The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 17

August 9, 2009

Burns’ Last Supper

The Celtic manager’s job – probably Scottish football’s longest running saga since, well, the Celtic takeover saga.


When Tommy Burns was appointed as the Celtic manager in 1994, Gary Oliver wittily pointed out in this very magazine that Fergus McCann had been determined to recruit the country’s brightest young manager, but instead was making do with Tommy Burns. Gary went on to express serious reservations about Burns abilities to take on the formidably difficult task at Celtic, and suggested that allowing Tommy to have influence on Scottish football was akin to entrusting Ken Dodd with your tax return. OK, with the benefit of hindsight we can all make up our own minds whether Gary was being unduly harsh or brutally realistic. Tommy’s three year reign at Celtic Park encompassed a trophy win (an experience entirely unknown to his two immediate predecessors), numerous humiliations, occasional exhilarating performances from his team, an almost complete inability to beat Rangers, continued protracted wrangling over anything vaguely contractual, and new peaks of traditional Celtic paranoia being scaled almost daily. In other words, with the exception of the trophy win and the occasional exciting perform­ance, it was pretty much business as usual at Paradise.

But to make a proper assessment of Burns period as manager it’s necessary to remember the pitiful condition that the club was in when he assumed the helm. Just months earlier Celtic had literally been minutes from the footballing knackers yard (previous occupants – Third Lanark). On the field, they had totally slipped out of Rangers orbit and had crash-landed back in the pack with the rest of the also-rans. Lou Macari’s peculiar laissez-faire style of hands-off management had apparently demoralised the playing staff, and it was plain that the club was at the lowest ebb, if not in its entire history, then at least since the years immediately prior to Jock Stein becoming manager in 1966. To the extent that Macari, and Brady before him, had been such spectacular failures, then any sort of success, however modest, which Burns could bring, was bound to represent progress. The winning of the Scottish Cup at the end of his first season in charge, albeit in the most unconvincing fashion imaginable, at least placed something tangible in the Parkhead trophy room for the first time in many moons.

Tommy Knocked

Despite this apparent progress, Tommy’s first season was characterized by a number of unhappy motifs which were constantly to recur throughout his tenure. In the first place, the whole unsavoury and contentious issue of Celtic having poached Tommy himself, and his assistant Billy Stark, from Kilmarnock had been allowed to drift on and fester due to the wholly unreasonable and intransigent attitude adopted by Mr Magoo. The net effect of Magoo failing to do the decent thing by way of promptly paying due compensation to Killie, was that Celtic lost substantial goodwill amongst the rest of Scottish football, and also ended up having to pay much more in compensation and fines than if they’d settled amicably at the outset.Secondly, Celtic showed an alarming lack of ‘bottle’ when it came to the really big matches, exemplified by their unprecedented defeat by first division Raith Rovers in the league cup final.

Thirdly, in the immediate aftermath of the cup success, Tommy and Fergus had a go at each other via the media, inaugurating a very unhealthy trend in how important matters were thereafter to be communicated between players, staff and directors at Parkhead. Many have said that, at the very moment when his players were parading the cup, Burns effectively signed his own dismissal notice by giving a TV interview on the pitch at Hampden, in which he hinted that Magoo was an interfering wee bastard. Few were in any doubt that Fergus would settle that particular account whenever an opportune moment arose. Because, if nothing else, wee Fergus had shown himself to be a carnaptious and highly litigious little person, who seemed to relish nothing better than becoming involved in utterly pointless and ultimately self-destructive arguments with anyone and everyone who got in his way.

The litigation between Celtic and Lou Macari, involving claim and counter-claim is a good example. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular situation, it is traditionally the case that that kind of dispute is resolved out of court, in order, amongst other things, to avoid washing dirty linen in public. Instead, Magoo swapped his bunnet for a washerwoman’s headscarf and got right in there amongst the sweaty jock-straps.
Coincidentally,on the day when the case of Luigi Macari vs The Celtic Football and Athletic Club Limited (known to the denizens of the court as ‘Lou versus Magoo’) began in the Court of Session, I happened to be there and I spent a thor­oughly enjoyable couple of hours watching Fergus giving evidence. The whole thing had elements of high farce. Fergus painted a picture of Lou conducting the management of the club from a house in Stoke, claiming that Macari frequently didn’t show up at Celtic Park for days on end, often arriving in a fast-black direct from Central Station at ten to three on a Saturday just in time to wish the players well as they departed the dressing-room. The thing which tickled me the most was when Fergus was asked what Macari’s position in the club was and responded by saying that Macari was ‘a senior executive in the Company with responsibility for personnel in the football-playing section’. Put that way, it made Lou’s job sound somewhat less exciting than that of a clerk in a local government office.

