Non-league football stories are fabled. Cold nights, hard pitches, opposition centre-halves who seem to have confused tiki-taka with taekwondo - it is a footballer’s right of passage. And Marcus Burgess, a Burnley-born goalkeeper who made his non-league debut at 16 for Skelmersdale United, loves it.
“[It] separates the men from the boys,” says Marcus, 20, simply. On loan at Burscough FC in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League First Division North (England’s eighth tier) from the Class of ‘92’s Salford City in the Vanarama National North (the sixth tier), the still-young Marcus already feels battle-hardened.
Having spent time at Everton’s Academy with Romelu Lukaku and Samuel Eto’o at Finch Farm and living with the England U21 international Brendan Galloway, the former England Colleges stopper is revelling in tougher conditions. “You’re not pampered like at professional clubs,” he says. “You expect horrible nights training, freezing games - it puts you in great stead.”
Having spent time at Prescot Cables and Bamber Bridge, Marcus wants to play, knowing game-time is key to any goalkeeper’s development. “I want to take something away [from each loan],” he insists. “Learning little bits can only put together the jigsaw for me, and experience is what managers want, not people who have been sat on the bench doing nothing.”
"We discussed at the start of the season whether I stay [at Salford City] and they keep me on the bench or I go out and get games. I felt it was more beneficial for myself to play football and get my name out there - that's the main thing I want to do. I'd rather be match ready in case [Salford] need to call me back.
Dropping down the leagues was never an issue either - "It's something I'm definitely comfortable with, having played over 100 games already - you can’t really blood a goalkeeper like a striker when you put them on for 20 minutes,” Marcus explains - but with a steadfast work-ethic and the talent to boot, professional football surely beckons for the former Burnley Centre of Excellence player.
Also a bright scholar, Marcus achieved a 2:1 (which he wants to improve to a first) in the first year of a Sports Marketing and Management degree at Manchester Metropolitan University, dovetailing his studies with captaining the MMU Sport men’s football team, following a strict fitness regime, and training for both Burscough and Salford.
“My mates are like ‘how do you do it?’, but it’s having a routine and wanting to be successful,” says Marcus - the university football team's first ever MMU Sport scholar. “The scholarship is great; it’s like I’ve been back in a professional environment. [The course] inspires me - you need a back-up plan and it was the right decision by a country mile.
"I chose [MMU] for the location because of my football and I was attracted by the Sports Management course, then I found all the great things it offers when I got there. We've got a strength and conditioning coach, nutritionists, all the psychologists, [and] they gave me a gym membership for free."
“If I got back into professional football, I’d be lucky because I’ve had the university lifestyle as well,” he continues. “The opportunity I’ve had from university has been second to none.”
But what kind of a goalkeeper is he? “I’d call myself solid,” Marcus says modestly. “I’ve got good reflexes, but my main quality is my presence around the box. I command my box well, I shout at my defense. I feel I'm a calming influence."
He also enjoys the mental battle of penalties, saying with a smile: “"I back myself. I try and get in their head, mind games - that's three [saves] this year. It's psychological, I try and get any little advantage; I say I’m better than them and they’re rubbish, to put it politely. But I did that earlier in the season and the striker smashed it in the top corner and shushed me!”
Away from his studies, Marcus is living the non-league football life, and has the quintessential non-league football story to match...
"This is non-league all over," he says. "At Bamber Bridge in the first game of the season we were on the bus back from Scarborough - our longest away trip - and we'd drawn 0-0. Our bus broke down on a country road, and we see this tractor so our assistant manager chases this tractor down the road to his house and shouts, 'can you get us on the back of your trailer and take us to the nearest pub?'
"We had 30 lads and the fans on this trailer for two miles to the nearest pub! That's something I'll always remember. It was the perfect initiation, perfect team bonding."