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THE STORY OF CELTIC LEGEND TOMMY BURNS

By David Potter

Tommy Burns, who sadly died on Thursday 15th May, typifies Celtic. Born in 1956 in the Calton, not too far away from Parkhead, Tommy grew up in exciting times. He was less than ten when the Jock Stein revolution took place at Celtic Park, and he would have seen the glorious events of 1967 at first hand.

But this earnest red-head (itself a Celtic characteristic) was making progress himself as a footballer at St. Mungo's Academy, so much so that in season 1973/74, the last season of the Celtic nine-in-a-row, Jock Stein thought him good enough to sign on as a professional. Jock was seldom wrong about important things and by 1977 Tommy had played enough League games to win himself a League Championship medal, and was on the bench in the rain for the Cup Final of that year.

The mop of red hair distinguished him and it was obvious to the discerning spectators that there was a great deal in this lad. He had a tendency in his early years to over-use the ball and to be reluctant to pass - a fault that he soon eradicated. Indeed, his accuracy in passing was very soon one of his salient features, but there was more to him than that.

Tommy was never particularly fast, although he had a fine turn of speed on occasion, but he worked hard, tackled well and could read a game well enough to know which of his colleagues was “on” this particular day, and which of his opponents were struggling. He could shoot as well, and a total of 81 goals is an impressive tally for someone who would never claim to be a striker, and whose reputation was built on him being a visionary midfielder.

The dreadful season of 1977/78 in the wake of the Kenny Dalglish transfer to Liverpool was a salutary, albeit a painful one for Celtic. Tommy Burns took a little time to settle under Billy McNeill, but after being one of the ten men who won the League in 1979, Tommy never looked back. He was more or less a permanent feature of Celtic throughout the 1980s, in which Celtic were consistently among the honours, but also experienced an astonishing amount of broken hearts, particularly in Europe.

Yet, it was in a European tie that Tommy Burns turned on his best ever performance. The team were down 2-0 to Sporting Lisbon from the first leg, but who can forget that early November night of 1983 at Parkhead when, in their lime green strip, Celtic, with Burns totally in command, turned on, arguably, their best European performance of all time, winning 5-0. That was a night when Tommy was inspirational!

Tommy was very much involved in the Centenary League and Scottish Cup Double-winning season of 1987/88, but after that, as with most players of that era, the slide began.

Yet Tommy, as well as being a great player, was also an excellent human being as he proved on the day after the 5-1 drubbing at Ibrox (from which the team took a decade to recover). In what must have been an ordeal for him, Tommy appeared, dignified and calm, to discuss the game, ignoring the taunts disguised as questions of the interviewers as he tried to rescue something out of what was undeniably the greatest disaster of modern times.

His playing career over, there was a sojourn at Kilmarnock as player-manager, but like Tommy McInally of old, he “pined for home” and returned in 1994 as Celtic Manager. This was no easy task, for the damage done by the regime of the “Old Custodians” was considerable, and all that he had to his credit as Celtic Manager was the Scottish Cup of 1995 before his melancholy departure at the end of the 1996/97 season.

Tommy Burns' Celtic were justifiably lauded and applauded for the manner in which their football was played “the Glasgow Celtic Way”. But he had atrocious luck and was not helped by temperamental foreign players, refereeing decisions, James Farry's deliberate stalling of Jorge Cadete's registration and the repeated failure of a talented team to win when they had to win. Yet it was noticeable that Tommy Burns, like Billy McNeill, retained his massive popularity with the Celtic fans, as well he might, for he was undeniably one of us.

Life after Celtic tended to focus on - well, Celtic actually, although Tommy also had a brief and unfortunate spell with Berti Vogts and Scotland when Tommy was assistant to the German Scotland manager, after coaching at Newcastle United and being manager of Reading.

In recent years, Tommy had health problems after being diagnosed with Malignant Melanoma (skin cancer) in 2006, but this in no way diminished his love and commitment for the Club, for whom he was Head Of Youth Academy and also, from the summer of 2005, Assistant Coach to Celtic Manager Gordon Strachan.

He was loved and revered by players and fans alike.

My favourite memory of Tommy will always be in the Final of the one and only trophy he won as Celtic Manager - the Scottish Cup against Airdrie in 1995, which was a 1-0 win for Celtic thanks to Pierre van Hooijdonk's headed goal. It was, frankly, a dreadful game, but Celtic were 1-0 up. Minutes were crawling past, and the TV cameras suddenly had a shot of Tommy with his back to the play, looking up into the main Hampden stand, perhaps wanting support from his loving wife, Rosemary, or perhaps offering up a silent prayer to the God that he worshipped devoutly. The two pillars of his life certainly helped him, for the final whistle came soon afterwards and Celtic were victorious.

In every sense of the word, Tommy Burns is a real Celt and Celtic have lost a Legend.

Tommy Burns passed away in the early morning of Thursday 15th May 2008. He was 51 years old.

Our condolences and love to Tommy's wife Rosemary, his children, his family and all his friends.

You'll Never Walk Alone.

David Potter

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