Dan Burn: 'We want to work for it. I never wanted to be given it - I wanted to take it'
Written by Tom Easterby
There will be no apologies for the effusive nature of this piece. So please indulge me, Dan Burn, and talk me through your feelings as the ball was pinging around Paris Saint-Germain's penalty area. We can start with anger.
"It was with Bruno, because he shot," he says. "We've got a kind of thing where if the ball comes back out, it ends up getting crossed, but obviously sometimes people shoot. I was wanting him to play it back post, and then he had another opportunity. It was a great ball in. As soon as it was in the air, I was like, 'I'm having this'."
It is fairly rare to see a defining occasion recognised in real time but that night, the finest of Burn's slaloming career, is one he will "struggle to top". The goal came in stages. There is Burn in the six yard box, eyes widening, lunging forward to throw everything he had at Guimarães' hoisted cross. Milan Skriniar, with the look of a man who knew this might not end well for him, shuffled backwards uneasily and Burn recognised that hesitancy; as a defender, he has felt it himself. The ball was in the air, arcing towards him and "I just sort of lit up. I knew I wasn't that far away so if I got my head to it, I knew it was probably going in."
Then the wait, the uncertainty. Burn "knew it was in, definitely," he nods. "I saw it go over the line. But when I looked up and saw offside…" He wandered over to the touchline and asked staff on the bench what they thought. They couldn’t say for sure if it would stand. Minutes passed. "The longer it goes on… I was just like, 'please, please, please, please'. As soon as I saw (the referee) make the gesture, I knew it was going to be a goal. Crazy."
The VAR check robbed him of those precious first few seconds of unrestrained joy. But it also led to what may become an iconic Newcastle United image; Burn standing there in the pouring rain the second it was given, arms up and outstretched with a darkness around his eyes, like a boxer hailing victory. In the background and out of focus, fans in black and white took the same pose. They are just like him. He is just like them. It was perfect. "I was tired already, so I didn't want to start running or go flying back to the corner," he smiles. "So it just sort of came to us."
It was all still ringing in his ears when he got home. "I was raging because I'd forgotten to hit record on the game, so I couldn't watch it back. I was trying to find little bits and pieces of it. I'm not on social media but I get sent everything anyway. People sent me the celebrations and all sorts of stuff. I'm normally pretty good at getting sleep after games, even night games, but I struggled after that one." It was three o'clock in the morning by the time Burn got to bed.
On this biting Monday morning Burn, 31, is surrounded by mayhem in its most organised form. It is 'bring your kids to work day' at the Magpies' training centre, with activities and games organised to entertain the children of players and staff on the first day of half term. It is doubtful that Burn has ever combined an interview with childcare before but as his daughter quietly watches videos on the table opposite in the restaurant there is time to chat.
Burn says he has felt like an underdog throughout his career. He was never the best player and his angular frame skewed perceptions of the talent he had. It has taken years for him to truly feel confidence in his strengths. "People would look at me and I was tall, skinny and you just get written off quite easily," he says. "Even now, I would say I don't think people appreciate what I do until they play with us. Which I don't mind - it's a game of opinions, isn't it? But I know what I'm good at now."
When he started out, going from Darlington to Fulham to Yeovil to Birmingham, "fear" - of trying to stay in the sport, clamber up the levels, stay afloat - was always with him. "I would say that it wasn't until I hit my last year at Wigan just before I went to Brighton that I really had confidence and knew what I was good at. Before that, I'd always look at other players, going, 'I wish I could do what they do', or, 'I wish I could do that'. Until I stopped doing that, I was just holding myself back," he adds. "When you're growing up, you always want to be able to do what everyone else can do. But sometimes you just need to remember - there is a reason why you’re playing: 'I'm good at what I'm doing, and will continue to do those sort of things'."
There is an interesting dynamic at play now in Newcastle. An underdog element to the Magpies' make-up has grown over years of underachievement. The 4-1 demolition of PSG, a team of World Cup winners and global stars, blew the idea to pieces. This is the first time Burn has played for a team who are no longer unfancied and United's approach to that requires some thought. In-house, he says there have been discussions about the need to act humbly even "when you're not always the underdog anymore. When you're the underdog, you always go that extra yard, you're always totally switched on.
"We're now going from where we used to be the underdogs, say, two years ago when we were trying to stay up, to now, where we're not always the underdogs. But you've still got to have that mentality where every game is the be all and end all."
There is less time to think too deeply in the midst of battle now. Occasions like AC Milan away at San Siro, United's first Champions League game for 20 years, must be moved on from immediately. "That's what the best teams do. I think that's a challenge for us this season. Man City can take the emotion out of every single game and it's just like, 'right - we play, we recover, we go again. Play, recover, go again'. They're so good at it."
Burn points out that kind of routine is the norm for players like Kieran Trippier, a seasoned challenger for Champions Leagues and international trophies, but for many the demands of being at the very top are new. It is funny for Burn to think of himself as someone who is there on merit now. He is conscious of what he stands for; not only as a local lad and a fan, raised (famously) in Blyth, but because of the path he had to take.
"With the journey I've had to have ended up playing here, it's crazy really when you think about it. It shouldn't ever have happened. And I think people probably do appreciate it because it's not always the academy route that everyone goes down - there's lots of different ways to do it," he explains. "I hope there are kids that have been released or think they're not great or they're not always the best player who know that, because there are still chances there."
