Interview: Kenny Burns on ‘father figure’ Clough

Kenny Burns, given away as a baby, looks back on the ‘wonderful’ woman who brought him up and the mercurial manager who kept the hard man of 1970s football on the straight and narrow

Kenny Burns, given away as a baby, looks back on the ‘wonderful’ woman who brought him up and the mercurial manager who kept the hard man of 1970s football on the straight and narrow

But Kenny Burns is nothing like this. In fact, I think I might be in the company of George Burns, the rat-tat-tat gagman.

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I’ve neglected to tell him he’s having his photograph taken. The modern footballer would probably blow up at this, but Burns says: “Ach, if I’d known I’d have washed my hair.” He had hair once, not any more. Lovely blond tresses which, from the back made him look like a girl. You might have pondered, as men were prone to do when aping a 1970s TV commercial: “Why, that girl must be wearing Harmony hairspray!” Then Burns would have turned round, shown you the space where his front teeth should have been, and kicked you in the goolies.

Far from the irascible sort I anticipated, never mind the psycho, he does everything the photographer asks of him as he jokes that a delicate item of garden furniture might snap under his after-dinner-circuit bulk and, when perching on a statue of a nymph, quips: “I cannae remember when I last had a woman between my legs!” Pictures done, we return inside Derby’s grand old railway hotel, the Midland. “Coffee… or beer?” he asks. I hesitate. “It’s all the same to me,” adds the man for whom playing striker or sweeper was all the same, too. I sense that beer might be the right answer, Burns insists on paying, and on being told the price, he snorts: “Christ, does that buy me a room as well?”

He leads me towards a swish lounge only for the barman to tell us it’s off-limits. The hotel has its own photographer on duty today, working on the new promotional brochure. The manager appears and I watch the negotiations. We get in, and not only that, our next pints are on the house. I’m absolutely sure Burns didn’t use the “Do you know who I am?” line. Ninety-five per cent charm and only 5 per cent intimidation, I’d say.

Burns, 62, was an absolutely unmissable character in 1970s football. He was the hard man who some reckoned was beyond redemption until Brian Clough took him to a flower show and turned him into Player of the Year. Fans of Nottingham Forest – waiting, they know, in vain for another European Cup – are sustained by the oft-repeated yarns about him taking out his falsers to growl at Hamburg’s Kevin Keegan before the 1980 final, a kind of reverse-Dracula manoeuvre. But he can also tell a different kind of story…

“I was given away as a wee baby, passed right doon the street,” he says. His beginnings, when they are mentioned at all, are routinely described as “difficult;” I hadn’t been expecting this. How far was he passed? “Oh, not far, maybe 500 yards? I didn’t leave Peat Road.”

This is Priesthill in Glasgow, a place very dear to Burns. Every visit to Scotland he goes back. “I just like to stand outside the house. The last time this old boy shuffled by. ‘Are you Kenny Burns?’ he said. ‘Aye,’ I said, ‘but the woman who used to live there liked to call me ‘Kenneth’. She and Cloughie were the only ones who ever did’.”

I can’t get those 500 yards out of my head and say it sounds quite a distance to me. “Well,” he says, “the woman who gave birth to me had a lot of kids already, apparently, and couldn’t cope. Maybe it was the same story at the other houses and they were full up. But Mrs Burns, who became Mum to me and who I thought the world of, took me in.”

Fast forward to October 1974 and Burns is 21 and making his home debut for Scotland against East Germany, an early replacement for Jim Holton. “To get picked for your country? What a thrill that was. I remember the East German players, a bit straight-backed and dour. I remember my goal, me almost standing on the goalline, almost connecting with the ball and almost missing at the far post – a complete shank but it went in.

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“But the thing I remember most was the drive to Hampden from Seamill. The team bus came in the Kilmarnock Road, down Pollokshaws Road, and there were all those women standing in closes in their pinnies with their fags and they’d be shaking their fists at us and yelling: ‘Go on, boys!’ That very nearly lifted me out of my seat I felt so proud. Playing for Scotland was a wonderful honour for me, given my start in life.”

