Caltex Socceroo striker Nathan Burns says his spell in Greek football with AEK were some of the best years of his career.
The 28-year-old FC Tokyo forward made his first overseas move eight years ago when the then Olyroo transferred from Adelaide United to AEK Athens.
Burns was also loaned out during his time with AEK, helping Kerkyra to promotion from the Beta Ethniki.
And as he prepares to face Greece in Sydney and Melbourne over the coming few days for the Caltex Socceroos, Burns says he has some special memories of his four years in the at times chaotic Greek football scene.
“I was very happy with my time in Greece,” the former Hyundai A-League Johnny Warren medalist told www.socceroos.com.au
“I learnt so much as a footballer. To go overseas and to start playing as a professional in Europe is really hard.
“I did the whole on-loan thing and then came back to AEK and we played Europa League.
“Looking back, it was one of the highest points in my career being 21, 22 and playing in the Europa League.
“It was a really good experience. It was just disappointing that my club choice and the country didn’t do so well, which forced me to move on to another country, which is something out of my control the whole economic crisis that hit Greece.”
Burns was teammates with AEK star Kostas Manolas when he arrived in the Greek capital and actually got to play at Allianz in Sydney with AEK, famously scoring the winner for the Greeks in a pre-season friendly tournament against Glasgow Rangers in 2010.
He subsequently moved on to the K-League with Incheon United in 2012 and had a successful spell with Wellington Phoenix before linking with the Tokyo club in 2015.
But looking back, Burns says Greece helped him lay the platform for his overseas career.
“When I got to Greece it was great times. The first one to two years there was money around and the country was buzzing,” said the Blayney-born Aussie.
“Big players like Rivaldo came in. And then all of a sudden it all just crumbled. It was sad to see for Greece.
“I did a bit of charity work for a little bit!” he joked when asked about the at times late salaries in Greek football.
“But you have to expect that when you go to Greece. It’s one of the downsides but yes, a massive connection and I have a few teammates from then who now play for the Greek national team.
“It’s going to be good to see them and play against them.”
Though Burns added banter between him and those Greek players he knows would probably be restricted due to one very good reason.
“As Socceroos, we tend to run a lot so it’s hard to get your breath, so if you have time for banter, Ange is probably looking at you and thinking you’re not working hard enough!”
Burns described the current Greek national team’s story as being very similar to Australia’s cycle of success.
“They had a golden generation who won the Euros in 2004 – a generation of players like we had with our 2006 World Cup squad.
“Now they have a young team slowly making their way into big clubs and starting to build a name for themselves.
“We’re very similar in that we had that golden generation and now we’re in a rebuild with a few players doing really well at clubs and some are close to being at massive clubs in Europe.
“Their Euros team held on to their national team for a long time which our generation did too because they were so good.
“So both nations are similar in that regard with their players and rebuilding.”
Of course much talk around the two Greek games for Australia has been Apo Giannou – the Greece-born former Greek Super League striker and now Caltex Socceroo.
Burns was delighted to reconnect with Giannou in the Aussie national team camp.
“I just remember there being an Aussie guy at PAOK, that was Apo. I knew of him but we never really came across each other.
“But then in Socceroos camp that was when I met him, we spoke and put all the pieces together about same coaches and similar experiences.
“It’s always a laugh exchanging stories like that. And it’s good he got his chance and he’s in the Socceroos now.
“In Greece he would’ve learnt a lot but has moved on now into Asia, like me.”