Doubting Thomas

Tommy Burns was tasked with winning the league for Celtic, but Gary Oliver details how he found Rangers and Falkirk in his way

Twenty four hours after the country went to the polls, Glasgow East declared that Tommy Burns had lost his seat as Celtic’s manager. Although the Scottish press had campaigned for Burns to be granted a second term of office, Time For A Change proved the prevailing sentiment amongst voters in the Parkhead boardroom.

The manager’s three-year deal was about to expire. And in spite of Burns having long made public his anxiety, Fergus McCann refused to discuss any extension ahead of a “full review of football activities”. There was little doubt that the chairman was about to swap his customary bunnet for a black cap.

This was but a further example of Tommy Burns allowing himself to be McCann’s doormat: excluded from transfer and contractual negotiations, and frustrated by the chairman’s husbandry, Burns frequently had sniped and postured, only to ultimately back-pedal and erode his credibility. Even when his sacking or demotion had become a fait acompli, Burns could not bring himself to cut what is an umbilical cord with Celtic.

Tommy Burns’ only tangible success came in his first season: Celtic defeated Airdrie in a Scottish Cup Final so putrid that Hampden had to be fumigated. A repetition in May would have at least have provided a fig leaf of achievement; instead, Celtic’s humbling by Falkirk left Burns embarrassingly exposed.

Yet his former team mates and contemporaries, a number of whom are now prominent in the Scottish media, continually lauded him for transforming the playing staff. And it undoubtedly is true that Celtic came to stand apart from the Premier Division’s herd. But for a net outlay on transfer fees of £12 million one would demand no less, and might reasonably expect much more. Predecessors Liam Brady and Lou Macari, in their more wistful moments, must have envied Burns his wherewithal – if not his judgement in squandering £3.5 million on Alan Stubbs.

The crux of Tommy Burns’ problem, of course, has been his failure to defeat Rangers in a meaningful league fixture. Lord knows Walter Smith is no Helenio Herrera, but time and again his strategy – to absorb pressure and capitalize on Celtic’s dodgy defending – outfoxed Burns.

As a consequence, Burns’ behaviour during and after those defeats became increasingly hysterical: dementedly chasing a linesman last November, as Rangers continually breached a haphazard offside trap, led to his being banned from the touchline; tired and emotional at New Year, he unwisely fuelled talk of a Masonic conspiracy after officials disallowed Jorge Cadete’s ‘equalizer’; and when the Rangers players celebrated their most recent victory with a mock of Celtic’s huddle, Burns infuriated Smith with his sour accusation that they were “unable to win with class”.

This failure to halt the Ibrox juggernaut, and the accompanying internecine strife, has highlighted Celtic’s dual problem. Fergus McCann is expected to match David Murray pound-for-pound, yet many part- izans balk at his methods of leading the club from its ghetto and swelling his investment – the board acrimoniously shed two members only days before it jettisoned Burns. And an earlier, damning critique by former director Brian Dempsey, who had been instrumental in toppling the old Politburo, expressed the fear that McCann, “has lost his sense of what Celtic stand for and where they have come from.”

The manager would no doubt concur, he and the chairman being congenitally incompatible: for Burns, a devout Roman Catholic, Celtic is a spiritual crusade; McCann, by contrast, worships only Mammon and carries no such sentimental baggage.

Mind you, Tommy Burns’ religious allusions were often astoundingly crass. After his side could only draw at Raith, he complained that, “Jesus Christ himself could not have made passes on that surface.” Yet ten days later, Rangers scored six goals on the same pitch – and with no obvious assistance from the Messiah.

Tommy Burns also epitomizes the insularity and paranoia for which Celtic’s sympathisers are notorious. In particular, few managers were more uncharitable towards opponents: Burns’ pious, post-match mantra, “we played the game the way it should be played,” always implies the opposition didn’t, but instead fell short of Celtic’s lofty ideals.

He parroted this line after drawing in last month’s cup semi-final, adding in bitter tones that Falkirk had, by their late equalizer in the first match, “snatched it from us”, as though his team had fallen victim to some heinous crime. And when Falkirk subsequently completed what was their greatest achievement for 40 years, Burns displayed on TV only self-pity at becoming a casualty of what he disparagingly referred to as “a Berwick”.

Churlish towards rivals, Burns prefers to shower his superlatives upon Celtic’s “unique” supporters. And in a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, he has observed: “They just want to see their team getting better and better in every facet.” All the more ironic, therefore, that Celtic attempting to take further strides has necessitated the replacement of Tommy Burns as manager.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month