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Lee Burch: The manager, the beard, the man

Now at the London Bees after spells with Millwall (before they split and rebranded as London City Lionesses) and Yeovil Town, the casual fan could be forgiven for thinking Lee Burch is a Mr. Fix-It, brought on board to kept struggling teams. But it’s no coincidence, or small feat, that he’s visibly improved every team he’s been at. We sat down with him to talk over his career so far.

Millwall

There was a Millwall match, not so long into Lee Burch’s return to managing women’s teams, that finished with the players jogging off of the pitch shouting, “Burch for England!” The young manager blushed behind his growing beard and launched into praise for his players in his post-match interview.

A humble gaffer who had been making sacrifices for football and taking them in stride with blinking an eye, Burch had by that point, already turned Millwall’s fortunes around. The side would go on to stun teams over the course of the Spring Series and give the Doncaster Belles a run for their money in pursuit of the 2017-18 WSL 2 title. As Billie Brooks said back in 2016, “A little while ago we were all dreading training and stuff but now we can’t wait to get going.

The Millwall dressing room was, admittedly, in a sorry state when Burch initially took over. The team was suffering a crisis of confidence and squabbles had left the side sliding down the WSL 2 table, stuck in perpetual mediocrity until Burch stepped in. Away from the women’s game for a few years, he fell back into step with ease – save for a broken leg he had picked up as a player-manager – falling back on his experience, natural ability to develop players and willingness to work.

Millwall’s early improvements might not have been that obvious to those not watching the team on a regular basis but the manager brought stability and soon the team were racking up the draws. By the time the Spring Series wrapped up, Burch had confirmed himself as one of the savviest managers in the second tier and it was of little surprise when he moved up to WSL after Millwall had announced their financial plight.

Familiar faces

Given a new task at Yeovil as the Glovers tried to find their own stability in a league that was proverbially the big pond to their little fish, the Somerset team began to show the effects of Burch’s management sooner rather than later. A team that had potential but hadn’t always put their best foot forward the previous season, the manager instilled harmony in the group and although they didn’t manage to storm up the table, their improvement was unmistakable. Drawing Everton into a scrap to avoid the drop, the FA’s ten-point deduction near the end of the season seemed to take the steam out of the southern side and they failed to avoid a last-place finish, although their season had been far more impressive than any might have assumed at the start of the term.

For Burch, as well as a number of the players, Yeovil’s relegation down the pyramid meant a new club needed to be found. London Bees offered a different prospect, more stability but a return to part-time football, as well as a commute back to the capital. Just as they had gone with him to Yeovil, Megan Alexander and Bonnie Horwood followed Burch to the Bees (as Amber Gaylor and Ellie Mason whom had taken the step from Millwall to Yeovil moved to London City Lionesses). Not quite Harry Redknapp and Niko Kranjčar, Burch admits it’s a compliment that players want to keep working with him and that it gives him a new challenge, trying to ask new and different things of the same players to keep them developing.

A player who’s brought experience into each of Burch’s WSL/Championship teams, Horwood remains grateful for the opportunities her coach has given her, “I’m at the age of 32 but Lee’s still challenging me; he keeps me motivated.”

Having given Alexander a new role as the captain of the Bees, the 26-year-old speaks highly of her manager saying, “Every player works well under certain managers and Lee’s been fantastic for me and my career; I’ve been in loads of different scenarios with him in loads of different clubs and he just gets the best out of me.

Just like Brooks at Millwall back in 2016, the defender is keen to note that Burch brings a happy atmosphere with him to his teams, giving his players the self-belief they might be struggling with, “He gives players confidence who haven’t had confidence at other teams and we build a good team spirit which is why his teams do well.

Burch is very much a believer that you can get more out of a player if they’re playing with a smile on their face, as he explains, “The philosophy has always been about enjoying it, I want the players to turn up here because they want to. If they’re smiling, they’re enjoying it and that’s the fundamental but it’s not always that easy. People say that they think that footballers should just turn up and enjoy it. But unfortunately, a lot of clubs, a lot of players go to places and they don’t actually enjoy doing this. If they’re not laughing, smiling and joking, wanting to be in the changing room… then you’re not going to get the best out of them. So, I aim for that aim to help them as people and deal with them as people rather than footballers.

Improvements

Ever the affable manager, it’s clear his demeanour is a happy constant, his management style always with a view to developing the individual for their own betterment rather than his. Even during his days in men’s football, he was conscientious, keeping half an eye on what was happening in the women’s game and keeping in touch with former charges like Millie Farrow and Laura Rafferty. When he retells the stories of his all-conquering youth teams, there is a clear sense of pride, not necessarily over his own achievements during the time but of the positive input he had on the players who’ve gone onto bigger and better things.

Lucky enough to work with Sue Lopez over the early days of his career, Burch has never just been a coach coaching or a manager managing but has coached, played, managed, taught and everything in between all at once. Currently splitting his time between managing the Bees and working as FA affiliate tutor, teaching the next wave of coaches, Burch has still been left with ample time on the road; a constant of his career. Still based with his family in Southampton, Burch’s dedication to management can be found in his mileage, the two hour [give or take] trips back and forth punctuating his time in the dugout. The 35-year-old left to admit that he uses his time wisely.

A self-confessed journeyman, there is no role on the pitch Burch hasn’t taken on at one point or another during his time, even going in goal when he was coming back from his leg break, it’s clear his experience has given him a keen eye for the nuances of each position. With an eye not just for potential but an astute ability to see where players may work better – Ellie Mason’s progression from #10 to centreback, spearheaded by Burch.

The coach a virtuoso that keeps a firm eye on the bigger picture, accepting that it takes time to gel a team, one to appreciate a first win but cautious not to get carried away. A developer and nurturer, who knows like his players, his own performances can always be improved upon, not the finished article yet, Burch is a coach who always strives for better. One highly regarded by those who’ve played under him, who still finds the time to scout and follow development leagues as well as the general buzz around the sport, making mental notes of all he sees and who he encounters on and off the pitch.

From his time with the Southampton centre of excellence to his years with the Hampshire FA, the 12 years he spent as an FA skills coach, his current level one and two tutoring, not to mention the list of clubs he’s worked with, it’s clear Burch’s impact has been well felt across women’s football – as well as some of the lower reaches of the men’s game.

An understated manager whose success speaks the loudest volumes.

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