The laughter and the tears
St Mungo’s parish Hall was packed with Celtic supporters from the local supporters club who had gathered for their players of the year celebration. A cheer went up when the player they had chosen hobbled in, a plaster on his ankle but still determined not to let the fans down. That was the sort of man Tommy Burns was; if he said he’d be there an injured ankle wouldn’t stop him. My uncle Frank was excited to see him and determined to have a word with him as they both hailed from the same part of Glasgow and he knew the player's dad. He waited patiently as Burns signed autographs and posed for photos with supporters before making his move. He ‘nipped’ his cigarette and put it into his pocket and headed towards Burns. He clearly didn’t fully extinguish his cigarette for even as he walked up to Burns it smouldered in his jacket pocket and a distinct whiff of smoke was visible as he reached to shake Tommy’s hand. The young Celtic player smiled and said, ‘I think yer jaiket’s on fire pal.’ My uncle dealt with the emergency and spent a happy 5 minutes chatting to Tommy who treated him with great respect. Old Frank talked about those 5 minutes with Tommy all his days.
A couple of years back I attended one of those charity ‘Tommy Burns Suppers’ at Celtic Park. Gordon Strachan sat on a stool in the centre of the stage between former Celtic players Tosh McKinley and Tom Boyd. He may have looked like a naughty schoolboy in the Head Master’s office but when he spoke people listened. His humour, cutting at times towards those he perceived as fake, was sharp and well observed. His observation that he ‘can’t be doing with those players who kiss the badge on the pitch and then after the match walk past fans who have waited an hour in the rain to see them,’ touched a chord with many in the room. Strachan also spoke of his time managing Celtic and stated that the best part of the job wasn’t working with the players or winning trophies, nor was it competing against the giants in the Champions League. It was, he said simply, getting to know Tommy Burns. He told one anecdote which had the audience laughing uproariously…
‘We were playing Manchester United in the Champions League and they had Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez running at us. We were hanging on a bit at the end and the crowd were getting on my back a bit demanding I change it. All I had was Ben Hutchison on the bench. I saw Tommy standing at the opposite end of the dugout watching the team hanging on. He comes walking up to me as the crowd think ‘Aye, Tommy will tell him what to do to sort it.’ Well he stops in front of me, puts his hand over his mouth so no one can see what he’s saying and I’m waiting for the tactical master plan, and he said, ‘By the way the blind section and giving you some abuse!’ I looked along and saw a blind guy on his feet waving his arms shouting ‘Strachan yer f*cking useless!’ He canny even see the game and he’s giving me stick! Even his guide dog had its paw over its eyes!’
We laughed at these tales from men who knew Tommy best and here and there the odd tear was shed too at the loss of such a great Celtic man.
The coming week will see the anniversary of one of the greatest Celts taking his leave of us. It was 11 years ago that Tommy Burns died and his passing, so cruel and untimely, still hurts those who cared about this remarkable man. No one in the cynical and clannish world of Scottish football had a bad word to say about Tommy Burns. He lived his life with a refreshing honesty and his Celtic side played football the way the fans love it being played. I first saw him as a flame haired teenager who showed a remarkable affinity and passion for his club.
Tommy loved Celtic and loved playing for Celtic. There’s an old cliché about some players being a fan in the team but men like Tommy and John Doyle were just that. The fans loved Tommy Burns because they knew he was one of them. He felt elation at Celtic’s successes, pain at their setbacks and understood the sacrifices ordinary fans made to support their team. Former Celtic winger Davie Provan said of Burns…
‘The night against Juventus in 1981 turned into Tommy Burns against Liam Brady and Tam won the game for us. He bossed that game and I’ve never seen him in such form. He just stuck his chest out that night and decided that was his stage. He took the ball in all areas of the pitch, and I know we won trophies together but if I’m thinking of a football memory, that was Tommy at the very top of his game that night. I remember also the day we buried Johnny Doyle and we practically had to carry Tam out of the chapel that day. I’ve never seen anyone so distraught. He was in bits that day because he had lost his wee soul mate.’
It may seem strange to some that we Celtic supporters still sing his name on occasion and still remember with such fondness the way he fought for every ball when he wore those hoops, the way he told officials in no uncertain manner what he thought if they appeared to be giving Celtic less than a fair shake and the sheer joy on his face when his beloved team won another honour.
Tommy epitomised the values Celtic have at their core. He was a charitable man, a man who always gave his all for the team and a man who had time for the supporters. He had no time for petty hatred although no one loved beating Rangers more than he did but it was about rivalry and pride for him. He was of course a man of deep religious faith and that would have sustained him as he struggled with his illness in the spring of 2018. Gordon Strachan tells a story of that difficult time which epitomises the sort of man Burns was. He said…
‘I saw him at 4pm and he died at 3am the following morning. When we got to together at 10am the following day I spoke to the players. Scott Brown said, ‘Can I speak to you?’ I asked what was up knowing his sister was dying of cancer at that time, only 23 years old. Broonie asked when Tommy had died and I replied, ‘about 3am this morning, why?’ He replied. ‘Well my sister got flowers this morning at 10am with a note saying, ‘Good luck, and keep your chin up, from Tommy Burns.’
That was Tam; thinking of others even as he was taking on his toughest opponent. His great friend Danny McGrain spoke for many who knew Tommy when he said…
“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. He was a helpful guy and his memory will live on within this club.’
Tommy left us on the 15th day of May in 2008. His beloved Celtic was rocked to the core by the passing of such a great Celt. The scenes around Celtic Park as supporters of Celtic and many other clubs left their colours as a mark of respect will live with me always. It was a sea of colour, predominantly green and white, which seemed to want to reach out and embrace him. His beloved Celtic was locked in a tense battle for the championship and the players racked up eight straight wins to seal the title on an emotional night at Tannadice. It was a fitting tribute to Tommy and how he would have loved watching Celtic win another trophy. Of course, we knew him as Tommy Burns the footballer but to his family he was a husband and a dad and their loss was and remains huge. They can take pride though in the sort of man Tommy was and the huge affection he still engenders among Celtic supporters.
It has been a difficult period for Celtic supporters with the loss of Billy McNeill and Steve Chalmers and they join the list of legends of this remarkable football club who will never be forgotten. Tommy Burns is there too; a fine Celt, a wonderful player and great human being.
Sleep well Tam. We won’t forget.