Bobby Burns making the most of his 'Shawshank Redemption' life

Vince Lia of United and Bobby Burns of the Jets in action before the A League was shut down

WHEN I phone Bobby Burns he’s in his bedroom in the family home in Crumlin. He’s been in there for six days, self-isolating, reading, watching Netflix, engaging in press-up challenges and chin ups.

At dinner time, his door knocks. He waits 10 seconds before opening it. On the floor is a plate of dinner, a knife, fork and a glass of water. The coast is clear. He picks up his food and returns to his room.

Reflecting on his temporary and surreal environment, he says: “It is a bit claustrophobic. I feel like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption – but even the prison-mates get let out and eat together!”

The 20-year-old breaks into laughter at the thought of burrowing a way out of his room with a makeshift claw hammer.

But Thomas and Thérèse Burns aren’t the cold-hearted parenting type. They have provisions in place for their eldest son.

“They face-time me whenever they’re eating and I’m eating as if we’re eating dinner together.

“There’s no TV in my room either,” he adds. “Solitary confinement wouldn’t be in it. My Open University is carrying on. I’m able to do that online, so I’m not off the hook there.

“I’ve two assignments to get done. I’ve got my golf putter in the bedroom and Hearts have sent me gym programmes.”

Since making a hasty return from Australia last Friday after the A League was promptly suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Burns has had to self-isolate because one of his Newcastle Jets team-mates tested positive for the virus (a statement was released on the club’s website) and the fact that the team were in roughly five different airports in a short space of time decreed that it was sensible for the entire squad to stay put for 14 days.

Burns is showing no symptoms of having coronavirus. Apart from jetlag, he’s feeling perfectly healthy and fit and is glad to be on home soil again, albeit earlier than expected.

“I’ve my laptop so I’m watching Netflix and I’m reading a few books. The one I’m reading now is Mark Manson’s book called: ‘The subtle art of not giving a f***’ – it’s about drawing the benefits from bad situations. It says: ‘Instead of trying to make lemonade out of lemons we should learn to stomach lemons better.’ It’s actually a good book for isolation.”

Because they live in the country with not another house within a half mile of theirs, Burns has managed to keep on top of his fitness.

“I haven’t felt too bad because I’m used to being on my own, as I was living in a flat by myself in Newcastle (Australia). I’m doing things to try and stay busy. I’m basically not allowed out of my bedroom. One hour a day I do exercise. I ring my mum or my dad and they open the front door. I open my door and I walk straight out without touching anything, get on my bike, cycle around for an hour and put my bike back at the garage.”

Less than a fortnight ago I rang Bobby in his flat down under. All was well with the world. Well, almost.

The coronavirus had arrived in Australia but it hadn’t gripped the country in the same way it had in central Europe.

At that time, the Jets were finding some momentum under new management team, Welshman Carl Robinson and former Celtic and Rangers striker Kenny Miller.

Burns was playing the shirt of his back in a left wing-back role, claiming assists and making the team of the week in the A League.

Despite sitting ninth, the New South Wales club still harboured hopes of breaking into the top six play-offs before too long.

During our first conversation, Bobby fully expected the league would be finished by mid-April, possibly behind closed doors.

But, as the virus has done in Europe and America, choppy waters soon morphed into a tidal wave of panic.

The A League was officially suspended on Monday March 23 (with the forlorn hope of it resuming on April 22) and that’s when the country’s exiles headed for the airports.

Burns was one of the lucky ones. He managed to get one of the last flights out of the country on Wednesday to Kuala Lumpur, onto London and then Belfast.

What followed was probably the most surreal 40 hours of his young life.

The empty airports at Kuala Lumpur and Heathrow were scenes right out of the horror movie 28 Days Later.

“The travel was mad coming back. Kenny Miller was searching for flights for about three days and I think he went through Singapore.

“Joe Ledley ended up going to LA to get home; he went east. The walls were just closing in. I was very lucky to get out. There are next to no flights out of Australia now. Conor Glass [former Derry GAA player and Aussie Rules ace] can’t get home. Flights were costing him about £5,000.