Magoo’s account of Macari’s dismissal featured Marx Brothers-type slapstick. On one of his (allegedly) infrequent visits to Glasgow, Lou had indicated that he was off to the World Cup in the USA for ’scouting’ purposes. McCann denied him permission to go, insisting that he fulfill his contractual duties at Celtic Park. The next thing Fergus hears is that Lou’s been spotted at Glasgow airport checking in at the departure desk for Miami, dressed in Bermuda shorts, shades, and Dolphins t-shirt. An apoplectic McCann somehow managed to get through on the phone to the bold Lou who was in the travellers lounge enjoying a pre-flight tincture while scanning the Florida equivalent of the Racing Post. McCann summarily informed Luigi that he was sacked. Macari apparently responded ‘impertinently’, though his precise words were not quoted, but I think we can guess. As the best newspapers say, – ‘the case continues’ – and I think we’re guaranteed further juicy soap-opera like instalments.

Tommy Burned

I have digressed a bit from the predicament that Tommy Burns found himself in. The point I’m trying to make is that it cannot have been easy for Burns to work under the constant scrutiny of the ferret-like McCann. It was a real case of when two cultures clash, with, on the one hand, the Scottish football man, wed heart and soul to the entire ethos of the club, and on the other hand, the recently repatriated entrepreneur with his americanised business jargon, overbearing sense of his own importance, thin-dime mentality, and almost complete ignorance of football. One by-product of the Chairman’s unbending attitude was that any contract negotiation involving Celtic quickly became more fiendishly complex than talks between EEC member-states on currency convergence and monetary union. While other clubs appeared to be able to identify a player they wanted to buy, and then just go ahead and buy him, with Celtic it seemed that the process would take roughly the same time as the gestation of an elephant. It seemed that youngish players who were linked with Celtic had become veterans, completed their careers, and moved into pub management before Magoo was satisfied enough with the small print to authorise the expenditure. When eventually Celtic were ready and willing to do the deal there were still hazards aplenty. Not for Fergus the simplicity of dealing through licensed agents. Instead, with the chairman always on the look-out for a bargain, Celtic stood accused of the footballing equivalent of buying ‘back of a lorry’ stuff from dodgy spivs at the Barras, admist the usual dark mutterings of taking the whole thing to the European Court of Justice. In the case of Alan Stubbs it appeared as if ‘the goods’ had literally fallen off the back of a lorry.

As if the various existing pieces of litigation were not enough to satisfy his appetite Fergus also indicated that he was going to court to prove that French club Monaco weren’t entitled to the benefit of the Bosman ruling, in escaping paying a transfer fee for John Collins, on the basis that the principality of Monaco wasn’t a member of the EEC. An interesting academic argument, but as any lawyer would tell you, a complete no-hoper in practice. Not that the certainty of failure has stopped Mr Magoo blundering on, in a way that makes the proverbial bull in the china shop seem positively genteel.

Thus it came about that Burns’ dealings in the transfer market were fraught with internally imposed difficulties, and he must be awarded credit for unearthing the diamonds of Van Hooijdonk, Cadete, and Di Canio, given the obstacles placed in his way. On the other hand, diamond-miners occasionally dig up pure dross and he has to take the blame for the likes of Stubbs (a complete waste of money at a tenth of the price Celtic paid), Thom (famously described elsewhere as the least effective import from Germany since Rudolf Hess), O’Donnell (for whom the phrase ‘injury-prone’ has had to be completely re-defined, Phil spending more time on the sick than Rab C Nesbit) and the likes of Wieghorst and Hannah, whose purchases were quite inexplicable. Although Fergus McCann now points to the fact that Burns was given a massive amount of money to spend (£15 million), he omits to mention that there’s more to this game than just recruitment of players – you have to retain them as well. The long-running saga of Pierre Van Hooijdonk’s departure was precisely the kind of thing which most other clubs successfully manage to avoid. Pierre and Fergus adopted the by now usual Celtic practice of conducting their negotiations in the tabloid newspapers, with Burns cast in the role of anxious bystander haudin’ the jaikets. As I write, it appears that Di Canio and Cadete are about to disappear over the horizon in similar circumstances.

