By Dean Robertson
The 15th May 2008, the day the world seemed to stand still. It was on this day that Celtic Football Club lost a legend, the whole of Scottish football lost a hero, football itself lost an inspiration and most notably the world lost a wonderful human. It was on this day that many around the world shed a tear for a great football player and a great man. It was on this day that the most bitter and hospitable of footballing rivals became meaningless. It was a day no footballing fan that know of the man will forget. It was the day Tommy Burns died.
Burns wasn’t just a great football player and he certainly was that, but he was also a great man. He was the type of man that would stop what he was doing to have a chat, he wouldn’t past a fan on the street without a “hello” or a “how do you do”. He was one of only a few people to play football at the top level in Scotland and not have a bad word against his name.
He seemed to be loved by all whether it be the fans of Kilmarnock that he served as a player and manager, the people and fans of Scotland that he served as a player and alongside Walter Smith as a coach in the national setup, or more notably the Celtic fans whom he became a hero to as he served them as a player, manager and even part of the background staff on a number of occasions. He may have been a Celtic man, but he was definitely a man’s man.
Burns dreamed of playing for Glasgow Celtic and he wouldn’t have to wait long for that opportunity to come along as they signed him up as a school boy in 1970 and he went to play for Celtic Boys Club before signing a professional contract three years later in 1973. He would go on to make his debut for the club on 19th April 1975 in a 2-1 defeat to Dundee coming on as a substitute.
However, it would be another full year until Tommy Burns would start to see more regular game time. In 1976 he made his full home debut in a draw against Aberdeen. This was the true beginning of his Celtic career that would see him and the club face ups and downs. Although in his career at Celtic not everything worked out the way he would have hoped, most of it did. As a Celtic player he would make 503 competitive appearances, scoring 82 goals and putting in countless world class performances that would help his side to much success.
During his time at Celtic Park he won six league championships, five Scottish Cups and one League Cup, a trophy collection bigger that some teams. He made his last appearance for Celtic in an emotional game against Ajax. He went on to play for Kilmarnock in a player coach role. He would make 151 appearances, scoring 16 goals as he helped Kilmarnock to two promotions. He also on a handful of occasions got the greatest honours of all, playing for his country.
While he was being a world-class player on the field he was also being a wonderful man off it. During all his footballing success he was also dedicated to his faith and his family and also as equally dedicated to the fans of the clubs he served, creating a bond with the fans that was a lot more than just a bond, it was more like a friendship with each and every one of them.
After hanging up his boots, Burns turned his attentions to management. He would spend a total of eight years in management, managing three clubs, and taking control of Scotland as caretaker manager.
He would start his managerial career at Kilmarnock after being involved in the coaching setup while playing for the club. His time in charge of Kilmarnock may have been short but it would see him take them to an Ayrshire Cup and promotion from the Scottish First Division.
He would leave Kilmarnock in 1994 to take charge at his boyhood club Celtic. His time in charge at Celtic may not have been as successful as his playing days at the club, but he would still have some success, capturing the Scottish Cup in 1995. He would part ways with his beloved Celtic in 1997. After being released of his duties, he would go to work with former teammate Kenny Dalglish at Newcastle United as a coach.
In 1998 Burns would take control of Reading but would only be at the club for a year before being released after failing to gain promotion. This was to be his final club managerial role as he would return to Celtic as part of the background staff. Even as managers came and went at Celtic, Burns remained a key figure at the club, having roles as a coach, head of youth development and finally first team coach.
He would also go on to be part of Walter Smith’s Scotland setup. He would have one final manager role, albeit as caretaker after Smith left Scotland to return to Rangers. After finding out he was not in contention for the job he left the Scotland set up to focus on his role at Celtic Park. He would remain a part of the Celtic setup until his death from cancer in 2008.
Burns continued to be an inspiration to many throughout his managerial career, whether it was to the players he worked with or the fans who he gave every ounce to repay their faith or the many people he helped with his great generosity, kind manner or charity work.
He was a man loved by all, he was just that type of man. His hard working, good spirited nature made it easy for people to get on with him and made it easy for people to love him. Anyone he worked with or against has only good things to say about Tommy Burns. Walter Smith, who worked with and against him, said: “Tommy Burns is one of the best people I think I have ever met and it as a real privilege to work with him”.
You could ask any Celtic fan or football fan for that matter, what he meant to people, but one fan summed it up perfectly when he said: “Tommy Burns was a wonderful footballer, one of the best we ever had but he was an even better person and that’s why he will forever be loved by all.”
Burns’ passing wasn’t just a loss to the people that knew of him, but a loss to the entire world, as it meant that there was one less true gentleman on the earth. Tommy twists, Tommy turns, Tommy touched hearts. He was simply just Tommy Burns.