He will always be here
For a young boy from Carnlough in County Antrim, the chance to see Celtic was rare indeed. In the early summer of 1983 Celtic had an end of season friendly against Finn Harps in Donegal and he was determined to be there. As the crow flies it’s around 95 miles from Carnlough to Ballybofey where Finn Harps play their home games but the youngster crammed into Finn Park that day with 10,000 other supporters. Celtic brought a powerful side to play the locals and stars like McStay, Aitken, Nicholas, McLeod and McGrain were there to lead an experienced Celtic side to a convincing 4-0 win. Charlie Nicholas made his final appearance for Celtic that day and signed off with a goal. It was also the end of a fine Celtic career for George McCluskey before he too left for pastures new. For the young boy from Country Antrim it was a real treat to see Celtic in action and he said in later life that his eyes were drawn to the flame haired Tommy Burns who pulled the strings in midfield and approached the friendly game in the same determined manner he did every game in which he wore the Hoops.
That young boy who watched Celtic defeat Finn Harps in May 1983 was of course called Brendan Rodgers and he could never have predicted that his life would one day allow him to work closely with Tommy Burns and see at close hand what a good human being he was. After Burns was rather harshly sacked by Celtic in 1997 he ended up at Reading FC and saw in the young coach there potential which mixed shrewdness and the sort of interpersonal skills Burns valued. That young coach was Brendan Rodgers and Burns promoted him to Head of Youth Development at the club. The two men became firm friends and Rodgers saw the way Burns took the time to speak to people in all positions at the club and encourage them with a kind word. It was an education in football but also in how to deal with people. Burns tenure at Reading was to last just 18 months as his possession based game with the emphasis on attack was unsuited to the hurly burly of the English Championship. In truth he didn’t have the quality of players at his disposal to recreate the exciting play he had brought to Celtic Park when Di Canio, Thom, Van Hooijdonk and Cadete strutted their stuff. Peter Grant who was at Reading with Burns said of Rodgers…
‘‘As part of my A Licence I was working with the youth teams so I’d work with Brendan on a Friday night. We’d go and take the young kids and I’d watch him training the nine to 12 year olds – doing circle work and things like that. You could see then that he was very good. He’d a fantastic manner and patience with the youngsters.’
Rodgers continued coaching at Reading until 2004 when Chelsea brought him to London. He grew as a coach and soon became a manager in his own right His career took him to Watford, Reading, Swansea and Liverpool before he followed in Burns’ footsteps and became Manager of Celtic in the summer of 2016. It was a little ironic that he ended up at Celtic as he had sounded out Burns on the possibility of him becoming Director of Football at Leicester City when Rodgers was offered the job. Burns wanted to stay in Scotland at that point in his life and declined but Rodgers felt the possibility of one day being offered the Celtic job tempted Tommy a little…
‘So I came up to see him and we talked about if I got the job at Leicester he could come in as a director of football. He said one day he could come back to Celtic as a director of football and I could come back as a manager. That is how ironic it is. I came up, met him in the hotel the night before, we had a great chat, I came to the game and we went back to his house to see his wife, Rosemary, afterwards. It was something he was keen to do from a football perspective. I think his family and Rosemary had been down south for a few years and wanted to be up here. But it was certainly something that made him think.’
As it transpired Rodgers didn’t go to Leicester City and Burns continued to serve Celtic with passion and dedication until his untimely and much lamented passing. Rodgers said of him simply, 'He was a wonderful man.’
Rodgers, like Tommy Burns and Martin O’Neil before him knows exactly what Celtic is all about. He knows the brand of football the supporters like to see and has in his first few months sown the seeds of an exciting young side. He has also handled clumsy attempts by elements of the Scottish media to draw him into the Joey Barton situation and memorably dealt with a Sky reporter who ask him in the wake of the 5-1 mauling of Rangers, ‘Leigh who?’ Rodgers stared at him and said, ‘Don’t be disrespectful. He’s a wonderful player Leigh Griffiths.’ You get the impression Rodgers has that touch of steel all successful managers need and which was in retrospect missing in the Deila years.
So far his brand of football is exciting the Celtic supporters and season ticket sales have rocketed. His young side have had their fingers burned in Europe but it’s early days and Rodgers has yet to complete his team building. As he wandered the corridors of Celtic Park he spotted a picture of Tommy Burns on the wall and commented…
“I have just noticed the photos of him on the walls here. He will always be here. For me to follow in the footsteps of Jock Stein, Billy McNeill, Davie Hay and Tommy and these guys as manager is an incredible feeling of privilege for me. I think Tommy would be very proud of me today. He was a Celtic man, he always just wanted what was best for Celtic – whether he was supporting, playing for or ultimately managing the club. He never lost that love for the club, even when he’d left to coach at other places like Newcastle and Reading. His passion and emotion for Celtic was always there.”
If Brendan Rodgers brings the same passion and integrity to Celtic as his friend Tommy Burns did then the Celtic support will be happy. Burns’ team was not always successful coming up against as it did a financially stronger Rangers but he always tried to play the game the Celtic way and cared as much as any fan. Tommy was one of us and hurt when we hurt; he shared our joys and sorrows. Alan Stubbs once said of him…
‘’When we lost a game he gave the impression he was personally responsible and that he owed the Celtic fans an apology."
In Brendan Rodgers I believe we have another coach who knows what it means to the supporters and who will strive to give them a successful team which plays good football. The early signs are good and if his plans for Celtic come to fruition then we are in for a very exciting period at Celtic Park. He has come a long way since he watched wide eyed as Burns and Celtic outclassed Finn Harps in May 1983. His old friend Tommy would be delighted that he has followed in his footsteps and become Celtic manager. He would no doubt smile and remind Rodgers of the demands such a job brings. The fact that a Celtic manager is expected to fight for the club and its’ followers on and off the field will not be lost on Rodgers. Burns would be a source of great wisdom for him if he was still around to guide and help him but then as Rodgers said… ‘He will always be here.’ Indeed he will. Men like Tommy are the soul of Celtic.
Make him even more proud of you Brendan.
Make us all proud.