Interview: Hugh Burns on his ‘What’s the goalie daein, Tom?’ blurt

Former Rangers and Hearts player Hugh Burns now works for Rangers TV and Rock Sport Radio. Picture: John Devlin
Former Rangers and Hearts player Hugh Burns now works for Rangers TV and Rock Sport Radio. Picture: John Devlin
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You know The Scream, of course you do. Everyone emotionally invested in Scottish sport can empathise with the fretful-looking fellow in the painting, even if we aren’t all aware it’s the work of the boy Munch – Edvard Munch, the Norwegian expressionist.

Now, what the subject was saying at the time he was captured for the canvas is open to many interpretations. For instance, if he was Rangers-minded and present at Ibrox for the Old Firm game last March, there’s a very good chance that at the moment when Celtic’s Moussa Dembele was preparing to lob Wes Foderingham his doom-laden cry might have been: “What’s the goalie daein’, Tom?”

These were the words of Hugh “Shuggie” Burns, the ex-Ranger who co-commentates for the club’s TV station, as he alerted colleague Tom Miller to imminent calamity, and they’ve turned him into a YouTube sensation. His blurt has been transposed on to clips of similar Celtic goals, including one by Henrik Larsson in the 6-2 game. It’s been stuck on footage of assorted goalie madness, including Rene Higuita’s scorpion-kick save for Colombia. It’s been placed alongside the profundities of Bob Dylan and Stephen Hawking.

As a dog in a park leaps to catch its well-chewed ball and misses, the exclamation becomes: “What’s the collie daein’, Tom?” Best of all, Celtic fans sat round a big screen are singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Only instead of “Ground control to Major Tom” it’s … well, you’ve guessed. Internet cut-and-paste whizzes have dreamed up many tributes to Shuggie and possibly the only one missing is The Scream’s protagonist brought to life with rudimentary moving-jaw animation. There’s an idea for you, guys – get cracking.

“It’s grown arms and legs,” says Burns of the remark when we meet in Glasgow’s Merchant City. This is his “Interesting… very interesting”, his “Oh, I say!” Burns that afternoon opened his mouth and showed his allegiance, as if we ever doubted it, and this is what we expect of the partisan voices on club channels. He admits he could have been even more partisan, inserting an expletive, but is glad he didn’t. Now those who know Burns or remember him from his 1980s stint at Ibrox will shout out the quip when they see him in the street.

But he doesn’t dine out on it. He has only achieved this notoriety, he says, because Rangers lost. He talks me through the earlier sequence of play as if to justify his horror-filled reaction to the goal. Burns doesn’t want to remain a figure of fun. He takes his punditry seriously and would like to have more of it than only his turns on Rangers TV and Rock Sport Radio, but here he has been thwarted.

“It’s because of this,” he says, drawing a picture frame round his face with his fingers. “It disnae fit. I think my football career has held me back media-wise. I had this reputation of being a hothead, falling out with managers, with team-mates, with other players. Plus, I pin my heart to my sleeve about the fact I’m Larkhall born and bred.”

That he instinctively knows how the Rangers cognoscenti in that Lanarkshire stronghold will be feeling when the keeper mistimes his rush from the line is good for Rangers TV, while on the wireless his Monday show subsists on the bantersome relationship that’s been formed with Murdo MacLeod, his Old Firm foe from 30 years ago. But this cannot get him any further.

“I think a lot of people have this stigma about me being a…” and his voice trails off. Mad, ranting Bear? “Aye, a mad, ranting Bear. But do you know what? There are millions of them in the world, same as there are millions of mad, ranting Celtic fans. I used to talk about stigmas with Tommy Burns, God bless him, when he became my manager at Kilmarnock later. I fell out with loads of Rangers fans over the years for what they would say about Tam. I’d tell them: You don’t know the guy’. I defended him.”

Burns, 52, definitely has some stories to tell, though a few aren’t really fit for mainstream radio or TV. It’s 22 years since he hung up his boots with last club Dumbarton, shortly after being red-carded three times in the one game. “Each time it was for the same thing: calling [referee] Stuart Dougal a knob. Chic Charnley was a team-mate. You know you’ve gone too far when Chic’s shaking his head at you. I think I was banned for 12 games – a no’ bad 
holiday.”

