“When you pull on that jersey, you’re not just playing for a football club, you’re playing for a people and a cause.”- Brendan Rodgers quoted Tommy Burns on his first day at Celtic Park.
Today marks the birthday of one of the all round best individuals to have ever been involved with Celtic Football Club, Tommy Burns “fae the Calton”. People that were near to him claim that he lived his life by the three F’s Family, Faith and Football, something which Billy Stark asserted at his funeral in 2008. He is one of the few Celtic players to have been seemingly remembered as an incredible person first of all and a great player second. He always seemed to be at functions and supporters events and would often visit fans in hospital.
There are plenty of anecdotes about Tommy and his faith, from poor jetlagged Danny McGrain being nearly made bankrupt at a church in Australia between the long taxi ride to the church and the half-dozen collections and goalkeeper Peter Latchford’s concern about Tam’s gambling problem. Peter later found out that Tom wasn’t actually spending his lunchtime in the bookies but at the chapel. His faith was extremely strong and only got stronger when he became afflicted with skin cancer later on in his life.
The fiery red head played on the left of midfield and was actually quite bad tempered at times on the pitch but at no stage in his career did even contemplate involving himself in any of the bigotry and never had any interest in goading opposition fans or players. He donned the Celtic jersey for the first time against Hamilton after a rather interesting conversation with Jock Stein who had noticed Burns had not brought his coat for sitting in the stand, suggesting to Stein that Tommy thought he was playing. In reality Tommy genuinely just didn’t have one. He made it to half time before being taken off, and was accused by Stein of “playing like an effin’ old man”. An inauspicious start, but one which was to be the exception rather than the rule by the end of his career. During his career with the Hoops he amassed 467 appearances, was capped for his country on 8 occasions and brought a significant amount of silverware and joy to the club and to those who loved to watch him. He had a fantastic rapport with the fans best summed up after the 1988 Scottish Cup Final when after a McAvennie winner in the dying moments a rather breathless Tommy Burns professed his love for the support. He produced his now famous quote “They’re there and they’re always there and God bless every single one of them.”
After his playing career he managed at Kilmarnock, Celtic, Reading and later assisted both with Scotland under Bertie Vogts and Walter Smith and Celtic, most notably with Gordon Strachan. His first stint at Parkhead in a coaching capacity was arguably at the most difficult point in the club’s history. Couple this with Tommy’s relative inexperience and it’s easy to see why there was little success. His team played beautiful flowing attacking football but he couldn’t keep up with a Rangers team who “seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of money” as one observer said. Tainted titles were being won in Govan whilst Fergus “The Bunnet” McCann was paying the bills at Parkhead. His team reached the League Cup final in 1994 and heartbreakingly lost on penalties to Raith Rovers after Paul McStay failed to convert his penalty. Later on that season though,
they were finally to end their barren spell with a Scottish Cup win against Airdrieonians.
The fact that Tommy played for us is something that translates on to players like Kieran Tierney and why the talented youngster excites the crowd so much, because they both have this clear identity of the fan on the pitch. If KT hadn’t made it in football he’d be in amongst the Green Brigade singing the songs. If you told a fan they had just scored for Celtic they would celebrate just like Tommy Burns did and KT does. If KT gives even the smallest fraction to Celtic compared to what Tommy gave he’ll still be a club legend. Indeed players like Tierney are part Tommy’s legacy at Celtic. In the current first team, Tierney, McGregor, Henderson and O’Connell have all come through the youth academy at Celtic, coach John Kennedy himself was a product of the youth academy. This was the part of Celtic that interested Tommy most in the later years of his life, seeing the massive potential that was not being taken full advantage of by the club. Players like McGeady and McManus were important first team players who had been nurtured by Tommy in the formative years who spoke and continue to speak extremely well of him. The top class facilities at Lennoxtown, second to none in Scotland, came about largely at the behest of Tommy as well with Peter Lawwell stating that he was delighted that the club had been able to deliver it for Tommy, even if the indoor pitch wasn’t the full size one Tam had wanted.
His premature death from malignant melanoma in a strange way was probably the biggest testament to what Tommy meant to so many people. Whilst there were massive crowds at Celtic Park, singing You’ll Never Walk Alone as his coffin went who shared a genuine sense of shock and disbelief, it was the events in Saint Mary’s in the Calton, the area where he had been born that summed him up best. The men who carried his coffin epitomised the nature of Tommy, as in a city often bitterly divided by football Ally McCoist and Walter Smith walked alongside Pat Bonner and Billy Stark. He was a man seemingly without any sort of ill will who just loved his team and nothing more.
Gordon Strachan-“The best thing for me in coming to Celtic Park three years ago was to get to know Tommy Burns and become his friend.”
Danny McGrain referring to Tommy’s legacy- “People like Tommy don’t die”
Gone But Never Forgotten
Kevin John Thompson (@KevinThomson67)