The name Tommy Burns always remembered in Celtic history

The name Tommy Burns will always be remembered in Celtic history. But he wasn’t the first Thomas Burns to play for the club…

An earlier namesake lived a very unlucky life and met a very sad ending, one that tells a wider story of how violent football could be in its early days. In the 1880s and early-1890s, one name occasionally crops up in goal for Celtic: ‘Burns’. There seemed to be no information about him – although he did play for the Celts in at least one competitive match.

Many of the usual sources about Celtic player history did not give any details about ‘Burns’. However my research suggests that his name was Thomas Burns, nicknamed ‘Reddy’. He was born in Glasgow in the mid-1860s, either in 1865 or 1866. We’ve no photos of Thomas so we will simply use some addition pics of TB to illustrate this article.

He was mainly a Celtic reserve goalkeeper, definitely playing in 1889 and 1890. However Burns also made some first team appearances, in friendlies and also the semi-final of the 1890 Glasgow North Eastern Cup. This saw him keep a clean sheet as Celtic beat Thistle 5-0.

May 1989: Photo imago/Colorsport Celtic – Pat Bonner, Peter Grant, Mark McGhee und Tommy Burns

This tournament was the first one ever won by Celtic. Playing in their first season (1888-89), the Bhoys claimed the cup in May 1889, beating Cowlairs 6-1. Celtic retained the cup the following season too, with Burns playing his own small part in this achievement.

As well as playing for the Bhoys, he turned out for other local teams in Glasgow, including Linthouse. It is possible that he was the same T Burns (goalkeeper) who played for Partick Thistle too, although some evidence suggests there could have been two players with this name!

Photo imago/Colorsport Tommy Burns of Celtic Glasgow, and Sandy Jardine of Rangers

In the second half of 1892, he moved to the north-east of England. It was here Burns would find some controversy – and a tragic ending too. He lived in Blyth where he continued to work as a caulker in a shipyard, as well as playing for the local football team, Blyth.

Burns seems to have been well received by his new team. He was praised for different performances. The Scottish Referee said he was “showing rare form for his club” and the Newcastle Daily Chronicle described fans as being “much impressed with his worth.”

However he faced a problem early in his career. Burns played one match when ineligible – and Blyth were later deducted two points, something local ‘papers said would hugely harm their chances of winning the local league.

Tommy Burns Glasgow Celtic FC Manager 02 November 1994

As a coincidence, this was a fate that befell Celtic in this era too. In 1890-91 (the first Scottish League season), Celtic played James Bell before he was eligible. As a result, they were fined four points, and finished well off the top of the table.

Also, in one game, Burns suffered a very serious injury. In October 1892, playing against Shankhouse, the ‘keeper was injured by a heavy blow. However he finished the game, although one reporter later blamed him for conceding a late goal!

Afterwards, he returned to his team’s headquarters, the Oddfellows’ Arms Inn in Blyth. Shockingly, he collapsed as a result of the collision and was found to have three broken ribs. As a result of this, Burns was unable to work or play for several weeks, but did eventually return to the team and his job. However in January 1893, he again unexpectedly collapsed when at work. The cause was unknown, including whether it was connected to the football injury.

Tommy Burns Glasgow Celtic FC Manager 15 September 1996

He was ill for some weeks, often unable to have visitors. At other times, as a clear indication of his popularity, his teammates kept a vigil with him, taking turns to sit with him at nights. There had been hopes he was making a recovery, although it seemed clear he would never function the same way again. Instead, he sadly died in February 1893. The exact cause was unclear, although newspapers attributed this to a “brain fever.”

His funeral took place on 23 February 1893. Burns was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Cowpen in Blyth. 200 people attended, including the player’s father and brother along with his teammates and work colleagues. Indeed so significant was his burial that many local shops closed for the day too.

The possible connection between Burns’ on-field injury and his death is a reminder of the dangers once involved in football. Injury and even death was not unknown in games in this era.

One newspaper used to publish an annual ‘Butcher’s Bill’ detailing tragedies over the past year. This report suggested that in 1891-92 season alone, there had been 14 fatal and 111 non-fatal footballing accidents across Britain.

Examples include William Wallace, an Aberdeen player who died in November 1892 after a match injury. Also, in 1889, William Cropper died after colliding with Grimsby’s Dan Doyle, who later became a Celtic legend. And for the Bhoys, there is obviously another sad goalkeeping story, that of John Thomson.

Of course no-one is suggesting that the first Thomas Burns is a huge figure in Celtic history. However, like all Celts, he deserves a small remembrance, not least given what his story teaches us about football’s early dangers.

Matthew Marr

Follow Matthew on Twitter @hailhailhistory

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About Author

Matthew Marr first started going to see Celtic in the 1980s and has had a season ticket since 1992. His main Celtic interest is the club's history, especially the early years. In 2023, Matthew published his first Celtic book, telling the story of the Bhoys' first league title. He also runs Celtic history walking tours.


  1. Nice piece – though I think your cup final picture is from May 1989, when PB played – he didn’t play in 88.