It was also felt this week in a busy pizza emporium in Glasgow’s west end, where he managed to reduce two people to tears. Or at least a film about him did. Now 53, Tosh McKinlay is only two years older than Burns was when he passed away just over ten years ago. It is still hard to register that he is gone.
McKinlay was unable to attend the premiere of Tommy Burns, the latest Scottish football documentary from purpleTV, earlier this week. Now a scout back at Celtic, he was in Belfast watching Northern Ireland v Israel. So we’ve agreed to meet in Lamora on Sauchiehall Street to chat about Burns and watch some clips. Over an hour later, having sat rapt while watching the entire film, we’re blinking back tears and trying to compose ourselves.
Now and again McKinlay would gesture for the film to be paused, memories stirred by an event on the screen; Burns’ debut for Celtic against Dundee, for example, in 1975. “I was there!” says McKinlay, who grew up a Celtic fan. “I would go home and away on the supporters’ bus with my dad and my granddad.”
His personal association with Burns dates from shortly after this, when McKinlay was only 12 years old. Burns’ sister Elizabeth was a friend of McKinlay’s aunt. “He turned up at my house along the road there in Partick – I was like: ‘wow, a Celtic player!’
Burns knew to look out for McKinlay, who trained with Celtic as a schoolboy but chose to join Dundee as an S-form signing because his boyhood heroes were slow to make their move. He recalls playing against Burns for Dundee in a 6-2 defeat at Dens Park, 35 years ago this month. Brian McClair scored four times for Celtic and, while Dundee did not play badly, Celtic, inspired by Burns, were unstoppable.
“He always looked out for me after games and would make a point of coming up and saying, ‘listen you’re a long way from home, is everything all right? Alright it was 6-2 today, but you did this well, you did that… You’ve progressed into the first team, I always look out for you’.
“Here he was, a seasoned professional, being concerned about my welfare. I always remember the story about Derek Ferguson playing for Rangers v Celtic for the first time and Tommy coached him through it, he was that type of guy.”
Burns continued to ensure McKinlay never rested on his laurels. McKinlay, then approaching 30, enjoyed an Indian summer under Burns at Celtic after joining from Hearts. He won the first major honour of his career, crossing the ball for Pierre van Hooijdonk to score a Scottish Cup winner against Airdrie in 1995, and appeared at Euro 96 and France 98 with Scotland. McKinlay credits Burns with all this. After all, the left-back had been playing consistently well for Dundee and then Hearts without being capped. Within months of signing for Celtic, Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, called him up.
Another point where McKinlay asks for the film to be paused is when Burns’ coaching partnership with Billy Stark is discussed – Stark would later deliver an emotional eulogy at his great friend’s funeral, tapping the coffin as he stepped down from the pulpit: “I’ll miss you old pal”. Their good cop/good cop partnership brought the best out of players, McKinlay included.
“The coaching was second to none – I started using my right foot for the first time in 29 years!” McKinlay recalls. “They had passing exercises where I had to use my right foot – they called it the Dutch square. It was a wee triangle exercise geared for one touch with both feet and we were taking that into a Saturday. The football we were playing at that time was exceptional. People talk about that team playing some of the best football since the Lions.”
Easy on the eye though they often were, such attractive play still couldn’t bring the league title Celtic and their fans craved, particularly with Rangers homing in on nine in a row. Although Burns’ side was defeated only once in 1995-96, the Ibrox side won the title by four points. A Scottish Cup semi-final replay defeat by Falkirk at Ibrox the following season sealed Burns’ fate.
McKinlay remembers the manager gathering the players around him in the foyer at Celtic Park, where they returned after the game: “He said: ‘that’s it, I will probably get the sack now’.” Owner Fergus McCann fired him the following day with Burns insisting on walking out through the front door.
McKinlay felt particularly pained. With only an eight-year age gap between them, their family association and the fact Burns pushed through a £350,000 deal to bring him to Celtic, McKinlay’s relationship with the manager was closer than most in the dressing room. “He allowed me to live the dream and come and play for the famous Glasgow Celtic,” he says.
They stayed in touch. McKinlay remembers the “dismal night” when he called round at Burns’ house with a portrait of Shunsuke Nakamura, the Celtic midfielder, which he hoped his friend might be able to get signed. Burns, by then back at Celtic as head of youth development, had endured an eventful decade since leaving the manager’s position at Parkhead. As well as working with Scotland managers Berti Vogts and Walter Smith and experiencing an unhappy spell in charge at Reading, in 2006 he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. He learned it was terminal two years later, dying shortly afterwards.
“When I went to the house that night with the Nakamura portrait, it was the same Tommy Burns,” recalls McKinlay. “Full of style. He liked his stylish gear. When he called me into the kitchen I thought he was going to tell me it’s good news, everything is all right.
“It went the other way. We were sitting having a chat. He said ‘Listen, I want to see you for a moment in the kitchen’. All of a sudden he hits you with the bombshell that he hasn’t got long…”
McKinlay was dumbfounded. Burns broke the stunned, awful silence. In this dark hour, when his Catholic faith was as strong as ever, he thought only how he could be of service: “Now, what about that Nakamura portrait…”
l Tommy Burns is produced by purpleTV for BBC ALBA. It will be shown on Friday 21 September at 9pm. The film will also be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.