For most Scots and fans of poetry around the world, the surname Burns is associated with the famous 18th Century poet, Robert. For Celtic fans, however, the Bard of Ayrshire comes a distant second to another Burns when it comes to preeminence. In the 1970s and 80s, Tommy Burns won fans’ hearts as a wonderful player and the classic ‘supporter who got lucky’.
In the modern era, few players stay at the same club for more than five years. Burns served Celtic with distinction from 1975 to 1989. Not many servants of the club can claim to have inspired the levels of enduring affection that Hoops fans have for the elegant left-sided midfielder who combined attacking flair with an undying passion for the game and the club he loved.
His breakthrough came at the end of the Bhoys’ incredible period of dominance of Scottish football and rise to become one of the best teams in Europe for a decade. Just three Lisbon Lions – Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox and Billy McNeill – were still playing for the club when Burns made his debut in April 1975. McNeil would soon retire after winning the league and cup double that year, while Johnstone moved on to pastures new the following season.
The league win that year would be the last of Celtic’s nine-in-a-row. Many of the Hoops’ best new players were now seeking their fortunes down south and the likes of Lou Macari and Davie Hay had already left when Burns broke into the team, while Kenny Dalglish would follow a couple of years later. Burns, however, would buck that trend by becoming a great asset to the club and hero to the fans for his silky skills, his fierce commitment and his generous character.
Burns was picked up as a schoolboy and was part of the youth set-up when many Celtic greats were still at the club. At the age of 16, he was farmed out to the semi-professional side Maryhill Juniors, before making his first-team bow as a substitute in a home defeat to Dundee.
Burns’ first appearance didn’t lead to him bursting onto the scene, and he had to make do with just five appearances in 1975/76 – Celtic’s first trophyless season in 12 years. The Hoops’ dominance of Scottish football came to an abrupt end as Rangers took the domestic treble that season, ended their own spell of 12 years without a league title.
But Burns’ breakthrough came the following season as he became a regular on the left wing. Celtic won the league and cup double that year to turn things back in their favour after the crushing disappointment of the previous season.
The battle with their Glasgow rivals continued for a couple more years as Rangers won the title in 1978 before the Bhoys wrestled it back in a famous title-deciding win in 1979. Unfortunately, he was injured the night that Celtic’s ten men won the league with a 4-2 victory over Rangers at Parkhead – but he played a full part in the post-match celebrations.
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Rangers soon went into a decline that was to last the best part of a decade, but new rivals to Celtic emerged in the shape of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen and Jim McLean’s Dundee United. Between them, these three clubs shared the first seven league titles of the 1980s, with the Dons and the Hoops claiming three apiece and the Tangerines taking one in 1983.
It was during this period that Burns really came to the fore as one of the finest midfield talents in the country. In the early years of his career, inconsistency and his temperament had been a problem. There had been red cards for losing his temper and he had a bust-up with Celtic manager McNeill before the 1980 Scottish Cup semi-final.
But Burns matured and his ability, rather than his temper, emerged. Celtic had conceded the title, with a late collapse allowing Ferguson’s Aberdeen side to be victorious in 1980, but the Hoops hit back the following season. They recovered from an early deficit to remain undefeated from the end of December to the beginning of May and clinched the league with a 3-2 victory at Dundee United.
The match at Tannadice featured one of Burns’ finest goals for the club. The visitors were 2-1 up and, after a trademark driving run from Murdo MacLeod, the ball was fired in at pace to Burns about 25 yards from goal. Tommy took a great first touch to get it under control and move menacingly towards the opposition goal. He then performed a gravity-defying turn at pace to get the ball onto his favoured left foot, leaving a United defender on his backside. He fired high into the net from 14 yards to put Celtic 3-1 up and essentially seal the championship.
The following season earned Burns another league winners medal as the Bhoys again fought off a determined challenge from Ferguson’s Aberdeen. Burns earned himself an individual honour with the Goal of the Season award for a spectacular strike against Hibs. The midfielder started the move himself before receiving a return ball from Provan and side-footing powerfully into the net – a controlled and composed finish.
