It’s hard to believe Tommy Burns has been dead 7 years now. I never met the man, although I think I saw him when I quickly popped me head around a door on a tour of Celtic Park in 1997. However it didn’t stop me blubbing like a baby when I heard he died and in the days afterwards when his funeral was broadcast. Much has been written about Tommy by people better qualified than me but if I was to try and sum up Tommy I would say this. Neil Lennon talked of bringing the thunder back to Celtic Park and if that is the case I believe Tommy Burns brought the sunshine back in the three years he managed the club. While his time as a manager would ultimately end in disappointment those three years will for me be a magical time and when I felt I truly understood what it meant to be a Celtic fan and the 1994-95 season seemed to sum up the previous 5 difficult years.
The period from 1989-1994 was as many Celtic fans remember a horrible time for us. I was 12 in 1989 when we won the Scottish Cup and back in the days pre Sky living in Ireland I saw virtually nothing on TV when it came to Celtic save for a few minutes on Sportsnight on a Wednesday night. There was also no BBC 5 Live until 1990 and even then it was not the station it is now. The most crushing thing however was rangers Champions League march in 1992-93 most crushing as RTE in Ireland showed every game. The victory over Leeds and the comeback against Marseille and beating Club Brugge with the luckiest goal you’ll ever see. Scott Nisbet’s deflected cross somehow bounced and spun over the Brugge keeper Dany Verlinden. On reflection however it wasn’t that lucky as Verlinden was only 5ft 9in!
As I said living in Ireland finding out about how Celtic did was hard at my age. I remember not knowing Airdrie beat us in the League Cup on penalties until I read it the next day in the Irish News. I only heard the last 15 minutes of the 1991 League Cup Final on the radio, somehow managing to pick it up on MW. An injured John Hewitt limping around and the ball always coming to him stick in the memory. The first time I saw Celtic live was the Scottish Cup semi-final in 1992 when on a rotten night in Hampden we lost to 10 men. That cheeky chappy Ally Mc Coist scoring as he always seemed to do against us. Sky Sports had been launched but pre English Premier League filled its one channel with anything it could find including Italian and German football, the ZDS Cup and most importantly for Irish Celts the Scottish Cup. We seemed to play Dundee United a lot in Cups in those days and Tommy Coyne always seemed to score against them. Alongside this the Daily Record was now available throughout Ireland. As bad as the paper may have been for fans in Ireland it was great to finally read Celtic stories, good, bad or made up. You just didn’t get Celtic news in any great detail bar a match report. What was happening off the field was not being talked about. Reading the odd copy of Not the View from a school friend was my only outlet for the boardroom debacles. I subscribed to the Celtic View but with Terry Cassidy in full swing it really was Pravda.
My first real sight of Tommy Burns the manager was the 1994 Scottish Cup Semi Final when his Kilmarnock side who he’d taken into the Premier Division for the first time in over a decade played rangers off the park but couldn’t get the goal they needed for victory and despite playing well again in the replay lost 2-1 to our former rivals. Ye Gods would shine on us though as Dundee United upset the odds and stopped another treble by beating them 1-0 with a bizarre goal by Craig Brewster.
Celtic by that stage was in total disarray with Lou Macari about to be sacked and the Liam Brady experiment having failed spectacularly. Off the pitch as we know was worse until Fergus Mc Cann and the “rebels” won the day against the old board. Burns name was linked straight away with the job in what was going to be a big season no matter what. Playing at Hampden while Celtic Park was raised and rebuilt the club needed to win something desperately as the Fergus era gathered momentum. The protraction of him joining because of the proven taping up which cost us £100,00 seemed to drag on for ages but eventually he was named Celtic manager with his first act going down very well with a 17 year old me. Pat Bonner had been freed by Macari and agreed to join Kilmarnock before heading off to the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Thankfully he didn’t put pen to paper and as soon as Burns took over he resigned him along with Charlie Nicholas who’d also been freed. The League season was a spluttering affair a good 2-0 win away at Ibrox and a late 3-0 home (sic) win being highlights but drawing 18 games left us in 4th place behind you know who, Motherwell and Hibs.
A difference was however we were spending money, big money for the time on players such as Phil O’Donnell and Pierre van Hooijdonk a then unknown from NAC Breda. I remember hearing Pierre’s debut goal, a header at home to Hearts on January 11th 1995 on the radio but typically Hearts equalised and it petered out into a 1-1 draw. By that stage we’d already lost the League Cup Final to Raith Rovers in heart-breaking fashion at Ibrox the previous November a game that was not on Sky despite them having 2 sports channels by this stage. Going ahead with Nicholas’s goal in the 84th minute we should have been able to hold on but in what was to become a sign of the Burns era our defence was not water tight and we conceded just two minutes later forcing extra time and penalties. Cruelly Paul McStay a man who’d been championed to leave by all and sundry during our barren spell had his kick saved and we lost the Cup. It was a harsh blow to Burns, the club, the fans and McStay himself. A man who you knew was hurting as much as any fan as he was one himself.
