Local Hearts hero Bobby Burns dreaming of Scottish Cup final glory
Bobby Burns left home 12 months ago to play full-time football with Scottish Premier League club Hearts. The Crumlin native tells Brendan Crossan about the highs and lows of a footballer's life and how an appearance in this afternoon's Scottish Cup final would be fitting end to a roller-coaster year...
TWELVE tumultuous months have passed since Bobby Burns sat down to do an interview with this publication.
This time last year he was revising for his A Level exams, surviving on five hours sleep a night, inspiring St Malachy’s to the U18 Belfast Schools Cup, reluctantly posing for photographs for The Irish News in the ancient walls of the Antrim Road college alongside teacher Kevin Niblock, while helping Glenavon secure their place in European football.
He’d also just signed a three-year professional contract with Scottish Premier League club Hearts.
Fast-forward a year and Bobby is sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea and eating shortbread biscuits in his family home in Crumlin, just a few weeks out from a possible appearance in the Scottish Cup final against Celtic at Hampden Park.
In the last 12 months, he's enjoyed some unforgettable nights playing for Northern Ireland's U21s - especially their 2-1 Euro Qualifier victory over Spain in Albacete last September.
He's been called up to Michael O'Neill's senior set-up too.
He had a successful early-season loan spell with Scottish Premier League club Livingston, where in one of the eight games he featured in he kept a tight rein on Celtic's James Forrest in a battling scoreless draw.
He's played against Rangers four times, sampled Ibrox, got a kick in the privates from Jermain Defoe in a clash - for which the former England striker later apologised - he's savoured Hearts' semi-final victory over Inverness at sunny Hampden and scored his first goal for the 'Jam Tarts' against Aberdeen a couple of weeks ago.
Whether he starts against Celtic this afternoon is anybody's guess.
Craig Levein, the Hearts manager, is a hard man to read.
Since securing their cup final berth last month, Levein, hoping to land his first piece of silverware in his managerial career, has chopped and changed his team, swinging from four at the back to a defensive three in a bid to find a winning formula that will deliver the Scottish Cup and end Celtic's pursuit of a remarkable treble-treble.
If Levein opts for a flat back four there is perhaps more chance of Burns starting at left back in today's final.
And the fact the 19-year-old defender didn't feature in last Sunday's dead-rubber against Celtic at Parkhead could be interpreted as an encouraging sign.
“Two years ago I was playing for Knockbreda [Championship club] and watching Defoe on TV and Steven Gerrard was one of my heroes. At the game at Ibrox, I went straight over after the game to make sure I shook his hand!”
Like a wide-eyed, giddy teenager, Burns laughs: “It was class. You’re playing against the likes of Steven Davis, James Forrest and Scott Brown - but you kind of have to put that to one side and realise when you’re playing against them they’re only human and you feel you’re good enough to be playing against them.
“The cup final will be fantastic and I’d just love to be part of it.”
“Bobby doesn’t know the meaning of defeat or the meaning of failure.” – Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton
WHEN Gary Hamilton threw the scrawny 15-year-old Burns into the fray against Glentoran at the Oval for his Irish League debut, the youngster took everything in his stride.
It was clear from the outset Burns was cut from a different cloth than most 15-year-olds.
“Bobby has got a mindset that I’ve never seen in a kid,” says Hamilton.
“In anything he does, whether it be school or football or GAA, he is driven to be the best. He’d probably be the first to admit that he wouldn’t have the technical ability of a lot of others, but he certainly has enough technical ability to make a living out of the game.
“His single-mindedness is something I’ve never experienced in a kid before. No matter what instruction you gave him, and that comes from being an intelligent boy as well, he was able to carry it out.”
It was exam week for Burns and Glenavon were scheduled to play a Mid-Ulster Cup game on a Tuesday night.
“I played Bobby for about 50, 55 minutes,” explains Hamilton, “and as soon as I took him off he went away got the books out and started revising.
“When the other players came up to the changing room after the game, he was lying revising on a bench studying for the next day’s exam.
“His team-mates were slagging him, but Bobby didn’t care.
“He puts effort and work into things and he’ll achieve and be successful in life. It’s a wonderful mindset to have.”
