Football: A Celtic warrior turns playmaker

Phil Shaw talks to the former Chelsea player enjoying a new lease of life
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BUTTERFLIES in Craig Burley's stomach were fluttering like the flags on the twin towers. Chelsea had reached the FA Cup final and, having appeared in the semi-final and all but one of the 12 Premiership matches leading up to Wembley, he expected "to be involved" against Middlesbrough.

But when the team-sheet was pinned up in the squad's hotel on the morning of the match, Burley scanned it in vain. Not even a substitute. It was "a crushing blow", as embarrassing as it was disappointing because all his family had come down from Scotland to watch him.

Six months on, there is no time to dwell on the merits or otherwise of Ruud Gullit's decision. Another Dutchman - a fellow son of Feyenoord, in fact - paid pounds 2.5m to take him to Celtic in July, and under Wim Jansen's wing Burley has all the big matches a man could desire.

Last weekend, he sampled his first Glasgow derby against Rangers. As the dust settled on Celtic's 1-0 defeat he was heading for France. Winning his 23rd cap against the World Cup hosts at Saint-Etienne, he helped to make a splendid goal but later conceded the penalty which cost the Scots a 2-1 defeat. "I wasn't wearing my defender's head at the time," he confessed.

Back home yesterday, Burley was wearing his playmaker's head at home to Motherwell. And he will scarcely have drawn breath before the second instalment of this season's Old Firm saga on Wednesday.

By his own admission, Celtic were "hammered into submission" at Ibrox. If they do not put a stop this week to a run of nine Premiership meetings without a win, their prospects of preventing another 10-in-a-row sequence - of Rangers championships - are likely to recede dangerously.

"This fixture has been the stumbling block for the club," the 26-year- old from Ayrshire admitted. "Last season we lost all four. If we could just win two, or take something out of the remaining three, it could be enough. I'm sure it'll be different at Celtic Park. Our crowd can be very important for us."

Burley played at wing-back in France and Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, believes he is potentially a top-class central defender. With Celtic, however, he has been a revelation at the heart of midfield. Until he ran into Paul Gascoigne on peak form, he was dominating games and scoring regularly.

"The move couldn't have worked out better apart from that one match," he said. "Gazza stamped his authority on it and we just didn't play. It didn't help that I got booked in the first half, which meant I was walking on thin ice and couldn't put in as many tackles as I'd have liked.

"But it's a new team that's still gelling. Two draws with Liverpool in Europe proved we could compete with the best. Now we've had one bad result and people are saying the title race is over. I like to think we can play better than we did at Rangers."

His confidence is based partly on the conviction that Scotland's midfield anchorman, Paul Lambert, who made a brief debut as substitute at Ibrox after signing from Borussia Dortmund, will add a fresh dimension to Celtic's midfield. "It was too soon for Paul," Burley said. "The team had been winning so it was hard to fit him in. But he's going to be very influential."

Far from feeling that the game has come round too quickly, Burley argues that Celtic's chastening experience has created a powerful desire to purge the setback from their system. He certainly intends to impose himself on proceedings. At Chelsea it was said that a lack of assertiveness held him back, yet at Celtic he is maturing into an obvious captain when Tom Boyd relinquishes the armband.

"I've grown in confidence since being up here. I always felt like a fringe player down south. No matter how often I played, I always had the suspicion I was going to get bumped."

While Burley harbours no grudge against Gullit, he relishes the greater responsibility Jansen has given him. He wondered if his new boss had a sadistic streak when he ordered the players in for an arduous run after their opening defeat at Hibernian, but was relieved to hear him explain calmly that the exercise was designed to ease muscular tension.

Despite the superficial similarities, Burley's last two managers could hardly have been more different. "Ruud's an extrovert, whereas Wim keeps his cards close to his chest. He doesn't say much to the media or the players, but beneath the quiet exterior he's a deep thinker about tactics.

"Ruud's also a bit of a bandit on the golf course. Somehow I can't see Wim with a golf stick in his hand." A championship trophy might be another matter, especially if Burley can turn the tables on Gascoigne.