Doubting Tommy

McCann was not entirely to blame for all the crosses which Tommy Burns had to bear. I’ve chosen my words carefully in that last sentence, because we’re now entering the twilight zone of the religious symbol­ism which informed Tommy’s management style. Tommy made continual overt references to his own personal religious beliefs, resulting in him being referred to as ‘Father Burns’ in some quarters. There’s no doubting that his faith must have been very strong, because all the objective evidence indicated that God, if He existed, was clearly a Protestant. This didn’t seem to deter Tommy from praying for help from the Almighty whenever the big games came up. It never seemed to do much good, and one couldn’t help but find Tommy’s earnestness as being hilariously funny. When he was in devout mode he just came across as a complete nut-job. I was daily expecting to hear that Tommy was holed up in some Waco-style compound, ‘doing a Koresh’ with his faithful followers, Peter Grant and a small dog named Biggins. Of course people are free to have their own religious beliefs but they should keep them in a proper context. To paraphrase John Lennon, “I’m not knocking it, I’m just saying it”. What I’m saying is that things have come to a pretty pass when God’s help is being sought in the pursuit of a league championship. I can’t remember the exact words, but on one occasion Tommy was asked about Celtic’s failure to win a particular game and he remarked, “Well, not even Jesus Christ could’ve played on that pitch”. Whether this was a very oblique and subtle reference to the waterlogged state of the field, or a surprising intimation of the previously little-known fact that the son of God was a bit useful in the midfield, only Tommy, and God, knows. But to an agnostic bystander like myself it sounded just as blasphemous as the old ‘Jesus saves, but Dalglish nets the rebound’ joke.

For someone of his beliefs he rarely exhibited any Christian charity towards Celtic’s opponents. In fact, Celtic began displaying some distinctly un-Celtic-like traits in their desperate desire to stop Rangers achieving the nine-in-a-row. This ranged across the spectrum, from failing to return the ball to opponents who’d put it out for attention to an injured player, to a veritable procession of Celtic players up tunnels into early baths as red cards proliferated. Naturally enough the orderings-off were all seen by Tommy as part of the ancient masonic conspiracy which has so bedevilled Celtic. In one interview Tommy was asked about the fact that Celtic had had twelve players ordered off in thirty games and he replied, “Well, I’m sure that any fair-minded person would agree that only two of these red cards were merited”. Any fair­
minded lunatic, maybe.

In his general attitude towards reverses for Celtic Tommy practically became the living embodiment of Celtic’s paranoia. No defeat, particularly by Rangers, could be ascribed to the opposition being superior. Instead, ever more fantastic excuses were advanced for Celtic’s failure, as Tommy remained wilfully blind to the truth. His thick-­lensed glasses were evidence of physical short­sightedness, but his public utterances displayed a much deeper myopia. This was never more true than in his outburst after the last old-firm game of his manager-ship. The Celtic players had behaved fairly disgracefully throughout, appar­ently more intent on provoking a punch-up than getting on with the game. Their ill-discipline continued after the final whistle when some of them seemed to want a square-go with some Rangers players. At the time when I watched these proceedings I thought that their behaviour was inexcusable, though partly understandable because of what had been at stake. I was flabbergasted to hear Burns later blaming the Rangers players for what had occurred, and it was simply laughable to listen to him spouting sanctimonious and utterly dishonest claptrap about Celtic ‘behaving with dignity’. Dignity was most definitely not something associated with Celtic during Tommy’s reign. His comments in the wake of the semi-final defeat by Falkirk, in which he talked of it as ‘Celtic’s Berwick’, were not only excessively churlish, but ignored the fact that it wasn’t a once in a century experience, Celtic having been knocked out of the cup by the self-same Falkirk just four years earlier, and of course I won’t embarrass him by even mentioning that it was the second time in his brief reign that Celtic had lost to a lower division side in a major cup tie. Indeed, Tommy made churlishness something of an art form, being completely unable to give any credit to Celtic’s opponents in any circumstances. He seemed to believe that every defeat for Celtic represented a triumph of evil over good, which every right-­thinking person would deplore.