Pinny, fag – this is his abiding image of Mary Burns, the woman who gave him a name, a roof over his head and much love, although she wasn’t among the team’s cheerleaders that night. “If she was still alive today she’d be about 120. Her own sons and daughters were old enough to be my parents when she sat them down and asked them if they’d mind a new addition to the family. There was Jenny who lived in Dunfermline and Anna who was in Cumnock and Mimi who was in Birmingham. But the boys, James, Tommy, Archie and Ed, were all still at home so she had a busy house, too.”

Now he’s laughing: “Mrs Burns would sometimes light her fag with a ten bob note and I can still see the lads rushing over to save it. She was frail but when she got angry everyone did a runner – a great woman. When she asked me to run down the road for her fags or a pan loaf, I’d get cheeky and ask for threepence first. The boys would give me a clout on the back of the head. ‘Never charge your mother for anything’, they’d say. So I’d go and she’d slip me the threepence when they weren’t looking. I was her favourite.”

Burns obviously had a keen sense of his own worth from an early age. In his teens he rejected Rangers’ offer of £5 a week and training two nights a week and his stepbrothers – “massive bluenoses” – stopped speaking to him. Mary died when he was ten and so never saw him play. “The others took me up to the big room and told me. I was greetin’ for a long time.”

All of his step-sisters were happy for him to go and live with them but Burns chose to remain in Peat Road. With no memory of his stepfather, who died when he was a tot, has he tried to trace his birth mother? “No, and I don’t think I ever will. Everyone’s into their family trees, aren’t they? My partner Jean can trace hers back a hundred-odd years but, in my case, if I did that, I think it would be disrespectful to the wonderful woman who brought me up.” As for his birth father, he’s also unknown. “I’ve never had a dad. Well, not until Cloughie.”

Scotland play mighty, World Cup-winning Germany on Monday night, bidding for next year’s Euros. Pre-unification, West Germany were Burns’ first international opponents in another friendly in the Willie Ormond era, seven months before he would encounter those stern men from the communist East. Attack or defence, Kenny? “Ach, I can’t remember… midfield, maybe?” His confusion is understable. Every season at Birmingham he was switched between front and back. He has perfect recall, though, of who he was up against: “[Franz] Beckenbauer, [Gerd] Muller, [Uli] Hoeness, [Paul] Breitner. They were brilliant. I would run to where the ball had just been. I was picked to make a tackle but couldn’t get near these guys. I couldn’t wait to get hauled off. And, then, wasn’t I replaced by Donald Ford, a bloody accountant?” (Actually, Kenny, it was the late Bobby Robinson).

Burns had eventually persuaded Rangers to pay him £10 a week but soon left Ibrox under a bit of a cloud. “They let me carry on playing for Glasgow Amateurs. I got sent off three times in five games, so they thought I might be trouble.” A pal was Birmingham bound for a trial. “Joe Connor, always playing with his hair, terrible dandruff. He said: ‘Another Scots lad has dropped out and the club don’t want to waste the ticket – come down with me’. The trialists were to play the youth team. Joe was a winger and I reckoned I’d never get a pass off him so volunteered to play at the back. I was up against Trevor Francis and, yeah, I probably gave him one or two kicks.”

He took to the club and the city right away. “Looking at me now you might not believe this but I went there a skinny little bugger. But I had this brilliant landlady, Aunt Daisy, who fed me big platefuls of chicken every night and, if I was still hungry, I could always go and see my stepsister Mimi.” Brum fans look back fondly on that mid-’70s team and, when he could be spared defensive duties, the strike partnership Burns formed with Francis – strange bedfellows – was often quite lethal. “Trevor was a wine-bar kind of guy whereas you’d find me down the workingmen’s club.” Legend has it they didn’t join in the celebrations of each other’s goals. “Well, I think we did have respect for each other so maybe it would have been: ‘Well done, ya b*****d’.”

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Because Burns was such a belligerently brilliant backline man for Forest you can forget the damage he could cause at the other end of the park. In 1975-76 he scored the perfect hat-trick – right foot, left foot, header – against Leicester City’s Peter Shilton, a future team-mate at the City Ground along with the noted Midlands oenophile Francis. The following season a Brum car dealer challenged the team to bag six goals in a match, with a Triumph TR7 the prize for the scorer of the last.