The thing was we rode the blow, or at least I did. Maybe it was the McCann new dawn, maybe it was Tommy but it felt the club was on the right track now and we were going to be successful again no matter what. The sunshine was breaking through the clouds. It was now all or nothing on the Scottish Cup, maybe it was destiny. We had a poor League Cup Final record but the Scottish Cup was different. 29 wins meant it was the only domestic trophy we’d won more than rangers and that record still stood. The semi-final paired us with Hibs while Airdrieoneas would play Hearts conquerors of rangers 4-2 in the 4th Round. The Diamonds upset hearts to make their second final in three years while despite dominating Hibs a missed Andy Walker penalty meant a frustrating draw and replay the following Wednesday night at Ibrox for us. That game and that night will forever be one of my greatest Celtic memories. Celtic destroyed Hibs in the first half with goals from Willie Falconer and John Collins giving some credibility to our dominance in that half. This was football, the Celtic way. I was seeing it for the first time. The sun had been shining bright that April day and the night was being lit up by Tommy Burns team in Hoops. Hibs scored in the second half and the game became a cagey, nervous affair. Our season was riding on this game, maybe the clubs future. We’d bought into the new dream but we needed to see the silver lining. In the 82nd minute I saw it. Rudi Vata playing at right back swung in a peach of a cross and arriving like a bullet to meet it was Phil O’Donnell. As the ball ripped into the back of the net I knew that was it, we were going to win the Scottish Cup. I expected the floodlights to explode such was the surge of energy that accompanied the goal. The stadium noise was deafening, the pub I was in was going wild. We knew, we all knew that the dark days were over. It remains my favourite ever Celtic goal. It was a goal of destiny. I’m sure it rained in the coming weeks but I don’t remember, I just remember the sun.
As if life wasn’t good enough in those weeks leading up to the Final the club decided to get in on the act by bringing out a new kit, and what a kit it was. I remember being blown away by it seeing it in the Record that morning and walking into Sports Division in Newry that lunchtime there it was right in front of me. It was even more beautiful than the pictures. The previous couple of kits were poor efforts, the dull green of the Peoples Ford followed by the thick un-Celtic like hoops reflected the period I felt. But this was the real deal. Thick and thin Hoops, bright green, the crest throughout the design, a hooped collar. This was a Celtic jersey to be worn proudly by fans and players. This was a shirt that wouldn’t shrink to fit inferior players.
Some dark clouds did threaten to spoil the party. Injury and suspension would mean first-choice centre half’s Brian O’Neil and Tony Mowbray would miss the game. Pierre who had missed the semi-final was a doubt for the big day also. He would make it but would not finish the first half never mind the match. I sat down on Saturday May 27th to watch my first ever live Celtic Cup Final. Sky had Sandy Clark (with his weird eyebrows) and Paul Elliott in the studio analysing the game but not at Hampden. Tommy looked the part in his suit and flower in the lapel while Billy Stark looked scruffy as ever in his raincoat. It was a dour anxious match with few highlights. After only 8 minutes Airdrie hadn’t cleared a ball properly and it fell to Tosh McKinlay, a £350,000 signing from Hearts by Burns who sent in a sweet ball and from behind his marker Pierre headed it to John Martin’s right and into the net. Hampden erupted and we were on our way. It didn’t exactly work out like that though. Van Hooijdonk succumbed to his injury and was replaced by Falconer after 39 minutes and although dominating possession we couldn’t get the crucial second goal. I only remember us having one good chance, John Collins with a diving header in the second half.
It didn’t matter though. On 93 minutes the final whistle blew and that was it the rebels hadn’t won this time the Celts had won. It took a while to sink in, the relief at winning, the ending of the drought took over to a certain extent but if ever a man deserved to go up and lift the Scottish Cup for Celtic it was Paul McStay. And when he did I think that’s when it hit home. Stuck in the middle of all this was Tommy, teary-eyed and bear hugging every player in the squad. Peter Grant was full on crying, you could tell it meant that little bit more to those three. Celts from the day they were born, they more than anyone had stood with pride and took defeat as the song would say but not that day. That day Celtic won the Scottish Cup. Tommy Burns Celtic, Paul McStay’s Celtic, Peter Grant’s Celtic, my Celtic, your Celtic, our Celtic. Thank you Tommy.
WORDS: Gareth Savage for CQN Magazine and featured in this year’s CQN Annual.