Brendan Rodgers: My debt to Celtic legend Tommy Burns

As a starry-eyed 11-year-old, Brendan Rodgers made the trip from County Antrim to County Donegal on a short pilgrimage to watch Celtic in action for the first time.

Brendan Rodgers smiles for the cameras at Celtic Park yesterday. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

The pre-season friendly in Ballybofey saw League of Ireland side Finn Harps outclassed by their Scottish visitors, the midfield strings pulled by a certain Tommy Burns in a facile 3-0 victory.

Little did he know then, but Burns would prove to be a hugely significant influence and inspiration to the man who has become Celtic 

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Their paths first formally crossed in 1998 at Reading where Rodgers, his playing career cut short at just 20 by injury, was a youth coach when Burns was in charge.

Burns made a profound and lasting impression on Rodgers who has revealed his destiny as a potential future Celtic manager was even foreseen by the much-loved club icon just a year before his untimely death in 2008.

“The last time I saw Tommy, bless him, I came up here to watch a game against Hearts in 2007,” recalled Rodgers.

“I was working with the reserves with Chelsea at the time and was talking with Leicester City about maybe getting my first job in management with them.

“I thought I needed somebody experienced to come in beside me. At the time, Milan Mandaric was the Leicester chairman and he was talking about a director of football. So I said: ‘Listen, if I am going to come in to Leicester I would love to bring a guy in with me, Tommy Burns’.

“My idea was to get Tommy in to Leicester as a director of football, because he wasn’t really wanting to manage in his own right any more. He was working within the youth department at Celtic at the time.

“So I came up to see him and we talked about if I got the job at Leicester he could come in as a director of football. He said one day he could come back to Celtic as a director of football and I could come back as a manager. That is how ironic it is.

“At that point, what he was talking about was being a director of football at Celtic. I came up, met him in the hotel the night before, we had a great chat, I came to the game and we went back to his house to see his wife, Rosemary, afterwards.

“It was something he was keen to do from a football perspective. I think his family and Rosemary had been down south for a few years and 
wanted to be up here. But it was certainly something that made him think.

“But the only thing that was making him want to do it was the possibility of him coming back to Celtic one day as the director of football with me as a manager. So this is a poignant day for me, really.

“When I first started out in coaching, it was on a part-time basis at Reading. When I stopped playing I was working in the academy there. Obviously, I looked up to Tommy because I was a Celtic supporter and he had been a player here.

“But when he came in at Reading, he sort of took me under his wing a bit. We were able to talk about football and very quickly I saw his passion for it. I knew he was a fantastic player and had known him from managing Celtic.

“In all fairness to Tommy, his brain was that of a top player. When he was at Reading as a manager, he probably didn’t work with a level of player that matched his abilities. But what I saw at that early stage of my coaching career was two things.

“One was the detail that he put into his coaching. He loved working with players, loved improving players, loved making them better. But also his human qualities impressed me. He was a wonderful man.

“I used to watch him and see him about the place and even when he was under pressure there he never changed. He was a good man. He always had time for you and I never ever forgot that.

“As a young coach I was looking for many influences and many inspirations. Tommy was a huge influence. He was there with Packie Bonner. Both of them were extremely helpful to me in the early stages of my coaching career.

“I have just noticed the photos of him on the walls here. He will always be here. For me to follow in the footsteps of Jock Stein, Billy McNeill, Davie Hay and Tommy and these guys as manager is an incredible feeling of privilege for me.

“I think Tommy would be very proud of me today. He was a Celtic man, he always just wanted what was best for Celtic – whether he was supporting, playing for or ultimately managing the club. He never lost that love for the club, even when he’d left to coach at other places like Newcastle and Reading. His passion and emotion for Celtic was always there.”

Rodgers is savouring the latest challenge in his career, insisting he is revitalised after a break from football in the wake of his sacking by Liverpool last October.

“It was hard on me,” he admitted. “But I have had a good break now. People might say that [this is a step down] but they don’t know this club. I have come into a huge club here. There is a brand of clubs that are renowned worldwide.

“Liverpool is one of them and Celtic is one of them. It is a huge honour for me to come here. It is a different football level here but the challenge of getting to the Champions League and dominating the game in Scottish football with the challenge from Rangers and Aberdeen really excites me. I remember Tommy and Packie saying to me when I was at Reading that at Celtic, it is like no other club. You have to win every game. When you win it is great but when you lose it is a disaster and I never lost that meaning from Tommy and Packie.

“There is not another club like it. You can go to Manchester United and draw as Liverpool manager and it can be a good result, depending on the situation.

“You don’t get that here, you have got to win the games. Every single game is a pressure 
situation and there are not many teams in the world have that.”