They managed five against Derby County, Burns claiming four which required Colin Todd to be substituted at half-time, but the dealer’s wheels were safe. Then a few weeks later, again at Leicester, our man scored a hat-trick of headers in the snow, including the final counter in a 6-2 win. “Even I could have pulled in a TR7,” he chortles, “but we decided to have the insurance money instead. Everyone got a couple of hundred quid and, because it was near Christmas, the apprentices found a tenner in their stockings.”

Forest No 2 Peter Taylor, though, wasn’t convinced. He fancied Burns right enough but not as a striker, even a 20-goals-a-season one. “I suspected that Burns didn’t relish life up front, that the running didn’t suit his lazy nature,” Taylor revealed later. He and Clough reckoned they could turn him into “a Scottish Bobby Moore… he was just as skilful as Bobby but more ruthless”.

First, though, some character-assessment was required. Taylor had him shadowed on a night out at Birmingham’s Perry Barr greyhound track. Reporting back, the spy confirmed that the player who was reputedly Caledonia’s wildest had done nothing more outrageous than place a few bets, win a few quid and smoke a Castella.

It’s written in Ol’ Big Head mythology that Clough asked him to accompany him to a sweetpea competition before the signing. The theory was the manager was trying to unnerve the player, to show that life at a Clough club was different. “I don’t know,” says Burns, who has never over-analysed the dramatic moments in his life. “He was a judge and he was having a flower named after him.”

He almost made Forest tear up the character reference, and his contract, on a pre-season tour of Germany. “One of our friendlies was part of a beer festival. I spewed up in front of Cloughie and his wife, Barbara. The next day I made sure I apologised to her as well. Cloughie told me later that, if I hadn’t done that, I’d have been on the next plane home.”

Burns thought he had been bought as a striker and was surprised to find himself lining up alongside Larry Lloyd, although he had to admit Taylor was right: he loathed all the horsing around required of a frontman.

First game on that tour, he barged an unsuspecting German into a fence. “This guy came out the other side as chips.” The cry went up from the dugout: “Kenneth!” Burns: “I thought, uh-oh, I’m for it. Then Cloughie gave me his wee sign [thumb and index finger creating a circle, like a chef’s verdict on food cooked to perfection]. I earned quite a few of them. And poor old Larry, much to his annoyance, never got one.”

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Burns would win 20 Scottish caps and reckons it should have been more. Ormond and Ally MacLeod were “nice people who did their best, but I don’t think that was good enough”. In the 1978 World Cup he played against Peru and Iran and then was dropped. “Tam Forsyth came in, an eat-the-breid guy, a lovely fellow, but I don’t think he came close to me.”

Clough would surely agree.

The pair would have their fall-outs on the way to a First Division title and two European Cups. “One time he hit me with an instant fine for a bad pass. Liam O’Kane was sent to the office to type out the punishment, official paper with the wee Forest tree, and Cloughie handed me it at half-time – 50 bloody quid!”

Burns tolerated his manager’s occasionally perverse decisions – hooking an ineffectual Peter Withe after just ten minutes and making the team play on with ten men – because he knew he was in the presence of a genius and one who was more than just his boss. “I didn’t have a dad so I was very happy Cloughie saw me as his daft laddie who he would try to keep on the straight and narrow.”

Burns has been married three times. “I love wedding cake,” laughs the father-of-five. This may sound like a chaotic personal life which, allied to a harem-scarem professional one, could prompt the weekend psychologist to deduce: it’s all the fault of his difficult beginnings.

“But they weren’t difficult,” he insists. “My childhood was nothing but happy and I look back on it all the time. I remember the Ford Prefect parked in our garden which I’d drive six yards forwards and six yards back – hours of endless fun. I remember the bicycle the boys won me playing cards down the pub – even though it was a lassie’s one with a basket on the front I was grateful for it. And I remember knocking on our neighbour’s door and getting a thump, then the wifie coming round to apologise: ‘Och, I’m awfie sorry, that was meant for our Michael’. I remember everything about Peat Road because I loved it and I’ll be back up the road very soon.”