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'I'll never be bitter, I lived a dream with Nottingham Forest and another one in music'

John Burns arrived at the City Ground in 1994 but just over 10 years later he was out of football and supporting Status Quo with The Establishment.

John Burns in action for Nottingham Forest.
John Burns in action for Nottingham Forest.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE DOORMEN ARE Stuart Pearce and Des Walker.

Les Ferdinand is pulling pints behind the bar.

Teddy Sheringham is at the end of it getting castigated by his girlfriend for giving the eye to another woman.

And then Peter Barlow from Coronation Street walks into a tree having also had his head turned.

As music videos go, the song ‘Jennifer Jones’ from the band The Establishment, is certainly unique.

There is another face throughout that flashes into view, playing guitar and then giving a thumbs up into the camera for the final shot.

Even the most ardent of Nottingham Forest fans would be doing well to recognise the man in question.

Yet John Burns is the one who made it all possible.

This is a Dubliner who lived two dreams as a footballer and musician.

He never reached the absolute heights possible in either, yet did enough to be able to look back now with pride and fondness. Approaching his 45th birthday and now running his own business as a mortgage advisor, Burns is settled with his wife Hayley and their five-year-old son Rory in Nottingham.

john-burns-republic-of-ireland-under-17-1994 John Burns with Ireland U17s in 1994. Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

“No he’s not named after Rory Gallagher. Everyone asks me that, but he loves his music already so if he turns out half as good I’ll be happy,” Burns smiles.

Nottingham is the city he left home for in late 1994 just before he turned 16. The turn table in the bedroom he shared with his late brother Tommy had to stay put, but the sounds of Dire Straits, Neil Young, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hothouse Flowers and Ocean Colour Scene came with him.

They remained somewhat dormant while he chased the promised land of professional football, but eventually it would roar back into life.

“Many a night I’d fall asleep listening to vinyl on that turntable,” he recalls.

A gifted midfielder with Belvedere, Burns arrived at the City Ground at a time when Forest had just finished third in the Premier League.

Today they make their return to the top flight for the first time in 23 years, facing Newcastle United at St James’ Park.

Burns witnessed first-hand the beginning of the long descent into the wilderness for the two-time European champions.

He was there under five managers in his five years after Brian Clough departed – Frank Clarke, Stuart Pearce, Dave Bassett, Mickey Adams (caretaker), Ron Atkinson and David Platt.

“There are millions and millions of stories like mine in football, so there is absolutely no bitterness,” he says.

And you believe him, because his positivity and humour is obvious.

john-burns-republic-of-ireland-under-17-1994 Burns in action for Ireland U17s in 1994. Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

“I’ve met loads like that who hold a grudge but I always ask them why are they like that? It was the experience of a life time, I left home to follow my dreams and I had 10 years in the game. I went semi-pro after that and made mates for life.

“I had some great years and thank my lucky stars for the experiences.”

When you think of British cities with a heavy Irish influence Nottingham is not near the top of the list.

Yet in the 1990s and early 2000s the football club had its own Irish enclave.

Burns was six years older than Andy Reid, the most famous of the academy graduates who has also remained in the city. Last night his promotion to the Nottingham Forest first-team coaching staff was confirmed.

There were other Irish figures. Keith Foy, Barry Roche, John Thompson, Liam Kearney, Emmet Peyton, Damian Lynch, Niall Hudson, Brian Cash, Paul Fenton, Anthony Shevlin and David Freeman all had their start there.

The latter also lives around the corner and they watched the play-off final together as Forest returned to the big-time, while 18 months ago there was a larger reunion among several of the old heads.

The talk is as much about music as football.

“With me and Andy a guitar is never far away,” Burns laughs. “We can both hold our own, I wouldn’t like to say who’s better.”

Nottingham was a place where they got more than a grounding in football, with the club’s former education officer, Jim King, acting as the catalyst for the pair’s start with the guitar.

niall-hudson-andy-reid-keith-foy-and-john-thompson-5400 From left: Some of Forest's Ireland contingent, Niall Hudson, Andy Reid, Keith Foy and John Thompson. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He loved it, we would go around to his house and have a few jams together, they are such great memories for us.”

The city’s Irish Centre every Monday night was another.

“I’d collect Andy from his digs and we’d be looking forward to it all throughout the week. That’s where I learned the bodhrán, learned to play traditional Irish music and would meet different people, different musicians.”

Despite the managerial upheaval Burns’ progress was steady.

When Pearce became manager he made sure a new contract offer was forthcoming, something he arranged over the phone with Burns’ late father – also named Tommy.

I remember having to ring ahead to let my Dad know that he would be calling because if I didn’t and someone rang the house saying they were Stuart Pearce, my Dad would be like ‘Yeah, and I’m Saint John Paul.”