In his first season at Mourneview, Burns played most of his football with the club's reserves.
“At 16 he was far too good for that level. He came to me and said: ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m getting challenged at reserve team level any more and I know I’m not ready for first team football just yet, but I’d like to go out on loan.’”
Hamilton agreed to his request and contacted Knockbreda manager Garth Scates about taking Burns on loan.
“I’d never heard of Bobby before, but he turned out to be our best player,” says Scates. “We played him behind the main striker and he was brilliant for us. He could do everything. He could scores goals, he could tackle, he was fit and could play with either foot… From the word go he was absolutely superb. He had a joke, had a laugh but his attitude was A1."
After clocking up 40 first team appearances with Glenavon last season it was clear Burns could play at a higher level.
“When mum (Theresa) was ill you didn’t know every time you came home whether it would be the last time you’d see her.” – Bobby Burns
TALENT is only a small part of the equation. To make it ‘across the water’ you need resilience more than anything else.
Bobby Burns has it in spades.
You close the curtains in the room in your digs.
You watch Netflix every night.
You’ve had a taste of first team action and you’ve played at Ibrox.
But you’re injured.
And you know when you return after many afternoons of rehabbing alone that you’ll be back in the reserves again.
At the bottom of the mountain looking up.
It’s the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ nature of an utterly ruthless profession.
Back home, your mum’s health is failing. She needs a life-saving heart operation.
‘Everything’s going to be okay, Bobby,’ his father Thomas re-assures him.
The moral of the story? Don’t believe everything you see on Instagram.
“There have been some fantastic highs and some massive lows,” Burns says. “If you look at my Instagram I’ve been to Spain three times, I’ve played at Ibrox, everything’s fantastic, but you don’t see when mum was sick. It was rough at times.
“Every time I got home there was a big operation coming up, and then it would be cancelled at the last minute…
“It was more around Christmas when I was injured and I’d a lot more free time to think about things. But I think it was good because sometimes you learn a lot from those experiences.”
In one report, which appeared on the Internet, Burns mentioned in passing that he’d been going to mass for the last number of months following his mother’s ill-health.
Laughing, Burns says: “The report made me out to be this big bible pusher! Our family are Catholic and we’ve always been religious. We would have gone to mass.
“Up until Christmas I hadn’t really gone to mass. When my mum was ill, you realise you’ve no control. There is another boy on the team I’d be best mates with – Jake Mulraney from Dublin.
“He’d be into going to mass. He would encourage me to go with him, so I started going. I’d go once a week and there is the club chaplain, Andy Prime, who is fantastic.
“He’s almost like a sports psychologist. He was great. I would have met up with him for coffee and he helped me get through things when I was injured and a bit down. Austin [McPhee, Hearts and Northern Ireland assistant manager] and Michael O’Neill also showed me great support during that period.
“There are a lot of Irish lads at the club who go to mass, so I went a lot during Lent. It’s good too because football can be quite lonely when things aren’t going well, especially when you’re not on the big team bus to Ibrox.
“And the reserve league in Scotland wouldn’t be as strong as the one in England,” he adds.
“When you’re playing in the first team it’s fantastic – you could be playing in front of 65,000 – and if you’re just the tiniest bit off you’re playing in front of 100 people at the training ground…
“It’s a strange job because most jobs you start at the bottom and you get promoted, whereas in football, you can go right to the top very quickly. It’s very up and down.”
Season-ending injuries to Demetri Mitchell and Ben Garuccio - Levein's first and second-choice left backs - gave Burns his chance to shine.
“I don’t know how some of the 16-year-olds stick it. It’s very young to leave your family and all your home comforts and your friends.” - Bobby Burns
IT’S pre-season. Location: Gullane Beach, straddling the east coast of Scotland.
Bobby Burns is bent over in pain gasping for air. The sand dunes seem to get steeper with every run.
The Hearts players didn’t see a ball for the first 10 days of training.
“Hearts pre-season was something I’ve never experienced,” says Burns.
What helped him reach the top of those murderous sand dunes was the fact that he’d been so active back home.
“I was a dual player – Gaelic and football. I was playing at Cliftonville and playing at Club NI and I was playing for Aldergrove [St James’s, GAC].
