You’ll Always Be With Us…
Barry stood in the doorway of Sniper’s bedroom as he rummaged around in a drawer by his bed. ‘Yass!’ Sniper said in triumph before turning to face his friend. 'Ye see that?' said Sniper pointing at a small silver medal in his rather grubby left hand which showed a footballer on the front, 'Won that for the school team.' Barry shrugged, 'So what's so good about that, I won about 8 for St Robert's?' Sniper ignored the comment and pushed on, 'It's no the fact that we tanked that mob fae Nitshill in the final though it's always good tae beat they jakies, it's who presented the medals!' 'Will ye get tae the point ya big fud! Who presented ye wi yer wan and only feckin medal?' Barry said impatiently. 'Guess!' said Sniper, a garrulous smile on his face. 'Guess nothing! Tell me or I'm off! Ye sure drag a feckin story oot so ye dae?' Sniper smiled, 'Initials are TB.' Barry exhaled loudly then added in an irritated voice, 'Tony Blackburn? Tony Blair? Tallulah feckin Bawbag! Who actually cares, Sniper?' Sniper seemed to be enjoying the game but finally relented and said, 'It was Tommy Burns.' ‘Whit?’ said Barry, ‘Seriously, Tommy Burns came tae your school tae dish oot footy medals?’ Sniper smiled, ‘He sure did, while you were getting yours fae Mr Bam-Bam from the maths department, I got mine from a Celtic legend. Shook my haun tae so he did!’ Barry looked incredulously at Sniper as he was a man known to tell the odd lie. Sniper could see Barry wasn’t fully convinced and returned to the drawer and fished out a photo frame. He handed it to Barry who looked at the picture. It showed the unmistakable peanut shaped head of a much younger Sniper, hair cropped like a Borstal boy and wearing a baggy red and white school strip. He was shaking hands with an equally unmistakable Tommy Burns. Sniper was telling the truth. Barry shook his head ‘Well feck me wi the jaggy end of a pineapple, it is TB!’ Before Sniper could respond Mick arrived at the door and was shown in by Sniper’s long suffering mum, ‘Howzit going chaps, are we all set for dear old paradise tonight?’
The supporters bus dropped 70 hopeful Celtic fans near the Gallowgate and they streamed forward to join the human river flowing towards the stadium. Sure Celtic were miles behind Rangers in the SPL but they had two games against their bitter rivals to go and tonight was the first of them. It was a must win game, they all knew that. ‘Europe is cracking them up,’ said Mick, ‘they’re starting to burn out.’ Sniper nodded, ‘I’m telling you mate they’re crap, we’ll win this league.’ Barry thought it a long shot but Sniper’s usually blind optimism had been proven correct on other occasions. ‘Besides...’ Sniper went on, ‘I’ve got my lucky charm on me.’ Mick looked at him, ‘Lucky charm? What is it, yer certificate of insanity?’ Sniper smiled and pulled a piece of string from beneath the collar of his Celtic shirt. ‘It’s the medal handed to me by the great Tommy Burns back in the days when I could overlap like Danny McGrain.’ Barry looked at him, ‘Mer like Fanny McGrain in your case big man.’ Mick laughed, ‘Seriously, Tommy gave you that medal?’ Sniper nodded towards Barry, ‘Just ask dog’s breath Barry, he saw the picture.’ Barry nodded, ‘It’s true Mick, this big fud met TB.’ Sniper let the medal hang loosely around his neck as they reached the great North Stand of Celtic Park. ‘Could ye no afford a chain Sniper?’ asked Mick looking at the thick string around his friend’s neck. ‘You no afford soap, ya dick?’ said Sniper with a smile.’
It was mid-April in 2008 when Celtic met Rangers in a crucial game at Celtic Park. The atmosphere throbbed and sizzled as the game commenced and the three amigos who had shared so many great days following the Hoops roared themselves hoarse. Rangers were well ahead in the league and didn’t know whether to stick or twist. Celtic went for them from the off and only inspired goalkeeping kept them at bay. That changed in 20 minutes when Nakamura’s tremendous swerving shot slammed into the net. Sniper hugged his two friends with a ferocious passion as they celebrated the goal. In the second half a counter attack saw Novo snatch an undeserved equaliser and the minutes ticked away with the score tied. McDonald’s missed penalty seemed to confirm that Rangers would snatch the draw they came for but Celtic threw everything at them. Then in the very last minute of the game a cross was headed down by McDonald and Jan Venegoor of Hesselink met it with his head to snatch a dramatic last gasp winner. Celtic Park exploded! ‘Yaaasss!’ roared Sniper, ‘Told ye, we’re winning this league!’ Barry was starting to believe it might just be possible. As the final whistle sounded, Sniper grinned like a Cheshire cat and grabbed his lucky medal, held it to his lips and kissed it.
Three days later Celtic beat Aberdeen 1-0 and then faced Rangers again in a bruising encounter which they won by 3 goals to 2. They had dug deep after being 2-1 behind and Barry Robson’s penalty had sealed a vital win. It was now in their own hands. Motherwell were then beaten 2-1 away in a tense encounter and Hibs, who had held Rangers 0-0 the week before, were beaten 2-0 at Celtic Park. It would all come down to the last day of the season. Celtic were away at Dundee United and Rangers away to Aberdeen. It would be a tense finale to an incredible season.
