Burley puts his heart and soul into breaking the Old Firm stranglehold

The Hearts manager tells Nick Harris about his determination to end Glasgow's domination of the Scottish title

And as he yesterday recalled his first task in professional football - on his Ipswich debut, aged 17, he was charged with marking Best at Old Trafford - he acknowledged the importance of that time in forming the philosophies he hopes will serve him well in his latest job.

"I remember Bobby Robson only brought me into the first-team squad for the first time on the Thursday, and after training said I should bring my travelling gear on the Friday," he said. "It was a bit of a shock, even to be going along with the squad.

"Then Bobby named his team on the Saturday morning, and I was in. As I was getting on the bus he asked me 'Where's your mum and dad?'

"I pointed over to them and he walked over and handed them two tickets to the directors' box. He always treated people right. He looked after people. You never forget that. It's vitally important. It's what I try to do as a manager."

Burley played a blinder against Best that day, earning a glowing review from the man himself, whose United career ended with the sack - for a variety of misdemeanours - one game later. "He was a special player, coming to the end of his time," said Burley. "Luckily for me."

Uphill tasks, and meeting lofty expectations, have been a hallmark of Burley's career ever since. He was part of an Ipswich side who shocked Arsenal to win the 1978 FA Cup, which Burley says was his greatest thrill in football to date. As a manager he took Ipswich from the First Division to fifth in the Premiership and into Europe. He steered Derby from fourth-bottom of the Championship to the play-offs. But he admits that becoming Hearts' manager, with a stated aim of breaking the Rangers and Celtic's duopoly, is "the biggest challenge of my career."

To put his task in perspective: Hearts have not won the league since 1960 and finished 43 points behind Rangers last season. The Old Firm have shared the last 20 titles.

But, so far, so good. Hearts have won all seven league games, scoring 20 goals and only conceding four. They lead the table by five points from Celtic and are eight ahead of Rangers. Tynecastle is packed to capacity and about to be expanded. And Burley believes, given continued backing, that he can lead Hearts to the Champions' League within three years.

He has always maintained that there is "a long way to go" to challenge the Old Firm, and points to Wednesday's 1-0 defeat to Livingston in the CIS Cup as evidence. "We had seven players out, and lost, and that emphasises the need for more depth of quality." He says areas of the starting XI need bolstering and will not say more, although the fact that all his strikers combined have scored four of Hearts' 20 goals tells its own story.

Tomorrow comes the biggest test of the season so far, when Rangers visit at lunchtime. "They're the title holders and still favourites to retain it," Burley said. "People will probably judge us on that result but I said when I took this job that if we finish third and get into Europe it will be a great achievement. That's still the aim in my first season." He pauses. "But Rangers is a big game. For all parties." The twinkle in his eye suggests he knows the pressure is every bit as much on Rangers.

Every neutral in Scotland will be backing Hearts, not just because they are breathing fresh air into the closed - and arguably stale - shop that the SPL had become. Hearts also boast more Scotland internationals than Rangers, and Burley is quick to praise their value to club and country.

"They're massively important," he said of his goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, centre-halves Steven Pressley and Andy Webster, and play-making dynamo, Paul Hartley. "I said from day one we must keep our four Scottish internationals. They've been the spine of our team.

"They've helped everyone. They've been great for morale, on and off the field. They've helped the new foreign players to gel. I think all four have been playing maybe better than at any time in their whole careers.

"They've taken that with them to international level and I'm proud as the Hearts manager and as a Scot that that's the case."

The cause of the national team, he added, is one in which his and other clubs should take responsibility. "It's about raising the standard. When I was playing every top English club had three or four Scottish players. Now it's hard to find one at those clubs. Something went badly wrong somewhere and we can play a part in addressing it."

So what went wrong? "I don't agree it's because of all the foreign players. It's because kids hardly play football in school these days. They hardly play in parks. Apart for a few clubs, most training facilities in Scotland are poor. People simply aren't playing enough and as a football club we need to do everything we can to change that."

While Hearts' academy is producing players for the future, the foreign star of the show has been the Czech Rudi Skacel, who has scored in every league game, from the left wing. Other foreign recruits include Julien Brellier, a French holding midfielder, Edgar Jankauskas, a Lithuanian striker formerly with Porto, and Takis Fyssas, a Euro 2004-winning Greek left-back.

Burley took charge in the summer after other candidates, Bobby Robson included, decided it was not for them. Robson was "impressed with Hearts", Burley said, but had "a couple of issues". They may or may not be related to the hands-on role of majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov, in acquiring players.

Burley does not elaborate, stressing that even though he sought Robson's advice about the job, "as a manager, you make up your own mind. I did. I was intrigued by the ambition of the club, the fans, the way the club's been able to grow since Mr Romanov came here."

Romanov, 58, is a former Soviet submariner who made his money in various businesses that benefited from the liberalisation of the Eastern Bloc economies, and also owns a bank.

On the subject of his boss recruiting players - several recruits have been at Romanov's behest - he added: "The bottom line is the club's going forward. We're getting quality players in who can help the team. It doesn't matter who brings them in." He pauses. "But as the manager it's important that I have a big influence in that because otherwise if you're not bringing in better players, it's going to hinder the club going forward."

On a December afternoon 32 years ago, Robson said to Burley: "You've got a chance to play against George Best. Grab it." He did, and now he is embracing his opportunity in Edinburgh with the same gusto.

Breaking up the duopoly

Non Rangers-Celtic winners of the Scottish top flight since 1945

FIRST DIVISION

1947-48 Hibernian

1950-51 Hibernian

1951-52 Hibernian

1954-55 Aberdeen

1957-58 Hearts

1959-60 Hearts

1961-62 Dundee

1964-65 Kilmarnock

PREMIER DIVISION

1979-80 Aberdeen

1982-83 Dundee United

1983-84 Aberdeen

1984-85 Aberdeen

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