Recently, he spoke to academy director Steve Harper and saw the club's under-12 side play, wondering how anyone could pick out a future star at that age knowing that people develop at different rates. Burn reckons there is no way anyone watching him in play as a youth would have marked him out as a professional, let alone a top-level one. In his late teens, he was 25 kilos lighter than he is now. "I didn't stand a chance, really." But chances did come. He accepts a degree of fortune in being handed some openings but "I don't think there's any luck in how I took the opportunities - I've always been 100 per cent in everything I did."
It took time for his confidence to match his application. We revisit his arrival in January 2022. At that point, in that situation, would Dan Burn have signed Dan Burn for Newcastle United? "The hard thing about it is that you don't really appreciate (what I can do), in my opinion, until you've played with us, so it's hard.
"I've spoken about when I was on the phone (to Eddie Howe before signing), fighting my case, and saying I do believe I can make a difference. If I didn't know that person then yeah, maybe not. But I think if I knew what I brought to the team or I'd played with us before, then 100 per cent - I would have signed us all day, because I know what I'd bring the team, not just on the pitch, but off the pitch."
Clearly Howe agrees that Burn would be right to have signed Burn. The head coach assigned him a role in the squad's leadership group soon after. "I think that's what gives us confidence as well, knowing that your teammates would say those things about us," he says, as his daughter comes over and rests her head lovingly on his shoulder. "I feel as if you asked other people about us I would hope they would say similar things to what I would say. It was nice that they wanted us to be part of the leadership group and I think, again, that probably just gave us even more confidence."
Most families have left the training centre now. Outside in the car park there is a silver Dodge Challenger. It is Burn's, if only temporarily. "I was after a truck, really. I used to have an American pick-up truck - a Dodge Ram - and then once we had our little girl, we got rid of it as it wasn't really practical. But I've always wanted one back since."
He went in search of one. "They didn't have any, but they had a Dodge Challenger. I love them, but I'd never ever afford getting hold of one. They said, 'you can take that for a bit if you want'. Buzzing. I've had it for the last three months. Amazing, love it. I'm not really a big petrolhead but I can appreciate why people love those cars. I wouldn't be fussed about buying Lamborghinis or Ferraris or any of that sort of stuff, but proper American muscle cars, I love. They're amazing to drive. But it's not really a winter car, so I'm taking it back tomorrow."
What happened to the Smart car Burn was pictured in, to great hilarity, last year? "I went out to walk my dog and I lost my car keys. I couldn't find them anywhere. I knew Dummy (Paul Dummett) had the Smart car, and my wife's got a car but I needed one to get to training. So I said to Dummy, 'mate, can I borrow that car for a bit?' Obviously, it went viral.
"But it was class. She loved it, my daughter - it was small but you're quite high up, so she loved it and was gutted it when I gave it back. But I ended up finding my car keys in one of my jacket pockets. I put my jacket on, went back out to walk the dog and the lights came on on my car. 'You've got to be kidding me…'"
The idea of Burn folding his six-foot six-inch frame into one of the world's tiniest motors amused many. "I remember John Cena speaking about it. He'd be so wounded if he knew it wasn't actually mine. But I quite liked playing along with the idea it was mine. But no, it was Paul Dummett's."
In October 2002, Burn leapt up in the stands as Andy Griffin's shot crept under Gianluigi Buffon at the Leazes End. He was ten years old. In another 20 years, people will ring him and ask him to talk about his part in an even greater night for his club. "It is crazy to think about. When I first signed, I said those were the nights that made me fall in love with football and Newcastle, those Champions League nights, watching the best players in the world come to play at St. James'."
"Us winning games, I felt like it inspired my whole generation. That's what we always talked about. When you were playing out, you wanted to be those players. For us to have possibly done that and created an opportunity for all those other kids now coming through to look at that, it sort of makes it that bit more special."
Alongside all the optimism of the present, those who have watched Newcastle United for a long time - for either work or dubious pleasure - carry a kind of weariness with them. It comes from years of meaninglessness drift and the absence of hope, crushing defeats and misery, near misses and false dawns. Fewer things in this transient, volatile sport cut through as truly great moments now, the kind in which you just lose yourself. But that goal against PSG did.
So thanks, Dan, for that. "Thank you," he replies sheepishly. This interviewer's professional pretence has gone now. You're my dad's favourite player, I say. It's what you represent, what your story means to people. People know what you mean and they know what all this means to you. What the hell - you’re my favourite player as well. He laughs. It's not just because of that goal. It is because of who you are, how you got here and how you carry yourself. People are rooting for you.
"I think it's where I'm from as well," he says, probably in an attempt to bring this gushing appraisal to an end. "We're a very working class region, going back a long time, so we don't like things just being given to people. We want to work for it. I never wanted to be given it - I wanted to take it, if you know what I'm saying. I think people resonate with that. Now you watch fans, and it's as if we've scored when someone makes a tackle. They just love the effort people have shown."
That was evident when Burn slid in on Ousmane Dembélé that night, fists pumping, fans reciprocating. "Yeah - just because you feel like you've got a connection with them. You just want people to go out and give 100 per cent, and then whatever we do, that is it.
"I remember watching the documentary and I'd totally forgotten about the banner: 'we don't demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries!'. ******* hell. That proper sat with us. And we do - we just want people to go out and give 100 per cent, to represent this community."
This interview is featured in Saturday's edition of UNITED, the club's official matchday programme. Find out more about what's inside the latest issue for the Premier League clash with Arsenal by clicking here.