“The Kuala Lumpur airport was virtually shut down. The only reason the flight got off the ground was because they were trying to get Malaysians home who were stuck in Australia, and they were also trying to get Malaysians back from London, so they were only letting us go to London. So we literally got on the last flight.”

During the flights home, Burns was mesmerized by some passengers’ attire. Some wore full body suits, many wore face masks, while another kept a pair of swimming goggles on for the duration of one flight.

“At the airport there were no restaurants or shops open. The only place open was Starbucks and you had to keep a social distance of two metres apart; you could only have five people in the shop at one time. It was a bit ironic when we’d all bailed off a flight together.

“Once we went through security there was nothing to eat or drink for seven hours.

“When you’re on the plane the food is terrible and it has been handled by all the flight attendants who are obviously high risk, so I hardly ate any of the food.

“It wasn’t much better when we got to London,” Burns adds.

“The only shop open in Heathrow was WH Smith’s, everything was shut. I arrived in Belfast on Friday at 1pm. I am sick of sweets and cereal bars.

“I’ve never been on a flight with so much anxiety, everyone was wiping everything down. One guy sneezed on the plane and about 300 people turned around and looked at him!”

Burns regrets the swift nature of his departure from Newcastle.

Within a matter of hours on Monday March 23, the Jets team, like every other A League club, had disintegrated.

Nobody got to say their proper goodbyes to the Aussies who’d made them feel at home in the industrial town of Newcastle, situated two hours north of Sydney.

“It was how quickly things stopped,” Burns says.

“We were training for a game on Monday and it was shut just like that and everybody was trying to get flights home on the Wednesday. It was a very sad way to go because I loved my time in Australia. There were so many things I wanted to do.

“I was saving up all the places I wanted to see at the end of the A League season – the Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains, the Sydney Opera House – I didn’t get to do half the things I wanted to do.

“And I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to a lot of people because you didn’t want to be in contact with them. I’ve a lot of friends from the Catholic Church near where I was living, but a lot of them are elderly and the last thing I wanted to do was be near them.

“But it was an unbelievable year because we were playing so well as a team, I was playing every week, I was getting good stats and I was getting my assists up. I only got to play 16 or 17 games in Australia.”

After the first game played behind closed doors, Burns felt the A League chiefs were running out of moves to get the season finished by mid-April.

“Initially, I thought we would get the league finished. We played games behind closed doors but it was awful. It was the worst football experience I’ve had. It’s funny because I played in school games for St Malachy’s when there was nobody watching… It was maybe because we were playing games in these huge stadiums. It also looked terrible because we were the only league playing matches at that stage whereas everywhere else had stopped.

“The reason the league was shut down was because there were border restrictions from state to state. So you can’t travel from Brisbane to, say, Sydney, so that causes huge problems. The week before it was called off we flew from Sydney to Adelaide, came back and flew to the Gold Coast to play Brisbane. We were in five airports in a week during a global pandemic. It didn’t make sense.”

Now back amid the relative tranquility of his Co Antrim home with his mum, dad and two younger brothers Paddy and Malachy, Bobby has been officially furloughed by Newcastle Jets.

“In terms of furlough, the Australian government haven’t been as generous as the British government,” he explains.

“All the clubs have laid off their players so we’ll get about Au$1,500 per month before tax. So, a lot of the players are taking big pay cuts. I’m glad I got home. If I’d still been in Australia I would have been screwed.

“I’m back home and I don’t really have any bills. I’ve no car, I’m rent-free, but it’s hard for a lot of players who are in very different circumstances. Some of the senior players, say, the top earner at the Jets might have been on a few thousand a week are now on £400 a week.”

Money has never been Burns’ driving force. Playing football at the highest possible level remains his raison d'être.

He still has a year of his contract to run at his parent club Hearts, who are at the foot of the Scottish Premier League.

But Hearts don’t know where they’ll be next season. Bobby Burns doesn’t know where he’ll be.

Quite frankly, neither does football...

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