I don’t know how many of you even remember Hugh Burns. If you are under the age of twenty-five it is quite unlikely that you’ll have any idea who he was. If you are older, chances are that – whatever team you support including, I suspect, many Rangers fans – you would like to forget him.
Small on talent, even smaller of brain and massively ugly Burns was the Rangers right back during much of the second coming of Jock Wallace between the autumn of 1983 and the spring of 1986.
As has been noted before in previous ‘Tales’ the very late Seventies and early Eighties when John Greig was manager was a dismal era in Rangers’ history with several of the creatures of that era such as Stevens, McAdam and Dalziel already having been mentioned in this column to date.
But speak to any sensible Rangers fans – honestly there are a few – who were around at the time and they’ll tell you the return of Wallace brought about an era that was even bleaker for Rangers. Quite a few of the failures of the Greig era like Dave McKinnon. McCloy, Russell and Paterson survived the change in manager, while added to the squad were hopeless duds like Bobby Williamson and Cammy Bell.
And through the ranks came not just Gordon Ramsay but one Hugh Burns.
Burns as he appeared on a Panini sticker. Probably best stuck on something you would prefer young children not to go near as a warning – like a bottle of Paraquat.
As noted earlier, Burns was low on talent but massively ugly – a prototype for Poached Egg Broadfoot in some respects – but he was also a nasty, rather vicious player with, to use the journalese, a ‘short fuse’.
If you want an illustration of his brainless nastiness go on to You Tube and look up a Rangers versus Aberdeen match from 1985 in which Burns is given first use of the soap* following a dreadful tackle on an Aberdeen player.
As commentator Archie McPherson notes in the moments before the assault, the Rangers right back had been , for no obvious reason, well out of position and in a match in which the wild challenges had already been flying in – including one by a slimmer-than-now Ally McCoist that somewhat belies his cheeky chappie image – with the yellow card being brandished practically from the kick-off, only a dimwit would have not decided to be just that bit more careful when lunging in to tackle the opposition’s swift left winger.
Step forward Burns who even has the stupid audacity to look shocked at the referee’s decision.
Rangers fans of the era – the sensible ones at any rate – saw that Burns represented much that was wrong with the way that their team and club seemed to be headed. Charitably they would have conceded that he was at least enthusiastic, but any virtues were vastly outweighed by his sheer lack of talent. He played only a handful of games under Souness before moving on to first Hamilton Accies and (surprise! surprise!) Hearts.
He didn’t make much impact with them either and after spells with Kilmarnock – then a lower division team – and Ayr United he ended up in the juniors with Larkhall.
Rangers supporters at the time might have disliked Burns simply because he was rotten but Celtic fans loathed him because he was somebody who epitomised much of what we disliked about Rangers. Rumours abounded that any chance of surviving the arrival of Souness Burns might have had dissipated when he made disparaging comments about the religious background of the wife of his new ‘gaffer’. I have no idea if there was anything to this story – Souness was in truth unlikely to have not recognised that the right back he inherited was total crap without the off colour remarks – but Danny McGrain mentioned in his autobiography that Burns – ‘a fan in a jersey’- seemed to be rather more caught up than was healthy in the more ‘heady’ aspects of the Celtic versus Rangers rivalry when he was playing against Celtic.
Hugh Burns seems to me, though, to represent something of not just the darker underside of what Rangers and/or Scottish Football were and sometimes are, but the darker underside of Scotland as a whole.
He was from South Lanarkshire but he could have been from any one of those small to medium villages and towns in Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, West and East Lothian, West Fife, Stirlingshire or Clackmannanshire.
Towns that had been in decline well before the onset of Thatcher, places which have been ignored for generations, places where the local Subway’s colour is not green but black, towns where the bottom traffic light has a protective grille over it, places where Rangers have a massive following but which nevertheless felt betrayed – even kicked in the teeth if you please – when Souness signed a player who had been brought up as a Roman Catholic.
The kind of place where no amount of headline grabbing lawmaking by Alex Salmond et al will change a single thing.
Hugh Burns may well just have been a.n.other Rangers player who, like hundreds before, him was fulfilling no more than a boyhood dream in playing for his team; but none who have played since, even Iain Ferguson, has seemed so clearly to personify something genuinely distasteful and backward, something Rangers themselves were just about beginning to become embarrassed with as they came to fully understand what they really meant to their keenest and most loyal followers – their very own Heart of Darkness.
*Dontcha just love these old clichés? To further enhance the cliché I’ll add that it may have been Burns’ own first use of soap.
For some reason Burns aquired the nickname of ‘The Goose’, perhaps because ‘The Curlew’, to which he bore more than a passing resemblance, was just too surreal. On reflection, if you put a size 5 football in front of a goose and watch the results, the epithet becomes somewhat clearer in its derivation.