The life and times of a semi-pro footballer: From cold showers in non-league to training with Samuel Eto’o and Romelu Lukaku
Every shot seemed to go in. A faint firework-ripple of ball hitting net followed each brutal thwack like an echo. No matter the angle, bounce of the ball, or foot being employed, the result was identical. Then again, the three men bearing down on 17-year-old goalkeeper Marcus Burgess have scored 846 goals in professional football between them.
The setting is Finch Farm, Everton Football Club’s training ground, and Lancashire-born academy ‘keeper Marcus has stayed behind after training so Romelu Lukaku, Samuel Eto’o, and Kevin Mirallas can practise their finishing. He’s soaking up the experience, learning from first-team goalkeepers Tim Howard and Joel Robles. “It was unbelievable,” Marcus says.
Born in Burnley, Marcus’ first footballing memories are of Liverpool’s Djimi Traore scoring a famous backheel own goal at Turf Moor in 2005 and of being forced to go in goal by his brother. “I fell in love with it straight away,” says Marcus. “I loved throwing myself about and I turned out to be alright, I guess!”
Impressing for a local juniors’ side, Marcus was soon offered a place at Burnley’s Centre of Excellence, something he calls ‘an honour’. “It was like a dream come true, as it would be for most young lads,” he explains. But the high was short-lived: Marcus was released in his mid-teens. “I was gutted,” he says. “But my dad was amazing in helping me.
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“After the initial disappointment faded, I realised setbacks are part of it all and it was about how I could push on,” adds Marcus, who also had unsuccessful trials with Fleetwood Town and Bolton Wanderers before joining Skelmersdale United on a youth team contract. “I loved my football at Skelmersdale - it was a fresh set-up at a really good non-league club.
“I was training with the first team pretty quickly during a season when we won the Evo-Stik Northern First Division and I made my debut in the cup,” he says. “It was such a good learning experience - playing non-league at 16 really developed me as a player because a lot of academy lads come into non-league and are like ‘what is happening here?’
“To get that experience early really helped me push on. We were playing in front of fans, which you have to deal with mentally, and you’re playing for stuff that really matters to people. It’s physical and you’ve got to learn quickly. It was sink or swim, but I loved that the stakes were higher and being under that pressure to perform.”
Also keen to give himself the most solid educational foundation as well as a sporting one, Marcus also enrolled at Burnley College in what turned out to be an inspired move. “Whilst playing for the college side, I got picked for the England Colleges, England Schoolboys, and Lancashire Schoolboys teams, which really put me in the shop window.
“After a Lancashire Schools FA U18s game, I got offered a place at Everton’s academy,” says Marcus, who captained the team to their first FA County Youth Cup win in 40 years whilst also featuring in two international tournaments with England Colleges. “It just shows how many different paths there are in football: look at Jarrod Bowen and Jamie Vardy.
“It’s amazing to look back at my time with Everton when I was facing Lukaku, who’s a £100m player, and Eto’o, who won the Champions League in a front three with [Thierry] Henry and [Lionel] Messi,” says Marcus. “No one can take that away from me. It was daunting - I don’t think I saved anything! The quality they had and their techniques… ridiculous.”
A move to Salford City followed at a time when the club had been thrust into the national spotlight after being taken over by the Class of ‘92. “I remember playing a five-a-side game against [Paul] Scholes and [Gary] Neville - Premier League legends,” adds Marcus. “That was a real pinch-me moment and I loved every second there, but I needed game time.
“I’d been really grateful for the opportunity with Everton and it’d given me a real confidence boost ahead of my return to non-league with Salford, but I was predominantly number two there and it was important that I was playing,” he explains, going on to enjoy loan spells with Bamber Bridge and Prescot Cables, whom he subsequently joined permanently.
“I ended up making over 100 appearances and winning a trophy [the Liverpool Senior Cup in ‘16/’17] with Prescot, which was great,” Marcus says. “To be a part of that and playing in pressure games was really good, but it was full-on: I’d just started uni, so I was training Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays as well as playing on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“On top of that, I had my education,” adds Marcus, who accepted Manchester Metropolitan University’s first ever men’s football scholarship in 2016, going on to study for a Sports Marketing and Management degree whilst captaining the men’s football team, following a strict fitness regime, and training. “I was busy, but I enjoyed it.
“The whole experience really helped me grow: I came out of uni a completely different person to the one who started,” says Marcus, who went on to play for the England Universities men’s team against the likes of Manchester United U21s and Bournemouth U21s. “At the start, balancing everything was hard, but I got used to it.
“I learned how to manage my time better and, as soon as I got my head around that, everything clicked. I grew up, my body got used to everything physically, and I became a real planner, which is something that still helps me to this day as someone who works full-time whilst also still playing.”
After graduating in 2019 with first-class honours, Marcus stayed in the city, landing a job as an assistant merchandiser with Fanatics, an American online manufacturer and retailer of sportswear and memorabilia. Now 25, he plays for Cheadle Town FC, who compete in the North West Counties League First Division South, the 10th tier of the football pyramid.
Last season, however, was marred by the most unlikely of injuries. “I was out for six months last year after getting sepsis in my left leg from a spider bite in Ibiza of all places!” says Marcus. “My leg doubled in size and, as soon as I landed, I went straight to A&E. They said that, had we left it a few more days, I’d have lost the leg.
“That was a massive… not a wake-up call, but it made me realise how short life can be and taught me not to take anything for granted,” he adds. “I came back wanting it more and, after a few games towards the end of last season, I feel like I’m in the best condition I’ve ever been in, even though it took me a few months to get back to myself.
“I’m more relaxed and motivated now,” says Marcus. “I’m just glad to be out the other end of everything and looking forward to this season with Cheadle. I’m really happy here: it’s close to home, I get on with my goalkeeping coach, and they treat my family well. It ticks all the boxes and, while I still want to play at the highest level I can, being happy is the main thing.”