After football he did other things, including car salesman. “I was quite good at it. Celtic fans would go: ‘I can’t believe you’ve just made me spend 20 grand on this motor – I used to give you dog’s abuse.’” He
ran a pub in Ayrshire called The Burns. “There was the odd American tourist who expected Rabbie Burns memorabilia. All they got was a selection of my old fitba tops.” Then there was a coffee shop, when he surely can’t have been very mad, or very ranting.

The hair has all gone from his head which he thinks might be to his advantage given his comical experiments with highlights and a bubble perm, courtesy of his cousin Michelle. “What a sight I was. How did I ever get a girlfriend? How did I ever find a wife?” laughs Burns, twice-divorced and now happy with new partner Elizabeth. But these bad-hair days coincided with his footballing highlights at Rangers (1983-87) as a right-back and occasional midfielder and he never quite got over being shown the door by Graeme Souness.

As well as the Sons and Killie, a wandering career took him to Dunfermline Athletic, Hamilton Accies and Ayr United with Hearts the first port of call after Ibrox, the best of times being followed by the worst. But the Jambos being due in Govan tomorrow as they ride high at the top of the Premiership gives Burns the excuse for a reminisce about one of his favourite games. Unsurprisingly it’s an Old Firm clash: the 4-4 Ibrox draw in March 1986, a classic of the genre, which would be the last point dropped by Celtic when it was still two for a win before they charged to the flag, pipping Hearts right at the death.

“I don’t know if you can print this,” says Burns and I’m wondering what’s coming, “but in the boot-room the day before that match [manager] Jock 
Wallace’s instructions to me were: ‘You’re going to be playing against a guy called Owen Archdeacon. If that doesn’t get you up for the game I don’t know what will’.”

Celtic raced into a two-goal lead but Willie McStay’s red card left them having to play with ten men for an hour. “We got one back but then Tam Burns went on one of his wee runs, jink, jink, 3-1 to them. The Celtic fans erupted. The racket they made is giving me goosebumps remembering it. They were allocated many more tickets for Ibrox in those days, so I’m all in favour of the number being cut back now! Tommy was last to emerge from the pile-up. The chant was ‘Hail hail, the Celts are here’ and as he trotted past me he was giving it laldy. When we went 4-3 ahead you can imagine who I ran straight towards. I have to admit I serenaded him with some well-known Rangers songs.

“But then Shortbreid Fingers – Nicky Walker – let a shot from Murdo slip past him. To be fair, it was a terrific strike. What a game. Four-all and great performances on both sides in the 
pishin’ rain. At Killie Tommy and I were aye recalling that one. ‘Remember you singing right in my coupon?’ I’d say and Tommy would go: ‘What about you, ya bluenose bastard?’!”

Archdeacon caused Burns rather fewer problems than Mark Walters, Rangers’ star signing after our man had moved to Hearts. This was the notorious game in 1988 when racial abuse poured down on the winger from the Tynecastle terraces. Burns, given the runaround by the player, said something racist he immediately regretted. “It wasn’t like me,” he says. “And that night I was glad to have the opportunity to apologise to Mark. I was in the Rococo nightclub in Hamilton, turned round and here he was. I couldn’t buy him a drink fast enough. He said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s forgotten about. And by the way, this is the closest you’ve got to me all day’. I’ve always been grateful to Mark for that.”

Funny thing: Burns used to be a Motherwell fan. “The only one in Larkhall!” he chuckles. “When I started to show an interest in football, Fir Park was the nearest ground. Dad would be working at Ravenscraig so my papa would take me on the Wishaw bus. Everyone else supported Rangers so I’d be treated to a rendition of ‘Spot the loony’.”

Burns wants to speak up for Larkhall:
“Mention the place to some folk and they’ll gasp. That can put you on the defensive. Yes, it’s a Rangers town but don’t forget that the McStays [Willie and Paul] were born and bred in Larkhall. They could easily walk down the main street no bother… at night, in the dark, during a power cut – just kidding! I remember seeing Paul with his mum in the Co-op when I was there with mine. Folk might have been surprised to see us chatting about our next games. I’ve got lots of Celtic-supporting pals in Larkhall.”

There was no sharp intake of breath at mention of the town name from Jock Wallace. “Just after he’d come back to Rangers from Leicester City he called me into his office. I was to sign a contract, three years. He said; ‘I’m still getting to know everyone – where are you from, Shuggie?’ ‘Larkhall’, I said. He said: ‘In that case, let’s make it five years’.”