Ireland U20s’ historic bronze medal at the 1997 World Youth Championships was another bittersweet moment for Burns. He started the first two games but, five minutes before the end of the second against USA, he was forced off with a foot injury.

He was chosen by Brian Kerr as vice-captain to Thomas Morgan but was ruled out of the remainder of the tournament.

The Malaysian Marvel who many might not remember.

“But I just felt so lucky to be there and a part of that group because it was special, we would do anything and I played my part in us qualifying to be there so I know I did my bit.”

Returning to Forest with another injury and greeted by another new manager – Bassett – stalled his progress.

It was only after relegation from the Premier League in 1999 under Atkinson that Burns got his chance to be part of the rebuild which Platt was charged with kickstarting in the old First Division.

He impressed on a pre-season trip at home in Ireland and then played a handful of games early in the campaign before a punctured calf set him back.

And yet that small window of opportunity is what helped open up those avenues after football.

soccer-nationwide-league-division-one-nottingham-forest-v-stockport-county Former Forest boss David Platt. Source: EMPICS Sport

The first person to interview him after his man-of-the-match performance on his debut over Walsall was local reporter Darren Fletcher. Now BT Sports’ main commentator for Premier League and Champions League football, the broadcaster would help Burns’ band come under the management of Dion Dublin (yes, the very one).

But this was still a chapter of his life far from being written, and a few hours after that first interview with Fletcher, Burns was partying the night away in a city-centre nightclub with on-loan striker Ian Wright.

Bristol City were one of the opponents Burns did face during his brief time in the side and when he eventually returned to fitness a few months later, their manager had made sure to make a note of his name.

“It was Tony Pulis,” he remembers. “They offered me a great deal for five years and I couldn’t say no. David Platt was absolutely brilliant with me. He was honest, all you want in football is to get your chance and he was the one who gave me mine.

And when we had the talk about leaving he told me the story of being in the same position at Aston Villa when he was young and Graham Taylor told him he could leave.

“I used that as motivation and was ready to use Bristol as a place to play and kick on again. But it didn’t work like that.”

Pulis was sacked three months later, his successor Danny Wilson left little to be desired and, after a loan spell with Shelbourne, Burns signed for Carlisle United and then Burton Albion.

By 2002, aged just 25, he was playing semi-professional and started on his qualifications to become a mortgage advisor.

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Life went on and Forest continued to slide.

He did coaching badges and spent a couple of years working at Notts County while also exploring music more.

Football, and coaching, was no longer the passion he wanted to pursue.

And then his old life helped shape the new.

When he walked into a guitar shop in the city he was recognised behind the counter.

There was an open invitation to get together and play for fun. “A bit of a jam,” Burns says, like someone capable of pulling off that sentence.

Little by little it grew legs.

A singer. A bassist. Another guitarist.

“It was like our Commitments,” he laughs.

So, just for a second, think of Dion Dublin as Jimmy Rabbitte.

In 2006 The Establishment was formed.

soccer-worthington-cup-second-round-first-leg-nottingham-forest-v-bristol-city Burns in action for Forest against Bristol City. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I sent a demo to Darren Fletcher and he said he knew just the man who would be interested. It was Dion.”

The graft continued with gigs around the country and then things took an even more unbelievable twist for Burns, as Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Craddock got involved as the co-producer on the album ‘Veritas’, which was released in 2013, seven years after getting together.

“They say never meet your heroes but he was a genius and phenomenal with us.”

The video for the song Jennifer Jones is when Burns was able to pull some strings. “Big Des Walker loves his music too and he would often come and have a jam with us on a Sunday afternoon.

“Obviously Stuart Pearce too and then Teddy and Les got involved. We’d met Peter Barlow from Coronation Street along the way and he even offered to be in it for us.”

It was full steam ahead with festivals like Leeds and Electric Picnic, even an unofficial World Cup song for England fans in 2014 which was co-written by Burns.

“Ah yeah, I try and keep my distance from that one,” he laughs. “It was Dion’s thing and ye know, sometimes you just have to take one for the team. These are the things you have to do unfortunately.”

Tour dates as support for Status Quo did at least offer another glimpse of what could be ahead.

“It’s like football, so hard to break through. You’re up and down, you think you’ve cracked it and then ‘bang’, you’re back down again. But we’re all extremely proud of what we are able to look back on together.”

There will be reflections of a different kind this weekend, though. And not just because Forest return to the Premier League after almost a quarter of a century.

soccer-friendly-scunthorpe-united-v-nottingham-forest John Burns. Source: EMPICS Sport

Burns has been away from Dublin for longer than that again but last night he sat in the Graduate Pub in Killiney with his mother, June, sipping a pint of Guinness.

He’s home for the annual Par 3 tournament in honour of his late father and brother. Friends and family will tee off this morning at Glen Mill and then spend the rest of the day together telling stories and remembering old times.

Forest will be on Match of the Day that night and there might just be a few songs.

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