A week before the game, the three friends met up in the pub to plan their trip to Dundee, no way they were missing this one. The mood though was sombre as the great Tommy Burns had lost his battle with skin cancer earlier in the day. ‘Guy was a legend’ said Mick, ‘One of the best men you could ever meet.’ Sniper seemed close to tears, ‘It’s no fuckin fair, decent guys dying young and complete arseholes living tae be a hundred.’ Barry patted his arm, ‘He’s in a better place Sniper. He had a strong faith.’ Sniper looked away, eyes moist, sighed and headed for the bar to buy another round. Mick shook his head and looked at Barry, ‘Big man’s taking this hard, mate.’ Barry nodded, ‘Tommy was his hero, gave him that medal years ago, you remember stuff like that.’ Mick sighed, ‘We all loved Tommy, pure Celtic so he was. The guy, bled green and white. Be nice if we won this league for him.’ Barry nodded, ‘We heading over to Celtic Park tomorrow? I hear Sniper’s set for it.’ Mick nodded as Sniper returned with the drinks, ‘Wouldn’t miss paying my respects tae that guy, wan of the best guys who ever wore the green.’
The following evening they drove over to the east end of Glasgow in bright spring sunshine. ‘Wonder if it’ll busy?’ asked Mick in quiet tones. Barry nodded, ‘I hear a few folk have left scarves and flowers by the front door.’ As they parked the Mick’s battered old Ford Escort and walked up Kerrydale towards the stadium it was clear that many, many people had come to pay their respects to Tommy Burns. ‘Jesus!’ said Barry, ‘Would you look at that, would ye just look at that!’ A huge area in front of Celtic Park was carpeted with Celtic strips, scarves, flags and other memorabilia. Thousands of flowers scented the air and here and there were pictures of Tommy Burns, many beside candles which flickered in the evening breeze. Many hundreds of people were wandering among the tributes reading the heartfelt messages left to honour one of the good guys. A group near the front door were saying the rosary as the three friends passed. Sniper tied a scarf he had worn in Seville onto the railing beside a drawing of Burns, arms raised after scoring a goal. Tears rolled down the tough big Glaswegians face. ‘There ye go mate,’ he said talking to a nearby picture of Tommy Burns, ’Yer an immortal now, yer wi big Jock and Jinky and we’ll never forget any of ye’ Barry watched the astonishing outpouring of emotion all around him and looked at Mick. He too was fighting back tears. ‘What is it with this club?’ Barry asked. ‘’I know,’ said Mick, ‘it’s incredible, it means so much to us all. It’s like we’re all connected.’ Barry nodded, understanding flooding his mind. We are all connected he thought to himself. We’re all Celtic people. He thought of the struggles of the community who gave Celtic birth and helped it reach the heights it had. They had all shared in that journey of triumph and disaster down the generations and overcome the obstacles put in their path. Mick, Sniper, Tommy Burns and literally untold hundreds of thousands of others were all part of the incredible story of Walfrid’s club.
Two days before the league decider at Dundee United Tommy Burns was buried. Thousands of ordinary Glaswegians and not just Celtic fans, packed the streets around St Mary’s church, the place where his beloved Celtic had been conceived 120 years earlier. Thousands more stood outside Celtic Park to listen to the funeral service being broadcast on speakers. As a black hearse containing the remains of Tommy Burns drove slowly down Kerrydale Street there was applause, tears and then spontaneous singing of his name. The road was littered with Celtic scarves and flowers thrown by fans. It was a last embrace this side of heaven for the Calton boy they held so dear.
Tanadice Park 22 May 2008The supporters’ bus was rocking all the way to Dundee. Sniper, Barry and Mick sat at the back and joined in all the songs. This was the night, their date with destiny. The proposition was simple; win the game and Celtic would be Champions. Draw or lose and it could still be snatched from them. Celtic had won six games in a row. Make it seven and they’d be champions. The ground was packed as the three friends took their place in the stand above the managers dug out. Sniper had his football medal around his neck and touched it, as if for luck, every few minutes. The Celtic support were in raucous mood and their songs poured down onto the field. ‘This is it!’ said Barry as the teams came out, ‘Let’s do it Celtic!’ As the Hooped shirted Celtic team went into their pre-match Huddle a huge roar built up from the thousands of supporters they had inside the ground. Then they started singing a familiar song, ‘Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns, Tommy Burns!’ echoed around the stadium. The players had every incentive to win the title but could they do it?
The first half was a nervous affair with Celtic dominating but unable to score. Half time came and went as fans exchanged nervous glances and rumours about the score between Aberdeen and Rangers circulating. The second half saw Nakamura felled by a defender and a huge roar for a penalty but astonishingly the referee booked him for diving. Sniper was apoplectic with rage at the referee, ‘If we lose this, I’m invading the pitch and bootin his baws!’ he vowed. Then came one of those moments in sport which can act as a release valve for all the pent up tension and emotion. Firstly Aberdeen took the lead against Rangers 100 miles to the north and then in 72 minutes Jan Venegoor of Hesselink met a corner from the left with his head and bulleted the ball home. The Celtic support was in raptures! They roared out their songs in a non-stop cacophony of noise. Nothing was going to stop Celtic winning the title now! It had been an astonishing climax to the season. High above the pitch Sniper clutched his medal, ‘I told ye we’d do for ye Tommy! And we did!’ Barry and Mick stood either side of their friend, each with arm around his shoulder as they sang their hearts out.
As the players paraded the cup, Barry could see that each wearing a T shirt with a picture of Tommy Burns on it below which were the words ‘You’ll always be with us.’ He smiled as he watched Mick and Sniper cheer their heroes. ‘You’ll always be with us’ he thought to himself, ‘and we’ll always be with you. God bless you Tommy!’ He turned and joined in the chant with thousands of others as they sang in perfect unison, ‘Glasgow Celtic Champions Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Ooohh!’
Tommy Burns was home and so too was the Championship trophy. It was fitting tribute to a Celtic great.