Tommy Burns: Popular player, manager and coach unswerving in his devotion to Celtic Football Club

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The Independent Online

You would not have needed a degree in anthropology to discover that Tommy Burns was a Celt. The red hair and the pale skin gave away his identity. Ultimately, they were also responsible for a life cut tragically short by cancer.

When he was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago, and underwent surgery, before returning to football, Burns expressed the hope that his case might make people take action against the growing problem of skin cancer. He knew that convincing his fellow Glaswegians would be a tall order. "Men in general don't really examine their bodies, their moles and marks, especially in Scotland – not that we get that much sun anyway."

Burns was part of the fabric of Scottish football for the last three decades. His football DNA was Celtic. The club, not the people. He played for the team for 15 years, then became manager for three, before spending the last eight as director of youth football and first-team coach.

In the modern era of the game, such examples of loyalty are rare. Burns transcended the hyperbole normally handed out to those who contribute a few good seasons for a team and are lionised as "legends". More importantly, it was his deep bond with the Celtic supporters that inspired their affection towards him. He had been a Celtic fan from childhood and revered the club and its unique association with its support, stating that was made Celtic special.

Burns symbolised Celtic. He was born in the east end of Glasgow, in the shadow of Celtic Park. His first primary school, St Mary's, was adjacent to the very church where Brother Walfrid, a Marist, created the idea of Celtic Football Club in 1888 to feed the starving Irish immigrant children of the parish in Victorian Glasgow.

The church was as important to Burns as Celtic Park in his life. His Catholicism brought him spiritual comfort in a profession not often given to confessions of such mere mortality. At times, it also made him a target of criticism in Glasgow's less enlightened quarters, when he spoke of his faith or when he celebrated goals by dropping to his knees and making the sign of the cross.

"I am not ashamed to say that I used to pray every night before I went to sleep that I would one day get the chance to play for Celtic," Burns said in 1994. In truth, many supporters from Celtic's rivals, Rangers, grew to realise that there was no false piety in Burns's actions, and respect for him grew on the other side of the Old Firm divide. It was ironic that Burns teamed up with Walter Smith to form the Scotland management team from 2004 to 2006: the pair had become good friends but Smith had been Burns's nemesis a decade earlier while in charge of the most successful period in Rangers' history and his dominance actually led to Burns being sacked as manager by Celtic in 1997.

Being sacked hurt Burns deeply but he insisted whatever act had been carried by one individual – Fergus McCann, the then-chairman – could not obscure a lifelong love affair with Celtic. He made over 350 league appearances for the club, which he joined in 1973 just days after playing for Scotland Schoolboys in a memorable win over England at Wembley. In those days, the fixture was one of the few live televised games and Burns stood out for his deft left foot and shock of red hair.

He was signed by Jock Stein, the legendary Celtic manager who gave the precociously creative midfielder his début in April 1975 against Dundee United. Burns was not blessed with the explosive pace required by midfielders now, but his vision for a pass and dribbling ability made him a popular player with the fans.

Burns recognised that those fans had high standards, following the successful Stein era that brought the European Cup to Celtic Park, and he played a significant role in bringing six Scottish league title to the club, as well as four Scottish Cups. Several times, he was on the verge of ending the association because of disenchantment with his salary and was courted by Chelsea in the mid-1980s. Each time he backed away from the brink.

He was rewarded with a testimonial against Ajax in November 1989, before joining Kilmarnock at the age of 33 the following day. The man of the people did not disappoint his public, throwing his boots into the crowd after emotional farewell. "I wanted to go out with a smile on my face and not a tear in my eye," said Burns. "I ran about the pitch for 20 minutes with tears running down my cheeks because I knew I would never wear a Celtic jersey again."

At Kilmarnock, Burns soon became player-manager and won them promotion to the Scottish Premier League in his first season, 1992-93. That managerial promise prompted Celtic to lure him back to Glasgow in June 1994 to replace Lou Macari as manager but while his three seasons in charge represented the club's climb back to respectability, Burns was underfunded and paid the ultimate price for Rangers' hegemony.

Burns's team did manage to win the Scottish Cup in 1995, defeating Airdrie in the final, to give Celtic their first silverware in six years. The following season, his team lost only one league game, to Rangers in September, and went undefeated for the rest of the campaign but lost out on the title by a narrow margin. In May 1997, he was ruthlessly sacked.

Burns had spells on the coaching staff at Newcastle United and as manager of Reading, but did not last long in England and returned to Celtic in 2000, shortly before Martin O'Neill's arrival from Leicester City. O'Neill put Burns in charge of the Celtic youth set-up, and he helped bring through the likes of Shaun Maloney, Stephen McManus and Aiden McGeady.

Burns also combined his Celtic duties with the role of assistant manager to the Scotland national team from 2002 to 2006. Initially, he was the right-hand man for Berti Vogts and once the German coach departed in November 2004, he then helped his successor, Smith. The Scottish FA inexplicably overlooked Burns for the managerial vacancy in January 2007 when Smith returned to Rangers and instead gave the job to Alex McLeish.

Burns was soothed by the commitment Celtic made to him at that stage. He was a passionate disciple of youth football and having once been a product of Celtic's own system, he ensured that those who followed in the future would do so with the best the club could provide: he provided the blueprint for the Celtic youth academy and training centre which opened last October for £7m, having travelled across Europe to glean ideas to use. It will be a fitting tribute for a club that owes him a debt.

Phil Gordon

Thomas Burns, footballer, manager and coach: born Glasgow 16 December 1956; played for Celtic 1975-89, Kilmarnock 1989-94; managed Kilmarnock 1992-94, Celtic 1994-97, Reading 1998-99; capped eight times by Scotland; married (two sons, two daughters); died Glasgow 15 May 2008.