In the lower reaches of the English Football League, teams are largely comprised of journeymen. Squad turnover at this level is high, and with shorter contracts and higher financial volatility, players often play on different teams from season to season.
But few footballing nomads have ever reached the migratory magnitude that goalkeeper Josef Bursik has achieved this season. Thanks to numerous injury dilemmas at the Championship and League One level, the 20-year-old Stoke City goalkeeper has played for four different clubs in the 2020-21 campaign alone.
Although there is no official record-holder, it appears that Bursik has tied two players for the achievement of most Football League clubs played for in a single season in the modern era of the league.
Former Scotland striker David Speedie made appearances for Southampton, Birmingham, West Brom and West Ham during the 1992-93 campaign, while English center forward Tony Cottee saw the pitch for Leicester City, Norwich, Barnet and Millwall as a player-coach during the 2000-01 season.
Cottee's effort is even more noteworthy because he played for one club in each of the top four divisions in English football.
But how did a young goalkeeper with just 16 League One appearances to his name coming into the season manage to play 35 matches for four clubs across the space of just nine months?
Josef Bursik's story starts back in September of 2020. The England U-21 international is on the books at Stoke City, but began the season on loan at League One side Doncaster Rovers.
Bursik started between the sticks 10 times for Doncaster before a goalkeeping crisis at his parent club (Stoke's top two keepers both suffered long-term injuries) forced the Englishman to return to Stoke-on-Trent.
Bursik made his senior debut for Stoke in November in a 3-2 defeat to league leaders Norwich. He allowed three goals apiece in each of his first two matches before embarking on a streak where he allowed just two goals over the course of 720 minutes — a stretch that included four straight shutouts and 392 straight scoreless minutes.
The youngster even helped Stoke briefly vault into a playoff spot, but Bursik was relegated to the bench after Angus Gunn returned to full health in January and left out of the squad altogether when starter Adam Davies rejoined the team a month later.
The season was far from over though for Bursik, as the 20-year-old was called upon by Peterborough after starting keeper Christy Pym suffered a muscle injury for The Posh.
As an emergency loan signing, Bursik was allowed to join the League One side outside of the normal transfer window since Peterborough did not have a fit keeper with at least five league appearances, per EFL rules.
"We had to think fast," Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson said, "we have a list of keepers in case of something like this happening and he was the one that we wanted. It is a good signing to make at such short notice. He has good experience in League One, he was with Doncaster Rovers until he was recalled and has gone on to play 15 games for Stoke in the Championship this season."
"This season has gone well for me," Bursik said, "It probably surpassed my expectations to play as many games as I have in the Championship and I have really enjoyed the experience. I have played 20 league games for Accrington and 11 for Doncaster in League One. I know what to expect. I just want to do my thing, I don’t want to stand out, I want to do my job and help the team."
Bursik started six matches for the promotion-chasers and helped them lock down automatic promotion with a 3-3 draw against Lincoln City on the penultimate game of the season.
After starting keeper Christy Pym returned to full health and started the final match of the season, Bursik's loan ended and he returned to Stoke to backup Adam Davies in the final match of the season.
But even the end of the regular season could not prevent the English keeper from playing for yet another club.
Lincoln City keeper Alex Palmer suffered a head injury in training ahead of the Imps' League One Playoff Semifinal against Sunderland, leaving 18-year-old Sam Long (yet to make a senior appearance) as the club's only healthy keeper, and Bursik was once again called upon to help a third-tier side pushing for promotion.
The emergency loan signing only had one training session with the side before starting Wednesday's match against the Black Cats, and he had even played his current club twice during the campaign (a victory with Doncaster and a draw with Peterborough).
The move drew criticism from Sunderland manager Lee Johnson, who said: "They’ve certainly signed a good goalkeeper, arguably better than the one that got injured. "
But despite the difficult situation, the English U-21 keeper earned a 2-0 shutout in the first leg of the playoff semifinal, recording three saves in the process — including two worthy of any highlight reel:
— Sky Bet League One (@SkyBetLeagueOne) May 20, 2021
"He made a couple of vital saves," Lincoln manager Michael Appleton said in his post-match press conference, "[he] was a safe pair of hands, came for crosses when he needed to and was very, very assured."
The Lincolnshire Echo even gave him a 9/10 rating for his debut performance. His start for Lincoln also marked the fourth different club Bursik had played for this season — an achievement that was obtained for the first time in 20 years — and he could also earn promotion with two teams from the same league in the same season
Josef Bursik may have been a footballing nomad this year, but expect him to have a steady job between the posts for years to come in England.