Friday, 30 March 2018

Passion for Celtic

Passion for Celtic 

In May 2007, Hibs combative midfielder Scott Brown was one of the hottest properties in Scottish football. The sort of money Hibs were asking for him meant that if he opted to stay in Scotland, he would either end up at Rangers, like his good friend Kevin Thompson or Celtic as no other club in the land could match the asking price of over £4m. Brown had a lot to think about and wasn't short of advice from a variety of folk in football. The media had Rangers as firm favourites to land the midfielder and Rangers fans were so confident that he would be heading to Ibrox that they were singing 'We're going to sign Scot Brown,' during a match at Easter Road. Brown eventually opted for Celtic and commented recently on one of the influences on his final decision... 

'Tommy Burns used to text me all the time saying 'you don't want to go to the dark side, Pal.' 

Tommy had an influence on many players who wore the hooped shirts of his beloved Celtic but then he was the sort of man who influenced many who crossed his path. From the great and the good of football to the ordinary punter he met in the street, Tommy made time for them all. I watched him one outside Celtic Park signing autographs, posing for pictures and having a chat with supporters long after other players had vanished into the night. He was a notoriously bad time keeper and no doubt a few of Rosemary's suppers were getting cold by the time he got home after some games.  

This May will mark 10 years since we said our final farewell to Tommy Burns. I recall standing outside Celtic Park on the day of his funeral with thousands of others listening to the service being relayed via speakers from nearby St Mary's. People joined in the hymns which drifted over the crowd from the speakers and in a very real sense took part in the service to say goodbye to one of Celtic's favourite sons. They were marking more than the passing of a former player and manager of Celtic; rather they were marking the passing of a good and decent human being. Later, as the cortege bore Tommy down Kerrydale Street for the last time, he was embraced by a wave of emotion and affection by the ordinary Celtic supporters to whom he meant so much. The hearse carrying Tommy was covered in flowers and Celtic scarves thrown by supporters. The warmth they felt for him meant that their sorrow was genuine and heartfelt.  

The crowd at a Celtic game can be unforgiving at times but if you give your all and demonstrate a passion for the club then they will love you for it. Tommy gave everything he had each time he wore the Hoops and sometimes cared too much as his many brushes with Referees will testify. As a Manager, he once said he had aged 15 years during his three seasons in the Celtic dugout. He wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to Celtic; this was his club from boyhood and he fought with all he had to bring it success. Not only that, he wanted success to be achieve playing football in the best attacking traditions of the club. He once said... 

"I was the supporter who was lucky enough to get the hooped jersey to wear and become the people's representative on the park."  

The Celtic support knew Tommy was a fan as they were and like many of them, had grown up in the unforgiving streets of Glasgow's east end. But their affection for him was much more than a tribal recognition of 'one of our own,' it was rather based on seeing the way he lived his life. He was always attending functions all over the country, visiting fans in hospital, raising funds for charity and generally exemplifying the very best side of what being a Celt should be.  

The day after the crushing disappointment of losing the 1994 League Cup Final to Raith Rovers, Tommy was to be found at St Pius Church Hall in Drumchapel raising much needed funds. He had hoped to bring the League Cup along but that was not to be and despite his disappointment he charmed his way through the evening and even sang his favourite song, 'Mac the knife' to an audience which found its smile again after the bad result in the cup final.  

In 2008, as Tommy's health worsened due to the effects of malignant melanoma, Sir Alex Ferguson was welcoming guests to an after match gathering at Old Trafford where they had just defeated Barcelona to reach the Champions League Final. As he chatted to David Frost, news was passed to him about Tommy's deteriorating health. Fergie listened with a stern face before turning to Frost and saying... 

"You won't know Tommy Burns, but he is one of the kindest and most loveable men God ever put on Earth. Actually, you could call him a saint." 

Tommy would baulk at talk of him being a Saint as he would doubtless say that like all of us he was a flawed human being but there was a quality, a humility about him which people from all walks of life recognised. It may have been rooted in his deep religious faith or innate to him as a person. Perhaps it was a combination of both? His great friend of many years, Danny McGrain said of him... 

'“I loved Tommy Burns. You meet some people and you like them, but Tommy was someone that I loved. I got to realise that during the early 1980s, although I wouldn’t have told him that. But he was just one of those people that you just can’t help but love.' 

Tommy Burns played for the club he loved and in truth the club did not always recognise or reward that passion for Celtic adequately. He played in an era when players were far from wealthy and he could have earned more money in England. In those pre-Bosman days players had less choices about their futures but Tommy was Celtic through and through and nothing in his professional life gave him as much pleasure as playing for the club. 

Celtic fans will always honour Tommy, in their hearts, in their songs and in their memories. It was very moving to see his grandchildren in Celtic's latest video celebrating the remarkable football club their papa devoted so much of his life to. He'd smile to see them join the Celtic family as they set out on life's journey and be happy that the Burns Clan is thriving. 