Burns had been snapped up at 13 on an S-form by predecessor John Greig and taken under the wing of Tommy McLean. “At Larkhall Academy my Modern Studies teacher would let me away early and I’d run home for some tea and toast before Tommy drove me to training in his BMW. He was just starting out coaching and those car journeys were like a continuation of my schooling. If I was showing signs of coasting he’d remind me that playing for Rangers was a serious business. He was brilliant for me.”

So was another notable Ibrox wingman, although Burns’ relationship with Davie Cooper sounds like it bordered on bromance. “Davie couldn’t drive so when I got my first car, a blue Escort, I became his chauffeur. I know he had the reputation for being moody but we used to have a right laugh with the songs which came on the radio, making up our own daft versions – he was a great chanter. Every morning he’d stroll out of his house, dead immaculate. No one was smarter than Davie and he smelled of Kouros. On the journey back I’d ask where he wanted to go and he’d usually
say ‘Take me to Willie’s’ – William Hill’s in Hamilton. But then Jimmy Nick [Nicholl] came to the club and he introduced Davie to the big city and they got into a routine of breakfast in Glasgow. I was bombed and my wee car didn’t smell of Kouros anymore!”

Burns wasn’t a star every week. His Old Firm debut was as a substitute; the 1984 League Cup final won with an Ally McCoist hat-trick. “I can still hear Jock naming me as 12th man – a big thrill.” He was on the bench later that year for an incendiary European Cup Winners’ Cup tie in Dublin against Bohemians. He remembers that because sat close to him was young ITN reporter Mark Austin. “That was his first gig, and quite a night. I had a rock chucked at me during the warm-up – I guess coming from Larkhall had gone before me – and flags and scarves were burned during the game. Afterwards all the windows in our bus were smashed as we sped to the airport. We all hid under the seats apart from Jock. He’d been a jungle fighter, don’t forget. He wasn’t bothered by a bit of broken glass or a brick.

“I think I was quite good at bombing forward and whipping in crosses but probably the defensive side of my game needed work. Sometimes Jock would say to me ‘I’m not putting you in the squad this week’ and he’d send me up to Dundee United to watch how Goughy [Richard Gough] played right-back.” But Burns thought he was making good progress when regime change sparked the Souness revolution.

“Walter Smith told me I’d been close to making the Scotland squad for the Mexico World Cup but Souness and I never hit it off. Pre-season we were in Switzerland where these kiddies games had been organised. It was daft stuff like 
juggling, to be performed in front of the whole squad. My name was called but I refused to go up. There was a stand-off. ‘You’ll do it’, said Souness. ‘Winnae’, I said. Can you imagine? Then he said: ‘Right, your card’s marked. In fact, it already has been’.

“I’d been at a supporters’ club function in Kirkintilloch when I was asked about Jock being sacked. I said it was a sad day for the club as he’d been a father figure to me but that I was excited about working with the new manager. Then I made a wee joke: ‘Maybe we’ll get to have beards and moustaches now!’ Souness said: ‘You were bad-mouthing me to the fans’. That was rubbish but David Holmes, the chief executive, was at the function and he must have reported it back to Souness. Honestly, if I came across Holmes in the Sahara I’d walk right past him.”

Burns and another revolution 
casualty, Dave McPherson, arrived 
at Hearts on the same day. “I found out later Hearts would only get 
Big Slim if they took me as well. 
Wallace Mercer paraded us in the Mita Copiers strips at the Sheraton Hotel. I came across footage recently and don’t think the Jambos can have ever had two more unhappy-looking signings!”

Things didn’t get any better for Burns in Gorgie, though he concedes his bitterness over the manner of his Ibrox exit didn’t help. He couldn’t get along with Gary Mackay, fell out with John Colquhoun and wasn’t endeared to Craig Levein either. “Craig ran the show: a fantastic player but a nasty so and so. I thought to myself: ‘I’m not f****n’ about with you’. But as you get older and wiser and more mature you’re better able to buy into what a guy’s about. Now I like him more and really respect what he’s doing at Hearts.”

You could say the same about Shuggie Burns, mad, ranting Rangers fan, champion of Larkhall and accidental philosopher. As one wag tweeted after his now immortal outburst: “People always ask ‘What’s the goalie daein, Tom?’ but never ‘How’s the goalie daein’, Tom?’ ”