Burns' vision alters reality for 'people's club'

Celtic looked to be in 'terminal' decline 18 months ago but now sense glory is about to return. Ian Stafford met the manager who went back to school for his club
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Just over a year ago a red-haired Scotsman took it upon himself to go to school. Packing a small bag, he set off first to Amsterdam, where he spent three days watching, talking, listening and learning.

Six weeks ago he was off on his travels again, but this time to Turin, where he continued his education in a short, but effective visit to the old capital of Piedmont. His teachers were a little surprised to see him. After all, they were not used to the British, and especially a Scotsman, wanting to study their ways, but they were nevertheless delighted to help out.

Safely back home again, the lessons learned from these trips are being repeated to a new class of eager pupils. Slowly a new language is being taught, and the results are there to be seen by everyone. After the worst period in their history, a time during this decade when only failure was known, and extinction a possibility, Celtic Football Club is a force in Scottish football again. Suddenly life is looking a great deal rosier for one half of Glasgow.

For this the club must thank two men: one a businessman called Fergus McCann, who provided the much-needed financial rescue package, and the other, a visionary called Tommy Burns.

It was Burns who took it upon himself to sneak away in midweek to spend a few days in the company of those Dutch masters, Ajax, and then, later, with Juventus. It is no coincidence, therefore, to find a Celtic team now breathing down their Old Firm rivals' necks for the championships, defending the Scottish Cup and adopting a highly technical, passing game.

"I knew, because of my lack of credentials and experience, that I had a lot more to learn about being a manager before I could go to my players and show them a new style of play,'' Burns admitted, sitting in the Celtic boardroom, surrounded by the glittering success of dim and distant years.

"The people at both Ajax and Juventus were pleased to see me, and couldn't have been more helpful. I spoke to the coaches man to man, because it was important for me to learn from these people. Ajax proved to be more technical, while Juventus were physically strong and organised, but both were tactically advanced. It was an education.''

And what did Celtic mean to them? "Well, it meant what it meant in the late 1960s. A great team, 30 years ago. But I want a Celtic team to make an impact in Europe in the 1990s, known for our success and for the way we play.''

Such words could not have been uttered 18 months ago. Celtic had not won a trophy, any trophy, in the 1990s. They were not only playing second fiddle to Rangers, who have totally dominated Scottish football during their rivals' decline, but were also bowing to the likes of Motherwell. The board had self-destructed, and had just been kicked out by the fans, while Celtic had just appointed a 37-year-old former player whose experience of management amounted to two years as the player-manager at Kilmarnock.

Enter Tommy Burns. As a player, he had won everything in Scottish football during his 17 seasons at Celtic. He had cleaned Bobby Murdoch's boots, sat shoulder to shoulder with Billy McNeil, and played alongside Kenny Dalglish and the exuberant Charlie Nicholas, but after he left in 1991, he watched the decline with sorrow.

"It didn't bother me that Rangers were doing so well," he said. "I have no interest in them at all. But I see Celtic as an entirely different club, with a different mentality and different principles. Celtic have been compassionate and good to the poor and, most of all, they are the people's club.

"It took the fans to put the wrongs right. They became more bitter and angry, until they organised demonstrations and boycotts in order to get the people running the club out. And they were right to do so, because there was no direction at the club.''

Celtic's position seemed even worse once Burns stepped back through the Celtic Park doors after a four-year absence. "I felt the club's condition was terminal. They were heading for oblivion, and it was only when I came here that I discovered why.

"The majority of the players had become detached from the people. The fans soon realised this, and when they coupled this with the poor results, there was a general sourness about the place. The atmosphere just wasn't right.''

Anything else? "Yes, for many years the club has lacked a leader. I'm not just talking about Fergus McCann, but someone who was aware of the football side, of how important the club was and is to the people, and how badly the club needed an infrastructure.

"The biggest problem was that nobody realised just how big this club can be in terms of support. If ever there's an example of this, it's the amazing fact that, on the back of losing to Raith Rovers in last year's League Cup final, Celtic enjoyed the biggest share issue scheme in the country. The club should have been asking itself how it could be the very best, not just in Scotland, but in Europe.''

