Saturday Interview: Craig Burley on his missing teeth and not missing Celtic-Rangers rivalry

Craig Burley is worried about his dog when I catch up with him in Connecticut. The family pet came off worse in a scrap with another mutt in the neighbourhood but at least it wasn’t Yogi – bears being one of the hazards of the former Celtic and Scotland star’s new life in New England from where he supplies a worldwide ESPN audience with his pungent punditry.

The classic toothless image of Craig Burley scoring in the World Cup against Norway

I can never remember – when confronted by a bear are you supposed to run uphill or downhill, assuming of course there’s a gradient nearby?

“Dunno,” says Burley, who presumably need not bother with such contingencies since his famously toothless grimace would be terrifying enough. “What I do know is that you shouldn’t try and hide in a tree. I might have thought bears couldn’t climb them but one day walking the dog on a trail near the house there were two sat on branches 80 foot up.

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“They rake in our bins for food, bold as you like. I’ve found them in my garage before. They even turn up on the local golf course. You’ll be lining up a putt and one will waltz past. The last time I asked an American friend how big. ‘Oh, about 800lbs.’ Steve Nicol [neighbour, fellow ex-Dark Blue international and a colleague at ESPN] has found himself much closer to a bear than I have. He chose the running option and I don’t think he’s moved as fast since he was on the overlap for Liverpool.”

Scoring for Celtic against Dunfermline Athletic

These two are golfing muckers and there must be occasions, maybe when the mercury is hitting 90 like today, that they wonder how heavy the rain is falling back in their native Ayrshire and give grateful thanks. “Well, you say that,” says Cumnock-born Burley, “but by our standards we’ve had quite a wet summer. Never needed a brolly on the course before but I’ve had cause to say to the same American buddy: ‘If I wanted this kind of pishin’ awful weather I would have stayed in Scotland.’

“Connecticut has just been on hurricane alert. Everyone was told to batten down the hatches and then went a bit mad stocking up on food and fuel. My daughter tried to fill up the car but all the pumps were empty. We were ready for seven days without power but thankfully this time we were spared.”

Extreme weather – snow in winter can be waist-high – and those grizzlies are challenges of life Stateside but Burley can cope and isn’t hankering for the homeland. “When I came here eight years ago there were the jibes: ‘Aye, no one will employ you in the UK anymore.’ Not true. I’d been like a blue-arsed fly trying to please everyone. ESPN, working mostly from here, campus 20 minutes away, simplifies my life.” He can espouse his trenchant views and there will still be enough time left in the day to dodge the bears.

“The last time I was back in Scotland was four years ago when my mum passed away but there’s not much about the place that I miss. I love my life here. People are super-friendly and when I walk down the street no one is going to ask me: ‘What school did you go to, bytheway?’ I’m glad I’m 3,000 miles away from that ever happening again.”

In his Chelsea days just before his move to Celtic Park

Burley, 49, is talking about the Old Firm rivalry. The goldfish bowl. The pressure-cooker. The nest of vipers. Glasgow, with the old foes squaring up again tomorrow, is on its own hurricane alert – also cliche alert.

I’d looked up Burley for two reasons. Scotland have a World Cup qualifier in Vienna next month – what did he remember of Austria away in 1996, a 0-0 draw to begin our march to France’s Mundial? “Absolutely nothing.” Well, at least he’s honest, an essential commodity in his current line of work. “There are too many guys in punditry who take the money but just fudge it,” he complains.

He has no problem, though, recalling just about every spit and cough – every time he outfoxed Richard Gough – from Celtic vs Rangers back in the day. “I hated Old Firm games at first, the intensity is incredible. As a pundit I’m asked why good players fail at Celtic and Rangers. That’s the reason.”

On Sunday, Celtic’s new Japanese striker Kyogo Furuhashi makes his debut in the fixture with racist abuse from Rangers fans ringing in his ears and Burley sympathises. “If you come to Glasgow from elsewhere in the UK you might anticipate the stuff that will fly around. Coming from abroad it must set you back and social media has only made it worse.

