The 19-year-old Northern Irishman left Glenavon last summer to sign a three-year Hearts contract. He spent the first half of the season loaned to Livingston – today’s Scottish Cup opponents – before being recalled earlier this month. He also sought to make the most of his academic abilities.
As head boy at St Malachy’s College on Belfast’s Antrim Road, Burns achieved three A grades in his AS Levels in 2017. He followed that up last year with two A* grades and another A in his A Levels. Which prompts the question: Is there anything this kid can’t do?
Actually, there is. He can’t play in the Scottish Premiership and study full-time towards a degree. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Hence Burns has enrolled in a part-time Open University course which will take six years to complete. He is admirably determined to ensure he provides himself with a safety net should football not work out.
“My school grades were alright, yeah,” he laughs. “If I wasn’t playing football now I would probably be at university doing maths or business or something. I really enjoyed school back home. I only left last year when I was 18.
“A lot of people from Northern Ireland come over here at 16 and don’t get much of an education and end up being homesick. So it was great for me to mature a bit more and also learn my trade over there. I have played 75 men’s games now. I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I wasn’t playing. Maybe something to do with accountancy, although maybe that’s a bit too boring.”
Football was always the priority in his mind. “It never came down to football or a degree. Once I have finished playing I can always go back to that. Once I got my grades my view was to give football everything I have and see where it takes me. Then, if I get to 28 or whatever, I can just go back to university again. It might be a bit grim with my brothers all working but it’ll be alright.
“I’m doing an Open University course in maths and business management. I’m doing it part-time so it takes six years instead of three. I don’t know if the boys in the dressing room know any of this. They do now, right enough.
“I know Ryan Edwards and a couple of boys at Livingston are doing similar courses. It’s hard, it’s all Skype calls, but it’s a good balance. Most of the other boys are playing Fortnite after training so it’s a bit more worthwhile. It doesn’t take much of my time. The football is my priority so it only takes me a couple of hours a week. We normally get a Wednesday off so that’s when I sit down and look at it.
“Very few people earn enough money during their football career to retire off it these days. So it’s good to have a back-up plan. I have a three-year contract here but you never know when you might finish, even with an injury. So my brains are probably more in my head than my feet.”
Highlighting the worth of academic studies over video games suggests he is certainly switched on upstairs. Yet there is plenty talent in both feet, too. He impressed enough at Livingston to be called into Northern Ireland’s senior squad for the first time and is now determined to make an impact at Hearts.
Today’s fourth-round tie at Tynecastle is the first competitive fixture since Burns rejoined his parent club. “It had to happen, I guess,” he smiles. “I really enjoyed my time at Livingston. I never really got to say goodbye because I left during the winter break, so I am looking forward to it. The banter has started already.
“I spoke with the gaffer [Craig Levein] and we discussed what might happen if I came back. I played a decent amount at Livingston but we agreed it was best to come back and try to push into the team. The manager has told me I will get a chance.”
He is also intelligent enough to realise Hearts’ cup potential despite being a relative newcomer. “I was at Livingston but I went to the [Betfred Cup semi-final] Hearts v Celtic game at Murrayfield and the atmosphere was great. You strive for those big days. It would be fantastic to get to another semi-final or a final and maybe go one better and win it.
“You could see how big a club this is on a day like that. The Scottish Cup is the one we’d love to win but we’ve probably been given the hardest draw of the lot.”