Lurgan born full back Sam “Surefoot” Burnison followed in the footsteps of elder brother Joe, as Distillery player and captain, and as a much honoured Ireland international footballer. Like Joe, Sam began his career as a forward, making his Distillery bow as a 15 year-old inside-forward, scoring in a 2-2 draw with Glentoran on 6th January 1906. At the end of that season, young Sam played in both of the drawn Championship Play-Off games with Cliftonville which saw the Irish League shared for the only time in its history.
By the 1907-08 season, Burnison was turning out regular as half-back for Distillery, and aged just 17 years and 77 days, he made his international debut at inside-forward in a 3-1 defeat by England. In 1910, now playing in the right-back position that was to be his for the rest of his career, Sam emulated brother Joe in captaining Distillery to an Irish Cup victory – it was to be a parting gift, as he signed for English Division Two side Bradford (Park Avenue) in May, making his Football League debut at Lincoln City that September. Whilst at Bradford, Burnison became the first player for the club to gain international recognition, taking the field for all three of Ireland’s games in the 1911 International Championship. After fifteen Football League appearances, Burnison returned to Distillery for the 1911-12 season. He helped the Whites to further successes throughout the rest of the decade, most notably scoring a penalty in the 1914 Gold Cup Final replay win over Shelbourne.
In January 1913, Burnison won the last of his eight international caps, in a 1-0 defeat by Wales. All but his first international outing had been made at right-back, and although Ireland won just once with him in the side, when they defeated Scotland 1-0 in 1910, it is to his credit that only one of these defeats could be considered a “hammering”. Other representative honours came Burnison’s way in the form of five Inter-League caps against the Football League and Southern League between 1906 and 1914.
Sam Burnison left Distillery for home-town club Glenavon mid-way through the 1918-19 season. In all he played 343 games for the Whites. His younger brother Harold also captained Distillery to Cup success in the 20’s.