“I obviously don’t miss the nastiness and I don’t miss the whataboutery either. Honestly, nothing bores me more than the same people harping on about the same things: ‘That referee’s a Protestant … He must be a Catholic.’ I know that some people love it, thrive on it, but it ain’t my lifestyle choice. I’ll discuss the football but want nothing to do with all the nonsense.”

Okay, comedy interlude: shall we talk gnashers? Burley sans his two front teeth celebrating his 1998 World Cup goal against Norway is one of Scottish football’s classic images, with a tartan tabloid unable to resist the headline “Fangs a million!” He laughs: “If I’m meeting someone for the first time and they ask how I lost them I’ll make up a heroic story about me tussling with a bank robber or, aye, maybe one of those bears.” The truth is more prosaic but still strange, for while training at Chelsea he somehow managed to knee himself in the face.

“My teeth were forced upwards, cracking the jaw bone, and then they came flying out. No one thought to retrieve them, my rotten team-mates couldn’t stop laughing and although the physio wanted to send me to a dentist I was in a rush to get back to Scotland for Christmas.

“So there I was battering up the motorway in my Ford Capri unable to eat my cheese and ham sandwich and of course with no mobile phones I couldn’t call ahead and say: ‘Expect a man with his teeth missing.’ Everyone got a fright, especially my future wife Sheryl. She was working in a hotel and suddenly I burst into the bar with this stupid grin and blood down my shirt. Everyone said I was punching about my weight when she agreed to go out with me. Even more so after that!”

It was Craig Brown who spotted Burley’s international potential, even if he couldn’t see the teeth, and bestowed on him all but one of those 46 caps. The midfielder has much affection for his old boss and his motivational methods: “Before playing Brazil in the 98 World Cup he ran through their team, slagging off the Ronaldos and Rivaldos and all their superstars. Then he came to Bebeto. ‘Let me tell you something about him,’ Craig said. ‘He was offered to Hearts but Jim Jefferies wouldn’t touch him!’”

Back to the Old Firm and it’s interesting to compare the state of Celtic in the early weeks 2021-22 with the club Burley joined at the start of 1997-98. Big players – the Three Amigos, none bigger – had left the season before. Preparations, in our man’s words, were “shambolic”, with Wim Jansen’s “cobbled-together” side making a first-day trip to Edinburgh and losing 2-1, Burley’s fellow debutant Henrik Larsson inadvertently setting up Chic Charley for Hibernian’s winner.

These descriptions were revived by many for Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic right after their slump by the same score at Hearts, though they’ve since clicked as a slick, exciting unit and go to Ibrox in good heart.

Nothing will be decided tomorrow, and, really, the league wasn’t won by Burley’s Celtic with a 2-0 New Year victory in Govan. They still trailed Rangers at the top but only by a point and not the seven had they lost. It was a vital result and one Burley couldn’t have foreseen, given the campaign’s abysmal start.

“Next game after Hibs we lost at home to Dunfermline. I’d come from England’s Premiership, my first time playing in Scotland, and I remember thinking: ‘F***, what have I done?’ In that Dunfermline match I was over at the Jungle hoping someone in the crowd would give me back the ball for a throw-in. This voice piped up: ‘Hey Burley, why don’t you just f*** off back to Chelsea?’ I shouted back: ‘That’s a f****n’ great idea!’

“The turnaround was amazing,” he adds of the triumph which stopped Rangers winning ten-in-a-row. “It wasn’t that Henrik proved himself world-class or Paul Lambert came from winning the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund or I scored 15 goals from midfield – the determination of that dressing-room was like nothing I’ve ever known.

I’m not up to speed with the current Celtic but maybe, after what happened to the club last season, there’s the same realisation that’s what is needed now.

“If someone was shirking in our team, maybe if they’d failed to track back even just once, the rest of us would let them know. We weren’t satisfied with getting a decent wage and a pat on the back for straightforward wins at home most Saturdays. We were a bunch of guys who were really driven.

“Mind you, we had to be. We had no choice but to be absorbed in what we had to do: stop Rangers. In my day training was at Barrowfield and you got changed at the stadium. Every day there would be a group of supporters outside: ‘You lot better f****n’ do this.’ It never let up all week and on match-days if the result hadn’t been good we got it in the neck. Once, losing away to Aberdeen, there was still a bunch waiting for us four hours after the game had ended.

