St Malachy's College ace Bobby Burns lights the road for other young footballers to follow
TWO things strike you about Bobby Burns. Firstly, it’s hard to believe he’s just 18. And, secondly, you get the overwhelming sense he’ll be a success in life no matter what path he treads.
Yesterday was his last full day at St Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road.
He will sorely miss the place.
He will return there to complete his ‘A’ Level exams, which finish on June 11.
Ten days later, he will embark on a full-time professional soccer career with Scottish Premiership club Hearts.
But, to view Bobby Burns through the prism of his sporting prowess doesn’t get to the core of the Crumlin youngster.
“Bobby’s lasting legacy at the school is obviously in a sporting context,” says St Malachy’s teacher and former Antrim Gaelic footballer Kevin Niblock.
“But it’s being a leader in the school and representing the college. He’s tried to give back to younger students and the wider community. It’s been a pleasure to have him and we knew we were in safe hands when he was representing the college.”
As part of his coursework in Sports Science, Burns wanted to do something worthwhile.
His group decided upon a bFit Sports Awareness Day and linked up with ‘Tamhi’ (Talking About Mental Health Issues).
For Burns, the initiative was more than trying to acquire a good grade.
“When you look at north Belfast, suicide is a huge problem. It has the highest suicide rate of an area in Northern Ireland. There was a boy in my year and another boy in the year above me who both committed suicide. It was horrendous.
“We wanted to tackle it and do our bit to help.
“We got 100 first year students, we brought ‘Tamhi’ on board and talked about the benefit of playing sport and tied mental health into it. We involved Lifeline and Childline… Hopefully it’s not just going to help the students themselves but they might be able to notice somebody else in their family and help them too…”
Burns adds: “I’ve played for Glenavon and Northern Ireland [up to U21] but I wanted to focus on the grassroots to try and increase participation in sport. You want to help everybody rather than come across as some kind of snob who is only interested in elite athletes.
“We got brilliant media exposure on the day and it was good for our coursework but more importantly we found more students were taking part in sport.
“It doesn’t have to be sport. It can be music or drama. It’s just having an interest in something. We encouraged them to do something, make friends, be part of the community and the whole social element of that. But doing that event is only a small part; it’s not going to change the world but hopefully it’ll help a bit.
“As head boy in the school, I’ve tried to implement policies to have more mental health days; we also ran an anti-bullying day.”
St Malachy’s has left an indelible mark on Burns – and Burns has left an indelible mark on St Malachy’s.
It’s not every day you speak to an Upper Sixth who talks about trying to create an altruistic “cycle” whereby he helps a first year and two or three years down the line that same student looks out for a new kid at the school.
Burns also addressed parents at the school’s Open Night.
“Regardless of what Bobby has spoken about – and he has spoken on a range of issues – students will listen,” says Niblock. “At our Open Night, he spoke about his aspirations of playing football but also the importance of the academic side of things. Students can do it all – and Bobby is the embodiment of that. There is no better role model for young athletes who want to do well in school.”
A couple of weeks ago Burns played his last-ever game for the school football team in the Belfast Schools U18 final. They’d lost three previous finals and Burns was determined to leave on a high.
Glenavon, his club, didn’t want him to play as they still hadn’t secured European qualification.
But Burns insisted.
A compromise was reached.
He came on as a second-half substitute for St Malachy’s, scoring a goal and assisting for another as the Antrim Road students ran out 4-0 winners over Bangor Grammar.
“Bobby does balance that intense attitude with a softness and I suppose that goes back to his parents,” says Niblock.
“I was at the Schools Cup final and I was speaking to his mother and you can see quite clearly where he gets his grounding, where he gets his levels of maturity and work ethic.
“He was a very talented Gaelic footballer [with Aldergrove GAC and Antrim minors] but his sole focus was soccer.
“He has tried to represent the school in both soccer and Gaelic which, to be fair to him, he didn’t need to do. He could have wrapped himself in cotton wool and say: ‘I’ve a contract’.
“He played in the McLarnon Cup and somebody could have tried to make a hero of themselves and injure him.
“That’s another facet to Bobby. I think he appreciates his time here and the friendships he’s made and that’s his way of giving back to his peers.”
There are not many 16-year-old kids who would turn down offers from Rochdale and Bristol City to finish their studies.
Many aspiring young footballers would gladly pull the shutters down on their academic careers to sign a professional contract with an English club.
Life has been hectic over the last couple of weeks for the teenage prodigy. His agent Stevie Whelan finally got the Hearts deal over the line earlier this week.
“He has great character for an 18-year-old and has that hunger and desire to make a career for himself,” states Whelan. “He’s an absolute gem of a lad as well. I attended games throughout the season with at least six club scouts from England and Scotland who all liked him.
“There was very strong interest from Hibs who were keen to get something done but it just wasn't to be. Hearts came in via [Hearts and Northern Ireland assistant] Austin McPhee, and Michael O'Neill was very impressed with him during the last international break and when he debuted for the Northern Ireland U21s against Iceland.”
“I’ve always led a busy life,” Burns says.