By now he was approaching the peak of his powers and scored nine league goals in the 1981/82 campaign. But 1982 would also provide one of the most disappointing episodes of his career. Despite his outstanding form for Celtic, he would never become a Scotland regular.
Even though Jock Stein was the man who brought him through at Celtic, he didn’t rate him highly enough to make him a key member of his squad. Burns won his first cap in May 1981 for a home international against Northern Ireland, but despite enjoying an outstanding season, he was brutally cut him from Scotland’s World Cup squad.
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This was not the legendary Stein’s finest moment as he made the announcement in front of the whole team rather than communicating such disappointing news in private. In his defence, Scotland did have a strong set of midfielders at that time, with the likes of Graeme Souness and John Wark, and the mercurial John Robertson on the left wing, where Burns often excelled. But Burns could have argued the case that he was a match for any of the midfielders in the team, especially the fading Asa Hartford.
Domestically, Celtic would not lift the title again until 1986 as Dundee United and Aberdeen famously formed the New Firm that broke the dominance of the Old Firm. Rangers, however, were never contenders in these years. Despite failing to win more league titles, Burns picked up more winners medals in the 1982/83 League Cup and a memorable victory in the Scottish Cup in 1985.
There were also great European nights, including the 2-1 European Cup win over Ajax in Amsterdam in 1982 and the 5-0 thumping of Sporting in 1983’s UEFA Cup, overcoming a 2-0 first-leg deficit. In the latter game, Burns opened the scoring and was arguably the top performer in one of the Bhoys’ finest performances of the decade.
Celtic’s time as a European superpower was over but Burns had a habit of turning on the style on these occasions. Unfortunately, opponents also recognised this. With Celtic having regained the title in 1986, they faced Dynamo Kyiv in the second round of that year’s European Cup. In the first leg at Parkhead, Tommy looked very much in the mood in the early stages before his match was brutally cut short by a cynical challenge.
One of the greatest improvements in the modern game is that these kinds of challenges have generally disappeared. A hatchet man was identified to do a job on Burns, with a yellow card likely the harshest punishment. Burns would be out of the game for six months. Having turned 30 that December, it was a difficult stage of his career to suffer such an injury.
He would, however, have one more league title in him. Newly cash-rich Rangers had taken the 1987 title in Souness’s first season in charge and were hot favourites to become champions again in 1988, Celtic’s centenary year. The loss of Celtic’s prolific strike force of Brian McClair and Mo Johnston, as well as the more than capable back-up of Alan McInally, left McNeil’s men looking well short of the quality required to mount a title challenge.
But some shrewd signings followed and Burns was a huge influence as the Celts went on to win a legendary league and cup double. Such was his form that season, he even earned a recall to the national side for the game against England in May 1988.
The following season wasn’t such a happy one for Burns as Rangers regained the title and began an era of domestic dominance that would be mostly unchallenged until he returned to Celtic as manager. There would be one final trophy, however, as the Hoops denied their rivals a treble when they beat them 1-0 in the 1989 Scottish Cup final.
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Approaching 33, Burns’ opportunities were becoming more limited and a friendly against Ajax in December 1989 was his farewell match before moving to Kilmarnock as player-coach. He would be successful at Killie, leading them back to the Premier League in 1993, having been made player-manager in 1992. He kept his side up in their first season back, with Kilmarnock’s total of 40 points just ten fewer than struggling Celtic.
Celtic’s manager at the time, Lou Macari, was sacked after finishing fourth in 1994, paving the way for Burns’ return to his beloved club. Unfortunately, the move from Kilmarnock was acrimonious but Tommy couldn’t turn down the opportunity to manage his boyhood heroes.
Burns was a relative novice at just 38 and his first season would be tough as the Bhoys had to play at Hampden while Celtic Park was being redeveloped. They finished fourth again, just one point better off than the previous year. This would be compounded by a disastrous loss on penalties to First Division Raith Rovers in the League Cup final. There was to be a happy ending to the season as Pierre van Hooijdonk’s goal in the Scottish Cup final win over Airdrie gave Celtic their first trophy in six years, when Burns was still a player.
