Seven months ago, Bobby Burns was a schoolboy playing part-time football with Glenavon. Now he is in Michael O’Neill’s senior Northern Ireland squad to face the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
The meteoric rise takes some getting used to. The catalysts driving it appear to be joining Hearts followed by a loan move to Livingston.
Burns left St Malachy’s College in May and headed to Scotland to sign a three-year contract at Tynecastle Park. After some initial first-team exposure, he was loaned along the M8 to West Lothian and produced a commanding midfield display in Sunday’s goalless draw with champions Celtic. Hours later, he was out enjoying a family meal with his parents when his phone rang.
“We went into Livingston Designer Outlet for some food after the game. Then next thing, I got a call from Michael O’Neill wanting to bring me into the squad,” Burns told the Evening News from Northern Ireland’s base outside Dublin. “I was really shocked but also really thrilled. I wasn’t sure if it was a prank call, right enough.
“Having my parents there when I got told I was in the full squad was just class. I suppose it’s something you always dream of as a boy. The next step would be to play. I’m not really expecting much game time but even just to get into the training will be great. It can only make me better.
“I wasn’t in the squad originally so he [O’Neill] must have watched the Celtic match and maybe it gave him the impetus. I didn’t really ask. I was just delighted getting the call. I’m not getting carried away because it’s only one call-up. You see lots of people who get called in but then never get called back again. I want to get the consistency to be picked regularly by keeping up my club form.”
Moving to Scotland from the Danske Bank Irish Premiership is a decision already justified in the teenager’s eyes. “Aye, definitely. I did have other options but I wanted to go somewhere where I would play football,” he explained. “I played 43 first-team games for Glenavon last season so I didn’t want to go somewhere and be stuck in a youth team. Joining Hearts was a challenge. I played a few League Cup games and, with all the signings they made, I ended up going on loan.
“It’s been a tough challenge but I always think if you take on a challenge then you learn. I’ve learned a lot from being at Livingston. We do a lot of triple training sessions and a lot of gym work, which has helped me get a lot stronger.
“A few months ago, I was playing part-time football and I hadn’t even played for the Under-21s. I made my Under-21 debut in March and it’s just snowballed since. I got that debut, signed for Hearts, went out loan, played against Rangers and Celtic, beat Spain with the 21s, so getting a full call-up was the icing on the cake.
“It’s a really proud moment. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Getting up for your breakfast beside Jonny Evans and Steve Davis is strange. I just want to make sure it can continue. It’s a proud moment for everybody in my family but you can’t stand still in football. You need to keep working hard at it.”
The constant drive for improvement within Burns is unshakeable. Although, amidst a momentous moment like being called up by your country, even the basics can elude you. “It was a mad rush on Sunday night after that phonecall. I nearly forgot my boots because I’d left them at Livingston,” he admitted.
“I had to drive back to the stadium and find somebody to open the boot room for me. Then I was on the first flight out of Edinburgh on Monday morning. I missed training here that morning but I met up with everybody in the afternoon. It’s good having Aaron Hughes and Michael Smith here from Hearts. I also know a few of the younger ones from the Under-21s.”
O’Neill’s assistant, Austin MacPhee, is another familiar face from Tynecastle. Hearts deserve credit for plucking this prodigious talent from Northern Ireland but Livingston’s ethos is also serving him well. Or toughening him up. Or both. “It’s a pretty hard school there. If you make a mistake, there’s nobody patting you on the back. It’s quite hard. It’s a good learning curve and it will stand me in good stead for the future. I think it will toughen me up a bit. You sink or swim, I suppose. I’m just about keeping my head above water.
“I haven’t had it easy at Livingston. The team was flying when I got there and I’ve had to wait for a chance. I’ve gone in on days off and it’s been tough not coming on in every game. When you play games like Sunday, it makes it all worth it. I feel coming in on my days off and doing extra runs has helped me play better.
“This international call-up might help me get a regular place at Livingston. That Celtic game was my first start. I’ve come on for ten and 20 minutes at times, so I thought I’d do some extra work myself to make up for not getting as much game time. I wanted to be as fit as I could be. We play Rangers next week so I want to nail down a place and get more game time before Christmas.”
There’s that strive for betterment again. For a 19-year-old from Belfast, does it really get any better than representing your country in the capital city of their rivals? Burns may find out tomorrow night at the Aviva Stadium.
“It will be unbelievable because it’s a huge rivalry here,” said Burns. “I have friends on both sides so it will be good craic. I don’t know if I’ll play. To be honest, I’d be quite surprised if I got on but I’m going to give it my best shot.
“I’ll try to show Michael and Austin that I’m good enough to play at this level. If I got to play in a game of this magnitude it would be absolutely incredible. It would just add to a list of great memories this year.”
The progress made in such a short time by this ‘Lionheart’ suggests there will be plenty more memories to come, both at club and international level.