“I go on about five hours sleep every night. I’ve only got the Hearts deal over me and I’m finishing school. I’m the head boy at St Malachy’s and I’m trying to organise all the school leavers.
“It’s been manic but I’ll be glad to get a break. I’ll get 10 days off. I start with Hearts on the 21 June.
“To sign professionally is something that every young boy has dreamed of and to get there is great, especially when I was 16 I had offers from Bristol City and Rochdale and I thought would I get another opportunity.
“I’m just delighted another opportunity has come up and it’s with such a good club."
Burns, whose father Tommy is an SDLP councillor, is in the home straight of his ‘A’ Levels in Sports Science, English and Maths.
He will go that extra mile to ensure that he is armed with good grades before moving to Scotland.
“I remember reading a book about the New Zealand rugby team and how important it was to have another focus in you life,” he explains.
“There is such a high percentage of footballers that come back after a year or two. Unless you have a Premiership career, by the time you reach 30 or 35, you probably haven’t earned enough and you’d need to do something else.
“These ‘A’ Levels will stand by me. If you get a ‘B’ rather than an ‘A’ that could come back to haunt you in later life and you mightn’t be able to do the degree that you want. That's why I want to do really well in my ‘A’ levels.”
Burns adds: “It can be very stressful too. You’re coming back from training at 10 o’clock and you’re sitting down to do two or three hours of work; you’re going to bed at one o’clock and you’re on the school bus at half six in the morning.”
Burns' path to full-time professional football was an unusual one.
In the early years he was devoted to Gaelic football with Aldergrove GAC. He represented Antrim at U14 through to minor level. He only started playing competitive soccer aged 11 with Lisburn Youth.
His friends at St Malachy’s persuaded him to give Cliftonville and try where he spent a couple of seasons.
But it soon reached the stage where he had to choose between the two codes. He was due to debut for the Antrim minors in the Championship but it clashed with a Northern Ireland game. The soccer won out.
“I loved playing Gaelic and still played it with the school. But at the age of 15 or 16 I had to make a decision between the two sports. Both teams wanted me to train and I was in the ClubNI programme at the time. It was almost like splitting your vote. So I picked soccer. I still miss playing Gaelic.”
He didn’t see many openings for first team action at Solitude and decided to join Glenavon, aged 15.
He liked Mourneview boss Gary Hamilton instantly.
“I spoke to Gary and he made me two promises when I joined: he would give me the opportunity to play if I was good enough and if a club came in for me he wouldn’t stand in my way.
“I’m now 18 and I’ve played over 50 games for Glenavon and just signed for Hearts. He’s been true to his word. His record of playing young players is phenomenal. That was one of the things that persuaded me to join them.”
Hamilton loaned Burns out to intermediate side Knockbreda Parish where he began as a left back but ended up playing as a striker.
His spell at Knockbreda proved an invaluable experience. He bagged eight goals in eight games and the club avoided relegation on the final day of the season.
He returned to Mourneview Park the following season and became a regular in the side.
“I think Mark Sykes was suspended for the first two league games so I was lucky and started midfield and scored a couple of goals in the first few games. Once I got that good start I nailed down my place in the team.”
Through the IFA's ClubNI programme, Burns captained the Northern Ireland Centenary Shield team and has since stepped up to the U21s.
“I have to say thanks to a lot of my coaches – Gary Hamilton, Stephen Frail (Northern Ireland U19 manager) and Ian Baraclough (Northern Ireland U21 manager) because they put me in when they had players from Premier League clubs, and played me.
“I’m sure there were people in the IFA and others questioning their decision to play me ahead of somebody at West Brom. And it was probably the same at Glenavon.
“I’m sure people said to Gary: ‘Why are you playing that kid ahead of a more senior player?’
“I’m glad I’ve repaid some of that faith but I’ve still a long way to go.”
For the time being, Burns will throw his phone in the other room and study for his upcoming exams before he makes his dream move to Hearts.
“I’ve had great stability in my life, so I’m moving away from all of that and I’m sure it’ll be a culture shock but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of. There might be a bit of homesickness but going away at 18 is better because all my friends will be away to university.
“I’m very excited too. Yes, I’m nervous about the unknown but having a three-year contract gives me a bit of stability. I’ll go over there and give it everything I’ve got and if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a back-up plan and can look myself in the mirror. But I’m confident I can do well.”
Niblock, who is head of Burns’ year, has preached the importance of a Plan B - but the St Malachy’s teacher says there is no reason to suggest the youngster's Plan A won’t work out.
“In the school we were always in the knowledge that Bobby could make it in the world of football,” Niblock says.
“Although he’s signed his contract, everyone knows he has a long road to travel. But I can see Bobby fit into that profession very well. He’ll not make excuses. He’ll put the work in and what will happen will happen.
“I think he has a very good chance of breaking into the first team squad at Hearts and then breaking into the starting 11. I’m sure he’ll leave here with a good set of grades that will help him if he needs a Plan B, but I don’t think he’ll need a Plan B.”
Bobby Burns is more than a footballer with a three-year professional contract in his pocket.
He’s an inspiring young man, a role model who nurtures the best kind of traits in his peers and lights the road for other young athletes chasing their dreams.
That’s his indelible imprint…