GAA Football

"He was a man amongst men..." Tributes to former Bryansford captain Oliver Burns

Oliver Burns (right) with Eugene Grant and Malachy and John Smith
Andy Watters

OLIVER Burns was born to be a full-back. Broad-shouldered and strong as a bull, he was a man you'd always want on your team.

Bryansford's legendary number three passed away yesterday after suffering a heart-attack and he will be mourned by his former team-mates, his many friends and most of all by his wife Anne, sons Brian (full-back in Down's 1994 All-Ireland-winning team), Paul and Jason and his wider family circle.

I had the pleasure of meeting Oliver early last year to reminisce about the man he called ‘Master'; his former primary school teacher Sean Smith who, half-a-century earlier, had dragged the Bryansford club from obscurity to the Down and Ulster titles and the first ever All-Ireland club final in 1971.

The late Sean's sons Malachy and John and Oliver's former team-mate Eugene Grant, an eminent barrister, were there too. On the face of it, Oliver and Eugene were chalk and cheese but their friendship, forged in many battles, was rock solid.

Oliver recalled how he had been “putting hoarding up around Queen's one day” when a car pulled up and out of it emerged Grant dressed in his barrister's silk gown with the collar and long sleeves.

“He had everything on him only the wig,” said Oliver.

“I went over to him and says: ‘You look like a nun!'”

Everyone at our table (and a few eavesdroppers too) burst into laughter and you quickly realised why Smith had made him his captain throughout those glory years with Bryansford: When Oliver Burns spoke everyone listened.

“I dunno…” said Eugene Grant yesterday, as he struggled to come to terms with the passing of his friend.

“He was a man amongst men. He was the best, he was our captain.”

It was Oliver who first approached Smith to take over as Bryansford manager in 1966 and although ‘The Master' turned him down to begin with, Oliver eventually coaxed him into taking the team.

“There was a huge bond between the two of them from the start,” said Eugene.

“For us young fellas coming onto the team Oliver was the inspiration – a big full-back, a big, strong fella with a good football brain and a lot of talent. He had this indomitable spirit, he was able to inspire us and he stayed captain the whole way through – there was never an issue about that.

“It's a shock that he has gone so quickly and we're all reeling from it now.”

Earlier this year, Oliver was made president of the Bryansford club and chairman Peter Branagan described him as: “An absolute legend”.

“There is nobody around here who would have a bad word to say about Oliver,” he added.

“He was a character all his life and everybody is gutted. He'll be sorely missed.”

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GAA Football