“I was nearly full-time when I was 14, so it didn’t really take me that long to adjust to full-time training. But the living side of it, you can’t really prepare yourself for it. I’m glad I came over at 19 because I don’t know how some of the 16-year-olds stick it.
“It’s very young to leave your family and all your home comforts and your friends.”
At 16, Burns turned down offers from Rochdale and Bristol City in order to finish his studies at St Malachy's.
“I was lucky: four or five of my best mates are in Glasgow University, so I can just go up on a day off to see them.
“Obviously you don’t want to be going up there too often because they’re living a university life and I’m trying to live a footballer’s life.
“But when I came over to Scotland I wasn’t really prepared for the long days.”
To fill the void, Burns is studying for a degree on a part-time basis and has recently taken up golf.
“I’ve never felt uncomfortable in the Northern Ireland set-up about my religion. We’d have a bit of craic about it, slag each other: ‘Right, who’s wearing the orange bibs?’ That kind of stuff.
“Some of the places I've gone to with Northern Ireland have been terrific. I can only say good things about the people who have brought me through the ranks.” – Bobby Burns
BOBBY Burns has never been on Republic of Ireland’s radar. Even if he was offered the chance to go south, he would turn it down.
The roots of his loyalty to Northern Ireland come from the treatment and support he’s received from his Club NI days, and the human decency he’s found in people like McPhee and O’Neill..
After a string of solid performances with the U21 set-up, Burns was called up to train with the senior side but has still some road to travel before being capped.
“To be honest, I’ve never been approached [by the Republic of Ireland] and it’s never been on my mind either.
“I was always in the Club NI set-up when I was younger. They’ve been fantastic to me so I would always remain loyal to them now. I wouldn’t have any interest in switching. They were the ones that developed me and I would feel bad for them to lift you up the ladder and then for you to kick the ladder away.
“The whole way right through the coaches have been fantastic to me.”
Burns adds: “Michael O’Neill was particularly helpful in terms of what clubs to go to in the summer. He promoted me to clubs.
“He’s in Edinburgh as well and I’ve met up with him once or twice. Even when my mum was ill, I met him for coffee and he’s a really good guy.
“There are a lot of people in the IFA who would always look out for me. Even Stevie Frail, the U19 manager, he was coming to Hearts reserve team games and encouraging me.
“Loyalty is a big thing. I’ve never experienced any sectarianism or anybody discriminate against me. I can only say good things about the people who have brought me through.”
“Treat the cleaner as well as the CEO.” – Bobby Burns
IN the Burns household the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Bobby and younger brothers Patrick and Malachy are reflections of each other. Thomas and Theresa Burns can be immensely proud of their parental achievements.
In his early teens, Bobby remembers some tough love – and understands now how it all clicked into place.
Smiling at the memory, he says: “We were never allowed Call of Duty at all in our house. We couldn’t understand why.
“Every other family in the neighbourhood had it but our parents were very strict and their moral values have kind of stuck with me.
“The one thing I learned from both of them was the value of hard work and to treat the cleaner as well as the CEO. I’ve always tried to stay the same. Mum and dad have been fantastic role models.
“You know who are good influences and who’s bad. At Glenavon, I always tried to hang around the good influences and would think to myself: ‘Why is he staying behind? ‘Why is he doing extra work?’
“I would have stayed behind with the likes of Sammy Clingan and Jonathan Tuffey. Even in St Malachy’s there were some great role models. Teachers such as Mr [Kevin] Niblock and Mr [Andy] McClean were more like life mentors and were probably the reason why I didn’t go to Bristol City [at 16] and finished my studies instead.”
For his resilience alone, a Scottish Cup final appearance at Hampden Park this afternoon would be just reward for Bobby Burns.
Afterwards he’ll take his mum to Rome for a well-earned holiday where they can sit back and piece together the last 12 months.
“Sometimes it’s good to know the grim side of things,” Bobby says. “It encourages you to keep working hard. I’m just trying to enjoy it all.
“It can be ruthless profession too, but I wouldn’t change it.
“I’ve had some some terrific experiences – playing in the semi-final, playing in the Edinburgh derby and playing against Rangers and Celtic. I could never have dreamed of this."