“As an Old Firm player you’ve got to be able to handle the noise. Either that or you’re dead. Paul McStay had retired and I got given the No 8 jersey. But who was I? There was no fanfare for me; I hadn’t come from Italy. And anytime I’d played for Scotland it was as a wing-back. So straight away I had everything to do.”

Mostly Burley did it well that season and he was the football scribes’ choice for Player of the Year. His best moment? Probably the January goal to help do down the old foes. “We’d lost the first derby of the season and Stubbsy [Alan Stubbs] had just managed to grab us a point in the second. We weren’t looking forward to playing Rangers again. It wasn’t fear but frustration from having played well but being denied by the brilliance of Andy Goram. That day Jackie McNamara supplied me with a peach of a pass. If that had been Lionel Messi and not this wee fella from Edinburgh we’d still be talking about that reverse ball. Goughie remembers it well. A couple of years ago he said: ‘I stepped out.’ The ball went behind him but Andy couldn’t get out to smother me.

“Afterwards Simon Donnelly’s dad said: ‘The Celtic fans will accept you now.’ If we lost a game that season we’d ask a member of staff to check if there were any grumpy fans waiting for us by the exit door. If we hadn’t won that one we might have had to camp out in the players’ lounge overnight.”

Presumably Burley won over that hard-to-please Jungle-ite who’d been unimpressed by his start in green and white? “Oh I don’t know about that. Probably when I went into punditry he began to hate me all over again!” Burley, when he first grabbed a mic, claims he didn’t set out to provoke. “I don’t see myself as controversial,” he insists. “I might say the odd silly thing but I don’t throw anything out there for effect. If you do that and you’re challenged how do you back up your argument? I just think I’m honest.”

Burley’s Uncle George is the former Scotland manager. “When he got the job folk thought it would compromise me but he was given the same treatment as Gordon Strachan, Craig Levein and Alex McLeish over poor performances – in fact he probably got it worse. I remember at George’s youngest son’s wedding his other boy saying: ‘We wondered when you would twist the knife.’ But he was okay about it. George had bigger problems than me giving him a bit of stick.”

He chuckles. Putting himself out there, believing that everyone’s entitled to his opinion - where did that come from? “It wasn’t in me at 16 when I was this skinny, spotty-faced kid so nervous about leaving Cumnock to sign for Chelsea. My American colleagues are surprised when I tell them what I was like back then. ‘You’ve made up for it since,’ they say.

“I was super-scared of London and I wanted to hold out for a Scottish club.” But dad Tom insisted: “You’re going.” As a £27-a-week YTS apprentice Burley cleaned boots, also loos – the old-school, character-forming duties not asked of the likes of young Stamford Bridge superstars like Mason Mount. And he lived off kebabs, or at least if the pre-Champions League-winning Chelsea had paid their bill at the outlet close to the stadium covering the youngsters’ £2 daily allowance.

“What would today’s nutritionists have said about that diet? But London was the making of me. For five years I lodged with a lovely couple, Ken and Yvonne Paterson, in Golders Green – terrific characters. They had a Jack Russell called Nipper which only had three legs and maybe not surprisingly was always angry. I can still see Ken with this plank of plywood trying to usher the thing into its kennel. At eight o’clock every night he’d say: ‘Do you hear that, Craig?’ ‘No, Ken,’ I’d reply. ‘That’s the sound of the bar opening.’ Then he’d get wired into the whisky which he always drank with milk. But at ten o’clock he’d go: ‘Right, Craig, off to bed.’ ‘I’m not tired, though.’ So he’d point at Yvonne: ‘You don’t want to hang around. This is when she turns wild.’

“They passed away a few years ago but I’ll always be grateful to them for looking after this painfully shy boy so well. Funnily enough, there was a lad from Auchenleck staying in the house for a while. Ken’s boss at the local council came from Logan, just outside Cumnock, and then who would move in to the next room but my school pal Billy Dodds.”

Burley wasn’t so far from home after all. Not – with the hurricanes, the bears and his disavowal of Old Firm excesses – like now.

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