Tommy, Fergus and the Celtic renaissance
Nobody among the great mass of Celtic supporters has more affection for the late, great Tommy Burns than I do. On the few occasions I met him he lived up to his reputation as a decent, humble human being who took time to talk to the ordinary fans and share a smile with them. I have witnessed close hand his ability to make those a little shy about chatting to a Celtic star, relax and feel that he was really interested in them and their stories. He was and remains the epitome of Celtic FC and what the club is about. As a player he gave 100% for the Hoops and never shirked a tackle. The effort you saw in Old Firm games or Cup Finals was matched against smaller clubs. He often said he was just a fan who got lucky but the truth is that Celtic and the huge legion of fans who follow the club got lucky when TB walked in the door as a skinny teenager. It is a truism to say that I never heard anyone say a bad word about Tommy. He was simply a good man and a great Celt.
His managerial career at Celtic, which began on July 12th 1994, coincided with Fergus McCann’s restructuring of the club. McCann had inherited a dilapidated stadium which, post Hillsborough, required rebuilding. The squad left behind by Lou Macari was full of honest professionals but in truth looked unlikely to stop the march of Murray’s Rangers who spent huge sums on players and perhaps laid the foundations in those years for their later collapse and liquidation. With reconstruction work taking place at Celtic Park, Burns first season would see all home times played at Hampden. Queen’s Park charged almost a million pounds for the use of their stadium that season and McCann never forgot their exploitation of Celtic’s predicament. Celtic started the season reasonably well and beat Rangers 2-0 at Ibrox in an opening spell when they were undefeated until a narrow defeat at Tyncastle in mid-October. However the habit of drawing games they had in the bag was allowing Rangers to power clear at the top of the league especially as this was the season 3 points for a win was introduced. As the leaves fell that autumn so too did Celtic’s form. They drew an astonishing 18 SPL games and finished a dismal fourth in the table. The support watched the side lose the League Cup final to Raith Rovers after another winning position was squandered. The pain on McStay’s face after he missed the crucial penalty was matched by that of his manager. These two great Celts felt it as the fans felt it. Only the Scottish cup offered a chance of ending a six year trophy drought. St Mirren, Meadowbank, Kilmarnock and Hibs were defeated in the cup and Celtic then faced Airdrie at Hampden on a nervous day in May 1995. A headed goal from new signing Pierre Van Hooijdonk ended the drought and sparked celebrations which were, in truth, laced with a huge dose of relief.
Burns knew the side needed rebuilding and in season 1995-96 Van Hooijdonk was joined by Andreas Thom, Jackie McNamara and Jorge Cadete. The team began to play some excellent attacking football but defensive naivety saw more points shed and the teams seeming inferiority complex when it came to playing Rangers saw them fail to win any of the six meetings with the Ibrox club that season. In some of those games we watched Celtic dominate and miss good chances before the inevitable sucker punch arrived. Burns joked at the time that on his gravestone they should carve ‘Andy Goram broke my heart’ but the fault lay as much with Celtic’s forwards as Goram’s skills. As Rangers completed 8 titles in a row there were shrill calls for McCann to invest heavily in the team to preserve Stein’s record of 9 successive titles. Fergus is often accused of being miserly with the money in Tommy Burn’s time as manager but the truth is that he stuck to his five year plan to rebuild Celtic Park and the playing side was only one of his concerns. He refused to take the club into the sort of debt which eventually killed Rangers and history has proved this to be wise. McCann was a hard headed businessman who often clashed with Burns who wanted to create a Celtic side in the best traditions of exciting, attacking Celtic play. Their relationship could be stormy and the following season would bring things to a head.
1996-97 season saw the arrival of Alan Stubbs and Paolo Di Canio at Celtic Park. One was a stout, dependable centre half while the other a mercurial and passionate player with skill and flair of the kind Celtic fans love. The season was a tense and often bad tempered affair. All of Scottish football seemed to be asking the same question; Can Celtic stop Rangers making it 9 in a row? Despite the Ibrox club shedding more points than in previous years they maintained their hoodoo over Celtic in the SPL winning the first 3 encounters. Everything would come down to the run in and Celtic hopes were raised when the beat Rangers 2-0 in the Scottish Cup at Celtic Park that March. Just 10 days later they met Rangers again at Celtic Park in a brutal SPL game in which Celtic again dominated but were drawn into snarling confrontations with overly physical Rangers players. The referee seemed to lose control on occasions and only more sensible players stopped the game degenerating into a brawl. Rangers scored the only goal amid the mayhem and went on to seal the title. For Celtic, the Scottish cup offered a shot at redemption. A semi final replay defeat to Falkirk at Ibrox was a bitter pill to swallow for the support in a season which promised so much and delivered so little. Tommy Burns had produced a Celtic side which played some of the best attacking football in years but in Rangers they found a pragmatic opponent who would time and time again utilise counter attacking tactics which would more often than not mug Celtic for the points.
Such was the promise of Burns’ team and the genuine affection he was held in by the support, it seemed harsh of Fergus McCann to fire him following that 1996-97 season. Even today some talk of Burns being ‘knifed in the back’ or ‘starved of funds to buy players’ but the truth is as always more complicated. McCann had a club to rebuild and a business plan to follow, indeed the Celtic Park we see today remains his legacy. Tommy Burns did bring many players of decent pedigree to Celtic but the genius of Di Canio, Cadete or Van Hooijdonk was complicated by their personalities. Their demands for more money or transfers were met by McCann’s blunt assertion that they signed a contract and should stick to it. The disruptive attitude of Tommy’s top stars was as much to blame for his eventual dismissal as McCann’s supposed parsimony. The press of course stirred things up by portraying McCann as a dictator or a figure of fun. He dismissed them as the irrelevance they were but some among the support did not.
It is a measure of how much Tommy Burns was loved by the Celtic support that his dismissal still rankles today and few fail to see the irony that Jansen’s side who stopped the ‘Ten’ actually did so with fewer points and goals than Burns attained the season before. However, in the harsh world of professional football it is winning which assures managers keep their jobs. Fergus McCann will never be loved by some in the way that Tommy Burns was but he’d accept that. He was more abrasive and hard headed than Tommy but in his own way he was very important to the renaissance of Celtic Football Club. We can only guess where the club would have been had the old Board retained control in 1994.
As for Tommy, his place in our hearts in unequalled because he loved Celtic as much as we all did. Perhaps he loved the club too much to play the sort of pragmatic and defensive football other clubs adopted at times. He wanted the Celtic style of old and to play romantic, entertaining football , football as it was meant to be played. He brought Celtic from a very dark place and gave us the hope that we were finally close to returning to the top of Scottish football again. We will never forget or lose our affection for this quintessential Celtic man. God bless you Tommy and thank you.