Many many times in my years stretching out the seconds minutes hours and days as I wander across God’s sod, I have tasted the joyful sweet tears of victory, the bitter acid tears of defeat and the determined cold-steel tears of defiance.
In only a few cases have I ever experienced the kaleidoscope of sadness, laughter, admiration, regret and inspiration that comes with the passing of Tommy.
Celtic Park this morning (Thursday) was like one of those time lapse photographs speeded up even more than normal, as scarf after scarf, bouquet after bouquet, banner after banner, and tribute after tribute gradually consumed the railings and pavings surrounding Brother Walfrid culminating in a massive white standard laid out across the small car park outside East Main Stand, bearing a Celtic-green inlaid image of Tommy and the simple but revealed truth – ‘Tommy Burns Celtic legend’.
As this huge emotional jigsaw of respect, farewell and love flowered in front of my eyes, the sadness was palpable! As I walked past the tributes and thought of Tommy running to the crowd, I smiled and laughed. As I looked at the pictures of him as a boy growing to a man but always a bhoy, I grasped again the admiration. And as I read the words written by a thousand hands on Celtic, Rangers, Kilmarnock, and St Mirren colours and remembered in turn his own words, I breathed deeply as I sensed again the inspiration that he provided to so many youngsters that have passed through the doors of Celtic Park, of Barrowfield, and now of Lennoxtown.
And then as the cameras and radio mikes behind me swung into action and the victims for ‘just a few words’ were summoned and asked ‘what are your memories of Tommy’, all those emotions and memories of my own became no more than a blur as I tried to think just what I would say if anyone was daft enough to ask me (they weren’t!).
I was stuck for words!
I just couldn’t come up with a coherent view of Tommy as a player, a manager, a coach or even as a man, without seeing him in the context of the club whose founder and home towered above and in front of me. And it was as I stared at Brother Walfrid that I suddenly knew just what I remembered of Tommy.
For 120 years football has been played by those sporting the colours of Celtic Football Club at the current ground and the previous one just over the back where the ginger factory now stands. During that 120 years, sometimes glorious, sometimes desperate, sometimes victorious and sometimes vanquished, an occasional man or woman of substance has arrived on the scene like a shaft of sunlight on the dullest of days to illuminate and remind us of exactly why any of us are bothered about this club, why it ever mattered in the first place and why it should matter in the future.
Few lights have shone brighter than Tommy, and none have lit up so many dark corners for so long as he has done in is all-too-brief 51 years, and none came with the smile, the laugh, the raised hand and the unbowed shoulders that said to us all, ‘this matters you know, this club means something, how we represent this club means as much, and how we represent ourselves is the foundation upon which everything else is built’!
But there was more.
Tommy Burns as a player was also Tommy Burns the supporter.
Tommy was no badge kisser; he never needed to be one.
Tommy was no chest-thumper; he never needed to be one.
Tommy was devoid of platitudes; he never needed to spout them.
Think now of Celtic Park and European nights in particular. Think of the support – the twelfth man.
Think how, as backs to the wall, the passion, desire, and urging of the whole ground in full song inject adrenalin into those who may not fully understand this club, and how they suddenly produce that extra step, that extra leap, that extra sprint to pull the rabbit of victory from the dark deep depths of defeat!
Tommy never needed that support from the terraces and stands!!
Tommy had his own Celtic support system raging like a furnace inside him and even in the lowest silent moments of our despair that burning desire lit up his team-mates and lit up the crowd and the fire would spread on a breeze of confidence, pride and perseverance.
Victory or defeat? It didn’t matter. We knew who Tommy was and he knew who we were.
We were the same! It was just that he was better at being the same than we could ever manage!
And for those who say that Tommy’s passing demonstrates just how unimportant football really is, could I just say that somehow I’m not sure that Tommy would have totally agreed!
The power of football, the dream that is Celtic and the smiddies of poverty in which they were forged, enthralled, captured and inspired in Tommy Burns the desire, determination, and imagination to become the man that we all grew to cherish.
At the core of his soul was his Catholic faith, but a faith that was not exclusive or blinkered; a faith whose true founding principles of faith, hope and love guided just about every step of his waking life, and a faith that nurtured the seeds of respect that he had for colleagues, opponents, and peers from every walk of that life.
I know that undoubtedly Tommy would have been the same man even without football! But without football, I doubt if he would have been known by so many for the man that he was. More importantly I doubt he would have influenced so many to become the people that they now are, and left a legacy that enriches so many people worldwide.
To me Tommy Burns did not just epitomise Celtic, Tommy was someone through whom you could view the essence of Celtic and in Celtic you could see the reflection of Tommy! After all how many can say that they supported, played for, managed, coached and represented this club. All of those who did were and are giants and Tommy was and always will be a giant among even them, for he did all that and even more.
And so as I close my eyes to think again of what my memories of Tommy Burns are and just how I would answer such a question, I can see my own minds-eye appearing as a u-tube video!
There’s a brash young smiling red-haired Glaswegian running towards me across the Celtic Park turf, hand raised in triumph, his stride shortening as he looks around at the cheering and rapturous crowd; the colours on his top begin to fade and his garments are gradually replaced by club suit and tie; his hair fades from that brilliant red to a distinguished grey, and a hundred different players hug him and he hugs them as he takes another step towards me standing at first in the jungle and then out of my seat beneath a towering north stand; a change again to a track suit and as Dalglish becomes Aitken and then Stubbs and then De Canio and finally McDonald, McGeady, Boruc and Caldwell, with one almighty leap, as Celtic get to the Champions’ League again, he flies through the air to land on the pyramid of celebrations!
Is it a bird?
Is It a Plane?
Is it Superman?
“Naw – It’s Tommy Twists, Tommy Turns, Tommy Burns!”
Thanks for the smile Tommy! Thanks for the memory! But most of all just thanks!
I’ll be seein you wan day!