There will be many great players recalled by fans of Celtic down the years. Some were wonderful footballers while others were great leaders of men. Few though will be remembered with the affection with which Tommy is. His midfield partner from that glorious centenary season, Billy Stark, spoke for us all when he gave the eulogy at Tommy's funeral. He said, in a voice shaking with emotion... 

'Tommy Burns treasured three things in life above all others; his family, his faith and his football, especially Celtic football club. Tommy Burns was a unique and special man. An inspiration to many of us. I'll miss you, old pal.' 

We all miss you Tommy. You were indeed a unique and special man. We'll keep fighting to make Celtic the club you wanted it to be on and off the field. You once said you were a fan who got lucky but in truth it was Celtic who got lucky having a man like you represent them with such distinction and honour. 

Thank you. We won't forget. 

Tommy Burns (1956-2008)  
One of the good guys

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The highest price

On the 20th March 1988 Celtic played Rangers in a vital league match at Ibrox. It was a time of great excitement for hoops fans as a win for Celtic would almost certainly see them clinch the title in the club's centenary season. It was an exciting game in which both sides created chances but Celtic fans were delighted as goals from McStay and Walker were enough to give the team a vital 2-1 win amid the usual cacophony of noise which accompanies the Glasgow derby. As that game took place on Glasgow's south side, 110 miles away in Belfast, that city was coming to terms with one of the darkest weeks of the Troubles. 

I recently watched the powerful and disturbing 'Funeral Murders' documentary on the BBC iPlayer. It outlined in all to graphic detail the events which took place at two republican funerals in Belfast in the spring of 1988. Those of you of a certain age will remember all too clearly the attack by a loyalist, Michael Stone, on the mourners at the funeral of the 'Gibraltar Three.'  Stone killed three people and injured many others as he threw grenades and fired into the unarmed crowd. Controversy still rages about who supplied the weapons he used, who sanctioned the attack and why the Police were nowhere to be seen when they had previously policed Republican funerals with a robustness bordering on brutality.  Those are questions history may or may not answer in the years ahead. 

Three days after the shocking scenes at Milltown Cemetery the funeral took place of Caoimhin Bradaigh (Kevin Brady) one of the unarmed people killed by Stone. As thousands of people followed the cortege, a car containing two armed, plain clothed British soldiers blundered into the crowd of mourners. The events of a few days earlier led many to believe they were under attack again and elements of the crowd overpowered the soldiers and they were quickly identified and executed by the IRA. Catholic Priest, Alec Reid, who would later play a major role in the peace process, tried to intervene and save the soldiers but to no avail. It was all he could do to administer the last rights to the men. As with the circumstances of Stone's attack a few days earlier, there remains controversy and dispute about what the soldiers were doing in the vicinity of the funeral but in the twilight world of truth and lies of that era we may never know for sure. 

The documentary framed events in the context of a religious struggle which is par for the course for those who don't wish to delve too deeply into the darker actions of the UK government in Ireland. That apart, it allowed the voices of relatives of those killed and injured to speak and this was powerful testimony about the lasting effects of violence and loss on those left behind to mourn. The well of pain is deep indeed and both communities suffered hugely in the dark times of the past.  

The events of March 1988 of course came just four months after the Enniskillen bombing of November 1987 which killed 11 people attending a Remembrance-day event. The world was rightly horrified at what happened that day and many see it as a turning point in the Troubles. The voices demanding peace became louder and even some of those the media liked to call 'the men of violence' began to think a new approach might be required. Gordon Wilson, a Solicitor who lost his daughter Marie in the bombing spoke courageously and with great dignity in the aftermath of the bombing. He said that as he and Marie lay in the rubble caused by the explosion... 

"She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say." To the astonishment of listeners, Wilson went on to add, "But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night."  

Mr Wilson became a tireless peace campaigner and pleaded with loyalist paramilitaries not to seek revenge in his or Marie's name. His pleas fell on deaf ears as the reprisals against innocent Catholics began but something had changed and the slow journey to peace was beginning. 

It's now 30 years since those events in the fine city of Belfast. It's a place I have visited and found the people to be as friendly and decent as any you'll find. Of course, it bears the scars of its history; how could it not? I recall travelling on the Belfast Tour bus around the main sites of the town and seeing the slow regeneration of the place. The peace wall still stands at the interface areas as a reminder that there is a way to go yet in normalising the city but things have improved vastly since the dark days of 1988.  

For years I sat beside a Belfast man at Celtic Park and he would tell me tales of growing up there in the 1970s. What struck me most was not the tales of violence and suffering of which he had many, but rather the humour and humanity of the people who endured so much and never lost their dignity.  

I hope peace endures in the north of Ireland and the new generations find a way to live together. The pain of the past remains very real for those who suffered and lost loved ones. It was good to see their voices heard in that disturbing documentary as they are often ignored. It is the ordinary people who pay the highest price when some choose violence to solve disputes. Hopefully those dark days are gone for ever. 

We live in hope.