Tommy Burns

Footballer, coach and manager

Born: 16 December, 1956, in Glasgow.

Died: 15 May, 2008, in Glasgow, aged 51.

TOMMY Burns, who has lost a brave battle against skin cancer at the age of 51, was one of that rare breed of footballer who managed to rise above the poison of Old Firm hatred.

Rangers' Ally McCoist described Tommy as "the nicest man in Scottish football", when the recurrence of his cancer became public in March. It is a valuation with which few would argue.

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On the field he played with the ferocity and intense will to win which only a red-haired, west of Scotland-raised midfielder can manage, but when the final whistle blew, he was Corinthian in his magnanimity, win or lose.

At heart he was a footballing romantic; few teams have played with the flair and excitement of the Celtic team he managed. But for all the goals, the flowing football and the excitement, his tenure in the Celtic Park hot seat produced just one trophy, as Celtic were repeatedly ground down by Walter Smith's more pragmatic but less entertaining Rangers sides of the time.

Burns was raised in Calton, almost the epicentre of "the Celtic family". Religion was a major part of his upbringing; he was an altar boy, but those early lessons in living a good life obviously stuck. Burns had no enemies, nobody in football had a bad word for him and in a business which has in recent years embraced the "me, me, me" culture, this was no mean feat.

Signing for Celtic as a 16-year-old was a dream come true, but he knew, even then, he had to work at his game. He survived being farmed out to Maryhill juniors and, aged 18, made his first team bow off the bench at Dundee in 1975.

A year later he made his first start, against Aberdeen, going on to wear the hoops proudly more than 350 times, scoring more than 50 goals from midfield. He arrived at Celtic at a difficult time; manager Jock Stein was in poor health after his car crash, the Lisbon Lions were in decline and successors of the required level of skill and application were hard to find.

From being a club that bred its own talent, Celtic was increasingly buying in players, who weren't as good as the players they were being asked to replace, but in Burns and Roy Aitken the club still had "fans on the park" who had come through the ranks and were all too aware of what it meant to play for Celtic.

Rangers were still there to be beaten, but, as Burns matured from bit-part player to automatic choice in midfield, the rise of Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen and Jim McLean's Dundee United – "the New Firm", meant that even experienced, international Old Firm stars couldn't count on annually picking up trophies and medals. However, he did win six League Championship medals, four Scottish Cup medals and one League Cup winner's medal during his Celtic career.

He also won eight Scotland caps, between 1981 and 1988. To his intense regret, Stein opted not to take him to Spain for the 1982 World Cup Finals, but he was immensely proud of his Scotland caps, none more so than his eighth, earned as a substitute against England at Wembley in 1988. Before taking the field he remembered to thank Andy Roxburgh for allowing him to achieve a childhood ambition and face England, at Wembley.

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That year, 1988, was a good one for him as he helped Celtic mark their centenary with a league and cup double, but his playing time at Celtic Park was running out and a year later, in a 50,000 deal, he joined Kilmarnock, signing off at Parkhead by throwing his kit into the home crowd at the end of his testimonial match against Ajax.

One of the reasons for switching to the then floundering Ayrshire club was the chance to do some coaching. Mind you, he was to admit that after one nightmare trip to East Fife, during his early days at the club, he questioned his own sanity in moving to Ayrshire.

He went on to so impress everyone at Rugby Park that when Jim Fleeting departed in 1992, Burns was the natural choice to replace him as team manager, completing the club's recovery from relegation to Division Two in a return to the Premier Division in 1993.

He played more than 150 games for Killie, scoring 16 goals, including one incredible effort, scored with his right foot from the centre circle, against Ayr United at Somerset Park – one of those goals which keeps the fans who saw it going through dark times.

The ebullient, attacking football he encouraged at Rugby Park persuaded Fergus McCann to take Burns "home" to Celtic as replacement for Lou Macari in 1994; back there he continued to encourage entertaining, attacking football, bringing in "the three amigos" – Jorge Cadete, Paulo Di Canio and Pierre Van Hooijdonk to thrill the fans (and upset the chairman) in equal amounts.

Burns's Celtic side played the sort of thrilling, attacking football which had been the hallmark of the Lisbon Lions, but Rangers' greater pragmatism under Walter Smith repeatedly overcame Celtic's greater flair, and one Scottish Cup victory was scant reward for the quality of the football Burns encouraged.

After dominating one Old Firm encounter and coming away with nothing, Burns was to say: "When I die, the name Andy Goram will be carved on my heart," a measure of how "the Goalie's" genius had undone his work.

His increasingly fraught relationship with McCann saw Burns quit Celtic in May 1997. Kenny Dalglish threw him a lifeline by taking him on to his back-room staff at Newcastle United, before Burns moved even further south, to manage Reading.

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His spell in Berkshire was short and unsuccessful, but he has since been credited with laying the foundations of the club's subsequent rise to the English Premiership.

Dalglish again intervened, taking Burns back to Celtic Park as first team coach, and when Martin O'Neill arrived he had the good sense to keep Burns on board as head of youth development, where he nurtured the talents of some of today's Celtic first team squad, notably skipper Steven McManus and Aiden McGeady.

In 2002 he became Berti Vogts's part-time assistant with the Scotland national team and when the German's turbulent reign ended in 2004, Burns had one game as caretaker national manager, a loss to Sweden, before, having been passed over as Vogts's successor, he continued as part-time assistant to new national boss Walter Smith.

He was again overlooked when Alex McLeish succeeded Smith, and when George Burley took over he was again mentioned in dispatches, but not appointed.

Gordon Strachan's arrival at Celtic Park in 2005 had seen Burns elevated to first team coach, where he was a key member of Strachan's team.

It was revealed in 2006 that he was suffering from skin cancer, but the disease quickly went into remission, until Celtic shocked Scottish football in March this year, by revealing Burns was again in thrall to the disease.

Summing-up Tommy Burns is easy – he was a true Christian gentleman; a devoted husband to Rosemary for 28 years; a proud and understanding father and grand- father; a man devoted to his church; a hard worker for charity – he stood for everything that is good in life.

Nobody in Scottish football had a bad word for Tam Burns. Scotland and Scottish football have lost a truly great man.