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Boro defender learning his trade at Pools
FOR Christian Burgess, it's all about learning. His parents are teachers, he's a part-time University student and he's soaking in as much information as possible on a number of different fronts, both on and off the football pitch.
The Middlesbrough centre-half is on loan at Hartlepool United. In Colin Cooper he has the perfect on-field lecturer to develop his career.
And, after being in the same Teesside University class as Cooper's daughter before her graduation last year, it's fair to say the Pools boss is going a long way to educating Burgess.
He was playing at Birmingham University when Boro offered him the chance to make it as a footballer. As a result, his history degree was transferred to Teesside, where he continues to study on a part-time basis.
"Christian is a very intelligent young man so he will learn from playing for Hartlepool - he was on the same course for part of his history degree as my daughter! Information goes in, stays in and he learns,'' reflected Cooper.
"I believe when he is finished here he goes back to Middlesbrough ready for their first-team.''
It's from University to the school of physical knocks, but if his performances to date are anything to go by, Burgess is learning fast in the cut and thrust of League Two football.
Comfortable in possession, he proved in last weekend's display at York that he can stand up to the physical side of the game too.
The 21-year-old could have been completing his studies at Birmingham and pondering his next career move.
Instead, he is taking a masterclass in making the most of his chance as a professional footballer.
He did get a taste of the game as a teenager, with both Arsenal and Tottenham taking a look while he was at school.
"I played academy football at the age of 11, 12, 13 and then took a break from it. I found it quite pressured at Arsenal and West Ham,'' he reflected.
"So I just played with my friends really and then got more interested when I was around 16, 17. I went to non-league with Bishops Stortford and had a trial at Tottenham when I was 18.
"It didn't work out, but it was great experience and gave me a bit of hunger to get into football. But I went to university to study and play football at the same time.
"I was spotted by Middlesbrough, given a trial and it went from there.''
The vast majority of footballers progress through a traditional youth system or academy set-up. But not Burgess and he's happy to pass on his student life of parties and late nights for the chance to make it as a footballer.
"I want through a stage when I wasn't sure what I wanted to do really - football or study,'' he admitted.
"But Tottenham and being around the place gave me an insight and a hunger to realise what I was missing out on.
"University was more of a back up because I knew I always wanted to go on and play football after uni - to be given that opportunity is very fortunate.
"Not many players make it in the game, you need something there to fall back on.
"My parents are both teachers, so they always encouraged me on that front.
"I did that and I'm still studying at Teesside now - get my degree and then I can really focus on football, but the degree has taken a bit of a back seat now. I've another year to go through because I'm now part-time.''
While Boro's burgeoning academy continues to churn out graduates, staff there are not averse to sending players out to gain experience at other clubs.
David Wheater and Matthew Bates both went to Darlington during the club's Football League days to develop, Andrew Taylor spent a season at Bradford.
Learning his trade at Victoria Park, and this week he's been joined by Matty Dolan, can only be a good thing for Burgess, with the aim of going back to Boro ready for the first-team squad.
"It would be fantastic for me to go back to Boro and make my name there, for sure. But really I would like to make a good career out of the game,'' he admitted.
"It's not a given I'm going to make it at Boro or anywhere else really. Doing this, coming here and getting experience of playing first-team football is invaluable.
"I want to develop my career and coming here is the ideal place. The gaffer has got faith me in.
"Boro is a great place for me. I've had so much help there, playing in the reserves and the Under-21s for a year - it's what I've needed, but there comes a time when you have to mix it with the big boys and learn a more physical and bullish side of football.
"You can't always get that in Under-21s football - Jamie Clapham is in charge of the team and he's been excellent with me.
"Now I'm looking forward to a good spell here with Hartlepool to learn. The idea is to develop my game and, hopefully, help Hartlepool to fight for promotion, and it's all positive.
"I learn from every game I play and there's always things to gain experience from, which is the most important thing.''
Cooper was at Boro, in charge of their Under-18 side, when Burgess arrived last summer so could see at first hand what he was all about.
He and Dolan were at the top of Cooper's list when it came to plundering his former club for talented prospects.
"The one thing that stuck with me when he came into Middlesbrough through our recruitment policy, when he was still at university in Birmingham, was his physical stature,'' recalled Cooper.
"The maturity will come, the strength will come, learning how to cope with the physical side of it will come.
"Technically he is very good and that stood out for me. People look at modern-day centre-halves and you have to be a good defender firstly, and handle that physicality.
"But if you have that little bit extra, it gives you the edge - he has the little bit extra in being able to play out of the back and make a pass.
"He's calm and doesn't get flustered.
"Every now and again young players will make a mistake, but as long as they learn from them, then it's not a problem.''
The Football League is a different module from the academy and reserve football Burgess and Dolan have been part of so far.
Ten games at Yeovil in League One last season gave Dolan a grounding, while half a season at Victoria Park will do the same for Burgess, learning to compete on a different level, while being presented with different scenarios.
"Christian, the time he's had at Middlesbrough, has been about the technical side of things, developing physically as well,'' added Cooper.
"But in development football, you don't see people bashing you around, or chasing channels, chasing you down when in possession.
"And in the EPP (Elite Performance Plan) at level one, which Christian has been playing at for Middlesbrough, against the Chelseas, Manchester Uniteds and Manchester Citys, the centre-forwards are young and clever. It tests them that way - at this moment he is tested in another way, against centre-forwards who will run and chase, but will splatter you in the box to score a goal.
"The conversation I had with him after York last weekend was that if you can do that, and show Tony Mowbray you can, then you have the tools to play higher.
"If you learn to become a defender who doesn't get put under much physical pressure, then you don't ever get used to it.
"To play in the Championship, then you have to and I believe he will play for Middlesbrough in the Championship. I was chuffed to bits to get him through the door here.
"Intelligence dictates how often you make a mistake as a young defender - do that, I can't do that, do that, can't do that and so on.
"At York he wasn't far off getting it right and, in that zone and when he can deal with the physical side of it, he has that calmness to use the ball well. He can drag it down and play instead of kicking it.
"Last weekend, there was pressure as a centre-half - head, kick, defend.
"The other other side of things are secondary at the moment, to come in time.
"But when I have him and Jack (Baldwin) who can both play out of the back, then it's great for me.''