'It was a privilege and an honour'
Burton grateful to Ja for magical Reggae Boyz ride
WHEN he said it, there was no hint of pretension. In fact, his choice of words was spot on and his tone appeared sincere.
By any reasonable analysis, it would seem that Deon Burton is indeed a grateful man for the priceless gift that a tiny nation in the Caribbean called Jamaica offered him. And he repaid that debt handsomely with four golden goals that helped propel the island into the annals of football history to become the first English-speaking Caribbean island to play at the FIFA World Cup Finals.
Burton was only 20 years old when he formed part of a triumvirate of English-born footballers with ancestral roots to Jamaica, who brought their unique style and professionalism to a rag-tag Jamaica football team.
Skilfully moulded with the diamond-in-the-rough local players by a Brazilian miracle worker named Rene Simoes, Jamaica achieved the unthinkable and qualified for World Cup France 1998. And Burton, born in Reading, near London, was recognised as the star player of it all.
"Of course it was a privilege and honour to have represented the national team of Jamaica and that is one of the main things in my career having played international football and the World Cup for my country," said the striker as he drove to a training session with League Two club Gillingham FC on Monday.
What's funny, weird even, is that the original script did not have a part for Burton. When the visionary president of the Jamaica Football Federation Captain Horace Burrell and Simoes decided that they had to look at options outside of Jamaica as they pursued the World Cup dream, the then Derby County frontman was a virtual unknown.
Simoes had invited the Portsmouth pair of midfielder Fitzroy Simpson and striker Paul Hall for trials in Jamaica back in 1997 in preparation for the final phase of the Road to France. But little did the colourful Brazilian know that a bonus was in store.
"The very first time it's not that I got approached. As the story goes Paul (Hall) and Fitz (Fitzroy Simpson) were going down for a trial, and they asked me if I wanted to come over to Kingston with them as it was the off season, and I said 'why not' as it was a holiday in Jamaica.
"So I went along with them and Rene Simoes loved what he saw and he asked me if I was Jamaican and I happened to be, and the rest is history," Burton told the Jamaica Observer.
Burton, now 36, said while the games that he scored his four goals in will always be dear to him, the last match inside the National Stadium where Jamaica drew 0-0 with Mexico to qualify for the World Cup has commanded a special place in his memory.
"When it truly hit me (that we are about to qualify) was in the last qualifying game when we were playing Mexico and I was running about trying to score as I had scored four goals previously and I wanted to carry on scoring in the very last game, and I remembered one of the Mexican defenders tapping me on the shoulder and he said, 'Burton, Burton, if it ends zero-zero, we both go to France, so just relax'. After that I realised that we were so close," he recalled.
But while the euphoria in Jamaica was of heady proportions at the feat of World Cup success, nothing beats actually playing on the big stage. And that hit the young Burton for six, to borrow a cricketing term.
"It was a surreal feeling. I don't know what it was like for the other players, but for myself I didn't appreciate it (playing at the World Cup) fully until we were out of the competition and I had gone back to my home in England and carrying on watching the competition.
"I think it was then that it sunk in and I said 'hold on a minute, it was just a week ago I was in this competition on the big world stage', and it was then that I realised how big it really was," the Jamaican Sportsman of the Year 1997 recollected.
Following Burton, Hall and Simpson, Simoes included other England-born players for his World Cup squad in Robbie Earle, Frank Sinclair, Darryl Powell and Marcus Gayle.
Burton, who continues to enjoy a fruitful professional run in the English game some 19 years after debuting for Portsmouth, said the influence of Simoes went a long way in shaping his future as a person and a player.
"I have played under many coaches and Rene Simoes is one of the best managers. He's right up there with the best and could have easily have managed England... to me he is like a Brazilian (Jose) Mourinho, as he's a philosopher, there's meaning to everything he says, he knows how to get his point across. He's a real good man and I owe him a lot," said the 5ft 10inch forward.
But Burton's desire for the game has not sapped even in his maturing years, and still monitors good form to be joint-leading striker in League Two with 10 goals for his club Gillingham.
And in obvious jest, he said there may still be hope for him to make a Reggae Boyz comeback. "I am still playing, right? Maybe if 10 or 15 strikers (from Jamaica) get injured, maybe I'll get a call-up," he poked, breaking out into laughter, though it's no joking matter as players have been known to play at the highest level into their 40s. Cameroon's Roger Milla quickly comes to mind.
And even though the prospect of making a Boyz return may not be the most realistic option at this time, Burton — with 13 goals and 59 caps for Jamaica — is not writing off other possibilities.
"Look for example what Tappa (Theodore Whitmore) is doing with the team as coach, and I have my coaching badges, so anything is possible in the future... of course I always want to stay in the game and if I can help in any shape or form with the national team down the road, then definitely there's the possibility of something happening," he said.
Burton's Gillingham are currently leading League Two and are two wins away from promotion to League One with seven games to play.
In their last game on Tuesday, they drew 1-1 with Rochdale and will play again tomorrow against Accrington Stanley.