How Tommy Burns revolutionised Celtic’s transfer policy

Ten months on from Fergus McCann’s takeover, Celtic were playing their home matches at Hampden whilst the reconstruction of Celtic Park was underway. As well as future-proofing the home stadium, McCann had to replace Lou Macari with Tommy Burns amid legal action from the departed manager and a £100,000 fine for ‘tapping up’ his successor.

On the harshness of the punishment handed out by the Scottish League, McCann made his thoughts known to that remarkable Scottish journalist, the much-missed Kevin McCarra: “I am not trying to change Scottish football,” reasoned McCann, “but if I get fined £100,000 when the previous record was £5,000 and it is for something I think I did not do, am I supposed to say ‘thank you’?

“The system of supposed justice is seriously flawed. I wouldn’t expect that sort of fine in a court of law unless there was a serious offence with a death involved and it was an alternative to five years in prison.”

Add to all this upheaval the fact that McCann had inherited a £5m overdraft that had to be cleared and a football team that had to be rebuilt, and you can imagine just how much of a transitional period the club were trying to negotiate.

Launched by the visionary Canadian businessman, the most successful share issue in British football history was underway. It would raise £21m, but the stadium alone would cost £26m. Fergus McCann was a man under pressure to deliver on several fronts.

Rebuilding on a budget

With Rangers well on their way to winning seven-in-a-row, Celtic supporters wanted reinforcements on the pitch, yet Tommy Burns was given the cheque book on just three ocassions during his first season in charge. His first two signings were the domestic acquisitions of promising Motherwell midfielder, Phil O’Donnell, who cost a club record £1.75m; and Hearts’ left-back and lifelong Celtic fan, Tosh McKinlay, who was a snip at £350,000.

By the beginning of January 1995, Celtic were desperate for goals. The 1-1 draw with Dundee United at ‘home’ on 7 January was the club’s 12th draw in 20 league games. They languished in fourth spot behind Rangers, Hibs and Motherwell, and had already been beaten in the final of the Coca Cola Cup by lower-league Raith Rovers.

Tommy Burns’ side needed a lethal marksman, and Celtic fans were desparate for a hero.

For the third and final signing of the season, Burns accessed the European scouting reports of Davie Hay, and turned his attentions to the Netherlands.

As Celtic negotiated a deal to bring Pierre van Hooijdonk from NAC Breda to Glasgow, Fergus McCann was in a typically forthright mood when speaking to Kevin McCarra for the Sunday Tribune on 8 January 1995:

“There is no such thing as a surefire, goalscoring sensation when he’s surrounded by 10 people, who lack either confidence or ability. You can’t parachute a star in there. If you put in Jürgen Klinsmann and then lost six games he wouldn’t be mentioned. No one talks about O’Donnell now. It didn’t last long did it? That is the mentality. Whatever you spend last week is forgotten.”

Burns had scouted the prolific van Hooijdonk the previous month, but it looked as though Feyenoord were about to hijack the deal. Celtic had other options and were about to turn their attentions to another Dutchman in Peter van Vossen, as the Celtic manager explained, “We had a list of about 12 players we were interested in and we’ve whittled that down to three or four. But we want to make sure and watch them again. I won’t be rushed because I’ve got to get it right.”


Winning the race

Tommy Burns finally won the race for van Hooijdonk, beating Feyenoord, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea, Southampton, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke to the 25-year-old’s signature. The 6’5″ striker cost £1.5m, with £300,000 of that outlay going straight to the player.

It was a watershed moment for Celtic in the transfer market. Prior to Pierre, Celtic had signed just half-a-dozen overseas players in 30 years, but that trend was about to change dramatically.

Commenting on Pierre’s capture, Tommy Burns told The Scotsman on 11 January 1995: “The way the modern game is, a manager must have options. Until now, we have had lightweight forwards who have restricted the team. Opposing sides know that we need to play the ball into the feet of these lightweights and Celtic have become too stereotyped. If it is not possible to play through teams, the next best thing is to go over the top of them. That is where Pierre comes in handy.

“The money paid for Andy Cole (who had just left Newcastle for Manchester United in a British record £7m deal) would need to buy Celtic three players. Pierre represents good value for money. If nothing else, he will give us a threat that has been missing at set-pieces and hold the ball up at other times until he brings other players into the game.”

Pierre himself was full of confidence when speaking to Aberdeen Press and Journal on 9 January 1995: “I have the physique for Scotland. I will be nervous before the game against Hearts because I am moving from a small club in the Netherlands to one of the biggest names in Europe.

“I’ve joined one of the best clubs in the world. When I was a kid back in Holland, Celtic rated as one of the top names in Europe alongside greats such as Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax and Manchester United. I will be taking the opportunity to telephone other Dutch players who have been successful here to ask their advice, but I’m sure I can play my part in bringing success back to Celtic.

“This is my biggest break in football, because the other clubs I have played for are not as prestigious as Celtic. I had a chance to go to Feyenoord as part of a swap deal but Breda were more interested in gettinhg the money for me.  I watched the last 10 minutes of the weekend match against Dundee United and, although it is too early to give my impression of the side, I know I can score goals for them.”

The big Dutchman was true to his word and helped to bring success back to Celtic just four months later when he rose to head a pin-point Tosh McKinlay cross into John Martin’s net to win the Scottish Cup for Celtic. The win against Airdrie was Celtic’s first trophy success in six years.

The following season, Pierre became the first Celt to score 30 goals in a campaign since Andy Walker achieved the feat in the double-winning centenary year.

Many more dramas involving Pierre were to follow (look out for further articles covering these flashpoints in the coming weeks) but there is no doubt that the signing of van Hooijdonk changed the way Celtic operated in the transfer market. We began to expand our scouting footprint into other territories, with both Tommy Burns and Davie Hay deserving of huge credit for being the trailblazers in that respect.

Pierre would soon be joined at Celtic Park by Andreas Thom, Jorge Cadete and Paolo Di Canio, but more of that later…

Paul John Dykes

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