So it was some step to take from Kilmarnock to a giant in crisis. Presumably, Burns must have felt that accepting the job at Celtic would be some test? "Now that,'' he replied, "has to be the understatement of all time.

"I didn't have the credentials, and I knew the chance had come very early, but I had to take it. It was my dream club to manage, and I felt that if I turned it down someone else would step in and turn Celtic round. You don't get too many chances like that in life.''

On the basis that Burns could hardly have made matters any worse, he set to work, changing the infrastructure of the club by appointing his own hand-picked personnel, and creating a new mood.

"The first thing I noticed was the unhappy atmosphere and, basically, I felt I had to start from scratch. I had to make it a place where people were comfortable to work in. I brought in Billy Stark as my assistant, David Hay and Wally McStay from Sligo, people of integrity, who had the interests of Celtic at heart, and not themselves as individuals.

"The players used to go home after training. Now they have lunch together afterwards. The TV's on, they're talking and laughing, and there's a wee buzz in the air. They even have music in the dressing-room now, whereas before they just sat and stared at each other.

"Celtic were going to discard players like Pat Bonner. When you have someone who's played in World Cups, broken national records, and been through the whole club, you don't let them walk away, but keep them as part of the set-up. I also introduced two sessions of training a day, where we concentrate on the technical side of the game. Consequently, we now play a totally different style to last year.''

And they are getting results. It is looking that the championship race, strictly between Rangers and Celtic, will go down to the wire this season, which represents a remarkable transformation for Celtic and one which even Burns is surprised about.

"We've got to this stage a lot quicker than I expected, and that's down to the attitude of the players, and the atmosphere. But we've reached a critical part of the season now, and all the progress we've made will be forgotten if we come second to Rangers. For me as a manager, I know I've taken this club a long way, and winning the league would be a fantastic bonus, but to the fans, anything else than becoming champions would be considered a failure. You see, they've been waiting too long for success. What's happened at Celtic has been unacceptable.''

Incredibly, Burns felt the axe was hovering over him after Celtic lost the League Cup final last year to lowly Raith. "Quite a few people turned against me,'' he admitted. "Had we not beaten Airdrie to win the Scottish Cup, who knows what might have happened to me? I knew I was on shaky ground.''

So what kept you going, and what have the experiences of managing Celtic taught you?

This turns out to be an easy question for Burns to answer. "I've learned how much depends on God, because there's no doubt about it, he's carried me through the past 18 months. There have been very, very difficult times here, but I've been able to turn to him with my thoughts and prayers, and to find my strength."

Burns, obviously, is a Catholic. ''Yes, but although that's relevant to the Celtic supporters, it's not important from a club viewpoint,'' he argues. "We don't look at non-Catholics in any different light to anyone else.''

Does he put everything down to his faith, then? "God has helped me see things straight and reach what seem to be the right decisions.'' Even going to Ajax? "I consider that to be divine intervention.''

Scottish football abroad, both at club and international level, could have done with some divine intervention over the years. Burns pulls no punches over the reasons why a nation that has produced so many outstanding individual players has always under-achieved.

"It's because we've never had the right leaders, at club or national level, who can make their teams tactically aware, show them a successful way of playing, and make the players believe in it. We've never had a Capello or a Sacchi, who are real students of the game.''

I suggest that Andy Roxburgh probably saw himself as a student. "Where's the proof, though," Burns asks. "The proof's in the results.''

Point taken. So you are not stopping at just a return to winning ways in Scotland, then?

"That's the short-term plan, but the eventual idea is not only to play in Europe, as Rangers have done, but to become one of the main contenders. That's why there's much work still to be done.''

Which is why Burns will go Awol again before the end of the season, choosing another European city, and another football classroom to further his education.

It is 5.30 in the evening as I leave Celtic Park, rapidly emerging as the finest, and biggest club stadium in the country. Burns won't be home for some time yet. The man is on a mission, not only for himself but, it seems, for his club, and the whole of the east end of Glasgow.