Tommy Gunned

And yet, and yet… for all his travails Tommy Burns so nearly achieved something which would have been truly amazing. In the space of less than three years he transformed Celtic from being literally a music-hall joke into a reasonably credible challenger to Rangers. Indeed, so close did they come to halting the procession to nine-in-a-row that they were still in with a shout even after Tommy was sacked, and for a few tantalising days the prospect opened up of Celtic achieving the very thing which Burns was sacked for failing to achieve. When Celtic knocked Rangers out of the cup on 6th March it seemed momentarily that what had appeared to be a highly improbable League and Cup double was actually within the grasp of the Parkhead outfit. Their utterly comprehensive victory in that match seemed finally to have exorcised many ghosts and Mr Magoo’s promise of a new-era Celtic seemed to be at hand. The only significant remaining obstacle was a home league match with the Huns ten days later, and with Rangers increasingly giving the impression of being a club in decline and panic, it looked almost certain that Celtic would press home their psychologi­cal advantage, and go on to a practically unbelievable triumph on all fronts. The Rangers management confirmed the impression of Ibrox alarm by dipping into the transfer market to disinter old favourite Mark Hateley from QPR reserves, apparently for the sole purpose of jostling a few of the Celtic defenders who’d remained serenely unmolested during the cup encounter. In the event, Hateley’s appearance on the field was subsequently hailed as a tactical masterstroke, even though it only lasted for little over an hour, courtesy of a red-card following a half­hearted head-butt on the Celtic goalkeeper.Where the cup-tie had featured long stretches of Celtic playing vintage exhibition type football while Rangers just stood by and watched impotently, the league game found Celtic strangely subdued in the face of a Rangers team temporarily revitalised by the presence of the aging war-horse in the no.9 shirt. In the cup-tie it seemed as though Rangers couldn’t have won even if they’d had twelve players, while in the league game they seemed quite comfortable with ten. The net result was that in the twinkling of an eye Celtic’s long­ cherished championship aspirations turned to ashes. Their only consolation was that they were certainties to win the cup. Weren’t they? No, not even that was to be a consolation, as humiliating defeat by Falkirk merely served to accelerate the process of the entire club unravelling before our very eyes. In the space of little over a month, Celtic went from being favourites for the double to a shambolic mess. Suddenly, the manager was axed, directors were being sacked or were resigning, players were expressing discontent, the music-halls were once again ringing to Celtic jokes, and the fans were outside Parkhead ‘demanding answers’. Hey, the good old days were back in full swing.

Presiding over this entire fiasco sat Mr Magoo, blaming the press for twisting his words, announcing grandiose plans for foreign coaches, soccer academies and other hooey of that sort, and, of course, uttering the usual dire warnings about impending legal proceedings. Forget ‘Men Behaving Badly’ or ‘Abso­lutely Fabulous’ – the Celtic sit-com is simply the funniest comedy currently being shown on a TV screen near you.

Alas! poor Tommy. I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy… wait a minute… wrong script. No, Tommy was a fellow of very few jests, and some extremely peculiar fancies, and I didn’t know him at all. However, it is my opinion that, for all his faults, he was on the right track, and that it’s been a major mistake to sack him at this critical juncture. He himself frequently noted the rather obvious point that he couldn’t be held responsible for the first six of Rangers titles, and I believe that Celtic took significant steps towards regaining playing respectability under his management. He simply wasn’t given enough time to nurture a club, which was, after all, practically dead, back to full fitness. Meantime Dr McCann seems hell-bent on a kill-or-­cure remedy, where by far the most likely outcome is the death of the patient. Fergus is now in the rather delicate position of claiming that great forward strides have been made during the three years of his chairmanship, while simultaneously asserting that the ‘on-the-field’ progress is not acceptable. Thus Tommy Burns is ditched and an entirely new management structure is put in place. I was out of the country for a few weeks at the beginning of June. When I departed there was talk of Craig Brown becoming the new ’soccer coach’ at Parkhead. When I returned I was amazed to see a newspaper hoarding proclaiming that it was Jock ‘Ultimate Penalty’ Brown who was the new manager. This was rather like trying to employ Arnold Schwarzenegger as your bodyguard and ending up with Danny DeVito. One simply cannot escape the conclusion that Jock Brown’s appointment has more to do with Celtic’s forthcoming fixtures in the courts of law than with their engagements on the field. Meantime, Tommy Burns has found himself a very comfortable billet on Tyneside, where his talents are likely to find greater appreciation than in the lunatic asylum from which he recently escaped.

jimmydiottria_g00002bBrown’s immediate priority was to ensure the acquisition of a big-name coach, and Celtic had clearly set their corporate heart on Bobby Robson, amidst heavy hints from Brown that the appointee would be of ‘proven ability and able to walk into any of the top clubs in world football’. Instead, the new coach turns out to be Wim (pronounced Vim) Jansen, who could no doubt walk into any major club, provided he paid at the turnstyle like the rest of us. I’ve no idea what Jansen’s talents are, but it seems fairly clear that Celtic did not exactly have to fight off hordes of rivals to secure his services. Jansen was, as the acting fraternity say, ‘resting’ before Celtic swooped. In all probability Jansen will manage to keep Celtic in second place domesti­cally, which will just be more of the same, and will lead to him paying the ultimate penalty shortly before Fergus returns to Canada, his investment trebled. As for Jock Brown, I think he’ll be just as successful as a football manager as Tommy Burns would be as a commercial solicitor.

First published in TAG August 1997

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