Alfie Burden’s snooker career may be nearer the end than the beginning, but the 39-year-old Londoner is now proudly supporting son Lene on his journey with Arsenal’s academy teams.
Burden himself started his sporting life with Arsenal from the age of 10, but after being released at 15 and picked up by Swindon the promising winger suffered a horrific injury, that saw his leg broken in four places.
Now based in Stevenage, Burden is in his 20th season on tour and though not scaling the highest peaks in the game the love affair with the Gunners that burned so bright as a youngster has been re-kindled as he follows his son’s progress.
In a fascinating interview with Inside Snooker Burden gives a revealing insight into how kids as young as six are tracked by Premier League clubs, his friendship with fellow academy dad David Beckham, and the sacrifices he willingly makes to help Lene chase a dream.
Burden said: “I got scouted to play for Arsenal myself when I was 10, and played for them until I was 15. At that time they thought I might be too small and suggested looking for another club, and I went to Swindon where Glenn Hoddle was manager at the time.
“But that is when I got a very bad injury, broke my leg in four places and from that point I cracked on with the snooker. The love affair with Arsenal has been there for a long time, and my dad got season tickets when I started playing for them, which we still have 29 years later.
“Every father kicks a ball about with their son when they are little and I was no different, encouraging him. And from a very young age he just seemed better than other kids, natural with a ball and at Little Kickers at 4 he was dribbling around the other kids.
“At about 6 I took him to a summer holiday football club and he was spotted by someone from Spurs who invited him to go training, you weren’t bothered at that stage which club it was if they were showing interest.
“And a couple of months later playing for a Sunday team he got spotted by an Arsenal scout, so that was a no-brainer once they came in! He trained there for 18 months and then they called us in and offered him a contact, when Chelsea and others wanted to see him. I think you just want your child to be happy, but there were close family ties to Arsenal.
“Kids can sign a first contact at Under-9, or when many of them are eight, and once you have done that you can’t go to another club that season. Lene is on his third contract in the Under 11s and they have already said they want him for next season.
“Chelsea have again said they would be interested in taking him but it is mainly about where he wants to be now. He plays in centre midfield, while I was a winger – and they say he is one of the top kids at the club in his age range, which of course makes you proud.
“A typical week for Lene is training on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday morning with a match on Sunday. It is a bit of a rush to get him to the Walthamstow Hale End Arsenal Academy, we get back from school, have a snack and drive straight there, it is about 35 miles from my house and the traffic can be terrible.
“He trains from 6-8pm, home by 9pm, asleep by 9.45pm and then school in the morning. The matches are all arranged for that age group, Ipswich and Norwich is about as far as you go. It is either 8 or 9 a side, whoever is at home decides. Arsenal play 8 a side for Under-11s.
“Next season at Under-12s it goes up to full size pitches and 11 a side, so that is a big change. That would be the last year of a one-year contract and then from Under-13s they try and tie them to two-year deals.
“It can start getting a bit serious with kids at 13 having agents and the like. It’s not as if Lene is not capable of doing well at school and we encourage him for that as well, but it is not where his passion and interest lies. He has a clear goal, but we make sure he does his schoolwork.
“Next season he goes up to secondary school and the club do a day-release thing where one day a week he is there from 1pm to 8pm. At Under-13s there is a full day release where the player is there from 9.30am, they are there all day and do schoolwork at the academy.
“I am just very proud of him and I feel we are on the journey together. We do what they say to do it properly, even diet, he is like a mini pro at 10. He eats very well, home cooked food, no McDonalds or fizzy drinks, fresh juices from the blender and water.
“If that is what it takes, he is up against the best kids from all over Europe and we are trying to give him the best possible chance.
“I am still trying my heart out when I play snooker but it does feel a bit on the back burner while I do anything I can to support Lene. I have had my go at snooker really, now it is Lene’s turn and I must do what I can to support him.
“There were two tours in Germany, and Arsenal’s Under-10s won a tournament featuring what was basically a who’s who of European football. His age group do seem to be an exceptional group, with some top players.
“It is a great journey, where it ends we don’t know, but he has a chance. And of course David Beckham’s boy Cruz is in the same team. He plays on the right, like his dad did – he can whip in a cross, he’s got a great right foot.
“Lene gets on with Cruz and David and I have just chatted standing watching our sons play football, we have that in common, and similar interests even if his life is very different. He always comes over as very normal, down to earth and humble.
“It is like becoming friendly with any other parent watching their kids do anything like that. We were very lucky he took us over to one of the Germany trips in his private jet, me and one other dad.
“David was very close to coming to the Masters snooker and watching that in January but something cropped up in Shanghai I think, but his father Ted came to Ally Pally. David loves snooker, and used to play at a club every day in Manchester after training at United.
“I am sure he had a table in one of his houses. I am not really one to be star-struck and hopefully try and treat people normally from the off, and so it is comfortable. He has taken Lene to Old Trafford for the Unicef game as a mascot.
“He may be very rich and famous but he is just a good, normal guy who loves his kids and wants to support them.”
Photographs reproduced with permission of Alfie Burden