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Seth Burkett column: I’m hitting new heights abroad

Seth Burkett

LISTEN UP, LADS! Seth joins in the team talk for the Trinco Titans

When I was signed as a professional footballer for Trinco Titans in the Sri Lankan North East Premier League there was no trial process. There was no scouring of highlight videos. No tactical analysis. Instead there was one simple question: how tall are you?

Now I know why.

In English Non-League football I’ve always been considered too small to play at centre back. Yet here, in Sri Lanka, I’m considered too tall not to play centre back.

I’m 5ft 11in and have been joined by a 6ft central midfielder from Northern Ireland, Dean Curran, who currently plays for Aileach FC.

We’re the two tallest players in the team by far. Most of our new teammates look like they’ve never lifted a weight or eaten a saturated fat in their lives. Our star striker, nicknamed Bebeto, is 5ft 5in and weighs 49 kilograms. The heaviest player in our team is 68 kilograms.

At our first training session the players immediately put us at ease. They always looked to pass the ball to us and actively sought advice. We’re the foreign professionals and the aim for most of them is to be just like us. Their dream is to use football to travel the world.

I’ve never been asked for so many selfies in my life. I’ve never had to tell so many people that no, I’m not married even though I’m 28.

We start off with a training camp in Kalutara, on the south west coast of the island. The humidity is 84% and my kit is soaked with sweat in minutes. The coaches ease us into training. Though we’re doing two sessions a day, the intensity is relatively low due to the weather.

The pitch we’re training on has been built with a grant from FIFA. The stadium is beautiful, like none I’ve seen before. The pitch is less so. The ball bobbles over the lumpy surface. Cattle graze on the grass. On my first day we had to move a cow from the 18-yard box before starting our keep ball session.

The focus is on physical fitness and technical development. Some of our players have very good levels of both, yet others are lacking tactical knowledge. We have full backs who mark their wingers touch tight when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch and strikers who get no further forward than midfield. It’s easy to fix, but our hands are currently tied.

The tournament we’re contracted to play in starts next week. Yet no contracts have been given out. That’s because there’s a player auction, which gives all teams the chance to recruit the best talent and is designed to even out the level, as well as generate income for the owners and prize money.

Until our final squad is confirmed after the auction we can’t work on tactics. Otherwise any of our players bought by other teams may steal our ideas.

Instead, we make do with what we’ve got. Myself and Dean are encouraged to lead by example. In England I’ve always tried to position myself as a cultured, technical player fond of a short pass. Yet now I find myself on a one man mission to teach my Sri Lankan teammates the effectiveness of ‘the diag’.

Dean, meanwhile, is making it his mission to bust the myth that Sri Lankan football is aggressive. He puts himself about the field like a man possessed and is doing a convincing job so far. Our teammates are starting to think that their aggression is nothing compared to that of UK football.

Our teammates all speak Tamil. Around three quarters have a basic understanding of English, with a few being pretty much fluent.

They act as the translators, while the coaches give instructions in both English and Tamil. Once training is done, we socialise with our team at every opportunity, sharing stories of life in each other’s countries. They all invite us to their homes. They’re a close-knit bunch of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, coming from all walks of life. Team spirit is high. The hope is that this tournament will be the making of them.

I’ve had to make several adaptations to my day-to-day life. Now I eat curry with my hands. The food – usually spicy – is served on plates wrapped in plastic bags and without cutlery. There are no washing machines and so I wash my kit by hand with detergent soap.

Training starts at seven in the morning and so sleep is split between the night and mid-morning. I’ve had to get used to being referred to as ‘Peter Parker’ by my teammates.

Our hosts go above and beyond to make sure we’re enjoying ourselves at all times. No request is too small. For the training camp in Kalutara we’re staying in a doctor’s house with satellite TV, a large communal area and a swimming pool. After every session I jump in for a dip, swimming my lengths and drinking from coconuts that have fallen from the trees. It’s not far from paradise.

Every now and again the thought comes into my head: how have I gone from Tuesday nights at Goole away to this?

By Seth Burkett, from Stamford FC to Sri Lanka

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