Big Interview: The ambition driving Hearts teenager Bobby Burns

Bobby Burns, right, was attracting the interest of several clubs before he opted to join Hearts
Bobby Burns, right, was attracting the interest of several clubs before he opted to join Hearts
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The streets of County Armagh aren’t short on Bobby Burns narratives. Driven, enthusiastic, intelligent and courteous are just some of the descriptions of Hearts’ newest teenager.

At Mourneview Park in Lurgan, home to Glenavon, Burns is a cherished commodity. Not only is he a prodigious footballer wanted by Leeds United and scouted by 15 different British clubs, but he is an exemplary academic who could gain entry into any university on earth. He is also a damn good babysitter, apparently.

It seems there is nothing the midfielder cannot excel at. Playing Gaelic football in Belfast toughened him up and he first appeared in Glenavon’s first team aged 14. Now 18, he takes the step up from Northern Ireland’s part-time Premiership to its full-time Scottish counterpart.

Those back home know he is ready. “Out of all the kids I’ve worked with in 20-odd years in football, he’s probably the best professional I’ve ever come across. He doesn’t know the meaning of failure,” says Gary Hamilton, Glenavon’s player-manager. “He wants to be the best at everything, whether that’s schoolwork or football. If you ask me if any kid is going to make it across the water, I would put my house on Bobby being the one. That’s because of his drive to be the best.”

That ambition would often see Burns verbally annihilated by Northern Ireland Under-17 team-mates for taking schoolbooks with him on trips. He didn’t care.

Head boy at St Malachy’s College, he laid bare his plans upon leaving last month: “These A Levels will stand by me. If you get a ‘B’ rather than an ‘A’, that could come back to haunt you in later life and you mightn’t be able to do the degree that you want. That’s why I want to do really well in my A levels.”

Football was always the route he wanted to pursue, but Burns refused to compromise on the back-up plan.

“I played him in a Mid-Ulster Cup game and we were 4-0 up at half-time,” recalls Hamilton. “I took him off five minutes into the second half and he asked if he could go and do his homework. He said: ‘I brought my schoolbag with me.’ Sure enough, at full-time Bobby was lying up on the benches doing his work when all the other lads came in and started slaughtering him. He didn’t care a jot.”

Idle time is wasted time in Burns’ eyes. Even childminding is no trouble.

“My babysitter was away and we were going to a concert,” says Hamilton. “I wasn’t sure about asking any of the players to mind my kids, but I asked Bobby. He said he wasn’t doing anything except studying. So he arrives with sweets for the kids and carrying his schoolbag. I phoned him from the concert and he’s got the kids playing games. He was just brilliant.

“I got home that night and tried to give him £50. He goes: ‘No. I’m not taking any money off you after the opportunities you’ve given me.’ I said: ‘You’re taking £50 or I’m not playing you next Saturday.’ He had to be the best babysitter in the world as well.”

As a footballer, he has characteristics Hearts fans will enjoy during his three-year contract. Ambition is one of the biggest. Burns asked for a loan move at the age of 16 after finding Glenavon Under-20s too easy. He went to Knockbreda as a left-back and scored nine times in 12 games. He returned to Glenavon as an attacking midfielder who was catching others’ eyes.

“I attended games throughout the season with at least six club scouts from England and Scotland who all liked him,” says agent Stevie Whelan. “There was very strong interest from Hibs who were keen to get something done but it just wasn’t to be.”

Hearts beat more than their Edinburgh rivals to the midfielder’s signature. “Leeds were in for him and wanted to put an offer in,” reveals Hamilton. “Bobby went over to Hearts, liked what he saw and made his decision. There would have been a lot more offers than Leeds if it had gone on any longer because there were 15 clubs over watching him last year – from the English Premier League right down to League Two.”

A phonecall by Hamilton to Northern Ireland Under-21 coach Ian Baraclough – the ex- Motherwell manager – paved the way for Burns’ move to Hearts. The player had worked with former Tynecastle coach Stephen Frail as an under-19 internationalist and needed to step up.

“I remember phoning Ian to suggest having a look at Bobby. Within four months, he was in the Under-21 squad. That’s how the Hearts move came about. He went up to train with the full Northern Ireland squad and the Hearts assistant manager [Austin MacPhee] saw that effort and application in him. Nobody can believe how driven he is. He played every game for us last season, except one because he was injured.”

Burns combined first-team football, studying and gym work to earn his move. He joins Hearts’ first-team squad for pre-season training in nine days’ time. “The players at Hearts will love him because he’s the type you want in your team,” says Hamilton.

“He has played left-back, left wing, centre midfield and centre-forward for me. He will need to find a settled position at Hearts, which will probably be on the left of centre midfield. He’s the type of kid you could throw in goal and he’d still do a job. He’s one of a kind.

“He has so much attitude, desire and hunger. That’s not saying he isn’t technically a good player. He got assists and goals for us last year but the main part of his game is his desire to win the ball back and make stuff happen. The tackles he makes are scary for his size. His aggression in the air and heading ability is scary, too.

“If you speak to him, you think you’re talking to someone in their late 20s. His IQ level is so high. When he was speaking to Hearts, the first thing he did was start looking at university courses to do there in his spare time. He doesn’t sit about.

“Other kids get bored. They’ll go for a drink or go to a nightclub. Bobby will never, ever be one of those kids. He’s teetotal. He will make any sacrifice to reach the next level.

“Hearts seems the right environment for him to prosper. He had an opportunity to join Bristol City at 16 but he turned it down to stay here, do A Levels and play for Glenavon.

“He asked my advice on Hearts and I think he made the right decision. In England, he could get stuck in the under-18s or under-21s. Now he’s joining a first-team squad. It’s up to him to lay down a mark in pre-season. Knowing Bobby, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was in the Hearts team come the first game of the season.”