauling what Livingston Football Club is about, we want to change that concept. It’s not a short-term goal, it’s a long-term goal.”
The footy tennis, laughter and jokes continue at the mouth of the tunnel. Burke continues to talk. He could yap all day and night on football and never be boring. Having played in England, America and Australia, his background is cultured and varied. His coaching forte is developing young players and Livingston want him to nurture those emerging from their academy. It isn’t all about youth, however. Burke has serious ambitions ahead of his first full season as manager. “Our target is certainly a play-off spot,” he explains. “The automatic promotion spot would be fantastic but, given our group’s balance of senior players and young ones, a play-off spot would be great. It would be a huge achievement for us.
“I’m enjoying being a manager. The coaches and the staff have been absolutely fantastic for me. People have said, ‘you look a bit more stressed’ and ‘you’re maybe feeling a bit of pressure’. Football is football and I enjoy football at any level. I think stress only comes from fear and I’m not afraid of being in charge of a club like this. It’s a great challenge.
“It’s a lot different from a lot of other clubs I’ve been involved with. It’s different from an economic perspective as well as the resources, but you’re defined by your philosophy. My philosophy is to play a very attractive, aesthetically pleasing brand of football but it has to have an end product. At first-team level, it has to be results-driven.”
Away from the ground, he admits to a touch of loneliness. “It’s been very difficult with my wife still in America. I’ve spent an awful lot of time locked in football, watching games and leaving the stadium late. It’s been a total immersion in football for me so, from a social and personal perspective, it’s been quite hard. It’s been a bit lonely sometimes but that’s life in football. I lived in Australia for a while and that was a bit of a lonely existence. You just escape into the football.”
One of Burke’s long-term goals is to see Livingston restored as one of Scotland’s top clubs for producing players. “We need to set our stall out as possibly a springboard club for some young players’ careers. I know it’s happened previously with Robert Snodgrass and Graham Dorrans moving on from here. I think we have a healthy set of young players who have come through just now and been well educated in football. It’s promising.”
Livingston’s stadium is officially named the Energy Assets Arena this season due to sponsorship. Richie Burke’s energy is perhaps the biggest asset in the entire arena.