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Football: Celtic seek passport for foreign exchange

CROATIA does not soothe many people's minds as an opportunity for overseas travel. For Tommy Burns, though, the gnawing doubts about visiting a hot spot the Foreign Office would advise against proved unfounded. The only shots fired were by strikers, the only rockets were flares from excited football fans.

Burns recalls a night in Zagreb only a year ago with affection: he hopes his old club, Celtic, will be equally relieved and copy his route into European football's frontline. The former Celtic manager was on the bench in the Maksimir Stadium last August, biting his nails as Newcastle went through agonies before overcoming Croatia Zagreb in a Champions' League qualifying tie.

On Wednesday, he will scan teletext to see if the club he served for more than 20 years as player and manager can book their passport. Burns, now manager of Reading, was a coach for the Magpies when they won in extra time against Zagreb. Sitting on a seat on the running track, he, Kenny Dalglish and Terry McDermott must have felt like sitting ducks for the volatile Croatian fans, but the Scot assures his countrymen that images of war are all in the past for Europe's in-vogue new nation.

"Trouble?" he queried. "No, no way. We had nothing but friendliness over there. Sure, a few rockets went off but once you got used to the bangs, it never bothered anyone. The Croatian fans were partisan, but the atmosphere was never scary."

Celtic might have more cause to feel threatened by what faces them on the pitch as they seek to protect a 1-0 lead earned in Glasgow on 12 August. Burns says the Croatians showed against Newcastle that they save their greatest firepower for games in front of those partisan fans.

"They caused Newcastle all sorts of problems in Zagreb," he admits. "At St James' Park they played as they did at Parkhead: all cautious. But at home, they had so much movement in every area of the pitch they really put us under siege. They took us to extra time and we only won the tie with a last gasp goal."

Burns pinpoints the Australian-born striker Marko Viduka as a major threat to Celtic, with whom he enjoyed three European campaigns as manager before being sacked in 1997. "He's so powerful he gives defenders a really physical battle." Burns also purrs about the midfielder Silvio Maric, for whom Zagreb have refused an pounds 8m offer from AC Milan to help them pursue their own Champions' League dream.

"I hope Celtic get the rub of the green on Wednesday. We had no luck in European matches in my time there as manager. In fact, as a player I can only recall one good away result - in 1982 when Celtic went to Ajax after drawing 2-2 at home and won 2-1. You could say the club is due a bit of luck after 20 years."

However, Burns, who bought seven players in his first week in charge at Reading, is bewildered that Celtic's new boss, Jozef Venglos, did not bolster his side before last Thursday's deadline. "I thought they'd have signed at least three players this summer and built on winning the league. If you want to have a real go in the Champions' League, you need a large squad. When you're among the big boys, life is very different. That was the case for Newcastle last season, despite our win over Barcelona in the first game. The same happened to Rangers a few years ago when they were drawn in a tough section that included Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. If you get a hammering in Europe, all the goodness that came with winning the league goes. The Champions' League becomes about damage limitation and no one enjoys that."