The Best man I ever met
Ally McCoist and Walter Smith had been summoned to Ibrox to rescue a Club dying on its feet. McCoist saw the opportunity to learn from his more experienced colleague and would have smiled as the Laptop Loyal announced that the ‘Dream Team’ were now in charge at Ibrox. McCoist arrived at Murray Park to assess the Squad, and his phone buzzed into life. He clicked opened a text message which read…
’Haw you, where am I in this bloody dream team? Your arse won’t last long in the hot seat anyway… P.S Get it up the pair of yea.’
Ally smiled as he recalled this message. It was from a man he calls simply, ‘The best man I ever met.’ It was of course from the inimitable Tommy Burns. Those of us old enough to have seen Burns play will testify that he was indeed a gifted and passionate left sided midfielder. He had an unmistakable running style and would take on anyone when he wore those hoops. We all have particular memories of him and I recall the sheer joy on his face as he embraced Paul McStay after his Celtic team beat Airdrie in the 1995 Scottish Cup final to end a 6 year trophy famine. It meant so much to Burns to give the support a day to remember after the pain they had endured in that barren period. I recall his first goal against Rangers which he smashed high into the net at the old Celtic end. He would have ended up in among the fans if his team mates hadn’t swamped him that day. His passion for Celtic was undiminished as the years rolled on and we saw it again when Celtic knocked Spartak Moscow out of the Champions league at Celtic Park after a penalty shoot-out. Among the images of the players joyful ‘pile on’ top of keeper Artur Boruc is one which shows the middle aged Burns leaping onto the pile as if he was still that flame haired teenager of thirty years before. I also recall seeing him on a freezing winter’s night working with a charity feeding the homeless in Glasgow City Centre. He smiled, joked and exchanged football banter with the poorest of the poor that night, both Celtic and Rangers fans who had reached rock bottom. He would never look down on them or anyone else for that matter. That wasn’t his style. This Calton Bhoy had gone on to great things at Celtic because he combined footballing skill with an obvious life-long love for of the Club. In a real sense he was one of us. If he wasn’t on the pitch or in the dugout, he’d be in the stands with his people. He once refused a transfer which would have hugely increased his salary to stay with Celtic and truth be told, certain board members at the time played on his loyalty and paid him much less than he was worth.
Tommy loved Celtic; he was the very epitome of a Celtic fan. He was schooled in St Mary’s where the Club he held so dear was born. He was raised a corner kick from Celtic Park in the tough streets of the East end of Glasgow and played 352 times for Celtic, scoring 52 goals. His midfield partnership with Murdo McLeod and Paul McStay gave Celtic a solid and well balanced midfield for most of the 80s. Tommy won 6 Championships and 5 Scottish cups and 1 League Cup as a player. But when anyone who knew him speaks of Burns, his undoubted football ability is often secondary in their thoughts as they recall a man of decency, humour and tremendous courage. Gordon Strachan said with sincerity that the best thing about coming to Celtic was working with Tommy Burns. Those two fiery redheads had clashed often as players and Burns was once sent off for a wild swipe at Strachan. However the affection Strachan has for Burns was deep and genuine. I could list many memories of Tommy Burns. From his goal in the 5-0 demolition of a very good Sporting Lisbon side to his raking cross field passes which changed the axis of Celtic attacks in a heartbeat. His brushes with referees when he felt they were doing Celtic an injustice were legendary and he had first use of the soap on a few occasions. But my abiding memory of Tommy Burns takes me back to a Celtic Supporters dance in St Mungo’s Hall in Townhead, Glasgow. My old Uncle Frank, God rest him, was a Celtic man all his days. He wanted to meet Burns as they were both Calton men and my Uncle knew Tommy’s Dad from the east end. He waited patiently in the line of fans who were having pictures taken with Burns or sharing some chat. As my Uncle Frank got nearer the front of the line, he nipped his fag and put it into jacket pocket. Unknown to him the fag wasn’t entirely out and as my Uncle reached to shake Burns’ hand, the red headed Celtic Legend began the conversation by saying…’I think yer jackets oan fire Pal.’ Indeed it was! Smoke wafted out of my Uncle’s jacket pocket and as he sought a glass of water to put out the minor blaze, Burns waited patiently with a wry smile on his face. My Uncle Frank was beaming with delight all evening after his chat with Burns. He retold the story of his talk with his hero a hundred times over the next few years. Another lifelong Celtic fan charmed and totally won over by this humble and decent young man. He’d talk of Tommy Burns as ‘One of our people’ and so he was.
Tommy Burns left us on 15th May 2008 at just 51 years of age. The day before his death, Rangers played in the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester and were still involved in a frantic league climax with Celtic. As I placed a flag at the incredible shrine which had built up outside Celtic Park, I saw people praying, crying and others simply reading the heartfelt tributes of the fans to one of their own. To my left I heard a round of applause and turned expecting to see some Celtic player from the present squad or some old warrior from a past team. Instead it was 5 or 6 Rangers fans fresh from the crushing disappointment of losing a European Final in Manchester who tied their scarves to the railing and showed their respects to a fellow Glaswegian and one of the good guys. It was a moment of touching humanity. Tommy would have liked that. There was no room for hate in his heart. A few days later a tearful McCoist and Walter Smith carried his coffin into his beloved St Mary’s. It was a gesture which still touches those of us who know how much courage it took to do that. Anyone looking at the images from that day can see how genuinely distraught McCoist was as losing his friend. Billy Stark, another long time comrade of Burns read the Eulogy and said…
‘Tommy Burns treasured three things in life above all others - family, faith and football, particularly Celtic Football Club.’ Stark, clearly emotional finished by saying quietly through his tears…’I’ll miss you Old Pal.’ He spoke for us all.
Postscript: Tannadice Park May 22nd 2008. Celtic clinched the SPL title after a dramatic end of season climax which saw them beat Rangers twice before heading to Dundee where a headed goal by Jan Venegoor of Hesselink finally brought the big Cup home. The fans roared their hearts out at Tannadice that night as they did at Celtic Park and Bars and homes all over the country. The name on their lips most often was Tommy Burns. It was a fitting tribute to a great Celtic man and an utterly decent human being. He would have smiled down on his team and his people that night as they embraced him with their hearts and voices. The world was a better place for Tommy Burns having passed through it and we who saw him or were lucky enough to talk to him were blessed indeed. Thank you Tommy, we won’t forget.
Goodbye old Pal.