The signing of Van Hooijdonk would prove key to the dramatic turnaround in Celtic’s fortunes under Burns the following season. While Rangers had Brian Laudrup on board and added Paul Gascoigne to their squad in the summer of 1995, Celtic made the more modest signing of German Andreas Thom. However, with the likes of Paul McStay, John Collins and Phil O’Donnell in midfield, and two strong full-backs in Tosh McKinlay and Tom Boyd, the Hoops were forming the core of a good side.
For the first time since winning the title in 1988, Celtic challenged for the league but came up just short despite playing some outstanding attacking football. Burns led his side to second place on the back of an incredible turnaround in form. They won 83 points in total – compared to 51 a year earlier – and lost just one league game all season … to Rangers.
Ironically, in Burns’ first season, Celtic had got the better of Rangers in head-to-head fixtures, with two wins, a draw and a defeat. Gers boss Walter Smith recognised that Celtic were serious rivals again and soon adopted a defensive, counter-attacking strategy to contain their threat. This was to become a feature of the Burns-Smith rivalry between 1995 and 1997 and, unfortunately for Burns, Smith’s greater experience told in the end.
Having run Rangers so close in 1996, hopes were high that Celtic would prevent them from equalling their proud nine-in-a-row record in 1997. Italian attacker Paolo Di Canio and Portuguese striker Jorge Cadete added attacking talent to the squad, but once again they came up short when it mattered most.
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Rangers won all four league encounters, though Celtic did knock their rivals out of the Scottish Cup, but Burns would fail to make it to Hampden as Falkirk pulled off a shock victory in the semi-final. Celtic’s owner Fergus McCann felt the side had gone backwards and Burns was soon sacked – a sad end for a man who had made Celtic competitive again.
Burns tried his luck in England’s third tier with Reading but things didn’t work out and he would soon be back at his spiritual home. He returned as part of Dalglish’s coaching team in 2000 and became head of youth development when Martin O’Neill took over later that year. He was then appointed assistant manager of the Scotland national team under Berti Vogts in 2002. After the German was sacked in 2004, Burns’ old rival Walter Smith took over and foe became friend as Burns agreed to continue his role as assistant.
Following the dismal reign of Vogts, Scotland’s form picked up and a memorable victory over France at Hampden in 2006 was the highlight of the partnership between Burns and Smith. When the latter left to return to Rangers in 2007, Burns returned to focus on his role at Celtic as part of Gordon Strachan’s coaching staff.
By this point, he had already been fighting skin cancer but he continued to work, and perhaps the most cherished memory of Burns’ final year at the club came after a shootout victory over Spartak Moscow that secured the Bhoys a place in the Champions League. In the pile-up that followed, Burns, ever the fan, could be seen jumping on top as the players celebrated.
Sadly, he lost his battle with cancer on 15 May the following year at the age of just 51. At the time, Celtic had pegged back Rangers in yet another battle for supremacy in Scotland. The Hoops needed to win the final game against Dundee United at Tannadice to seal their third title on the trot, Jan Venegoor of Hesselink’s winner ensuring a fitting tribute to a Celtic legend just a week after his passing.
Thousands of fans of all generations lined the funeral route to pay their respects and old Rangers rivals Smith and McCoist were among the pallbearers. In a famously divided city, Burns was one of those who could genuinely claim to have the respect of both sides.
As well as his ability on the pitch, people recognised Burns as one of the most decent men in the game. A father of four and a keen Frank Sinatra impersonator, he was also a man of faith. At St Cadoc’s church in Glasgow’s south side, Burns could often be seen at the kinds of masses attended only by the most devout – Saturday and weekday mornings. He even became a eucharistic minister at the parish, prompting Celtic fans in the congregation to switch queues as they waited to receive the holy sacrament from their hero.
The football world is much the poorer without Tommy Burns but the memories of a great player and great man remain to be cherished by those lucky enough to have seen him play and to have known him.
By Paul Murphy @PaulmurphyBKK