TOSH McKINLAY still can’t quite believe it.

He has heard the words uttered many times down the years but every time they are said he still struggles to comprehend the fact that Tommy Burns ‘nearly men’ class of 1995/96 are mentioned in the same breath as Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions.

Stein’s side swashbuckled their way to European football’s greatest club prize in 1967 as they carved a swathe through opponents both at home and abroad.

Three decades later Burns side enthralled the Celtic supporters and had them in raptures once again as the Hoops lost one solitary game in the whole campaign and somehow lost the Scottish Premier League title to Rangers by an agonising four points.

Draws were Celtic’s achilles heel that particular season as well as Kilmarnock’s unerring ability to plunder points from Burns men.

McKinlay insists that the Hoops faithful swear to this day that Burns team provided footballing entertainment not witnessed in the amphitheatre that is Celtic Park since Stein’s side in their pomp and ceremony.

Burns' team was full of zest and vigour.

They were actively encouraged to play one way – the Celtic way – with an emphasis on all-out attack.

Burns side may have won nothing in season 1995/96 but they had captured the hearts and minds of the Celtic faithful.

McKinlay stood gobsmacked as Burns' Celtic side were lauded with a memorable standing ovation in their final match of the season - a 4-1 league win over Raith Rovers - which will live long in the former Scotland defender’s memory.

Celtic Way:

McKinlay recalled: “Tommy Burns Celtic team of 1995/96 is still revered and loved by the supporters to this day.

“I still get Celtic fans coming up to me and saying Tommy Burns team was the best football they have witnessed at Celtic Park since the Lisbon Lions. That is an astonishing compliment when you think about it.

“The Celtic supporters just loved seeing that swashbuckling, attack, attack, attack approach. If football can be defined as the Celtic Way then Tommy's team were the epitome of it.

“You want to be remembered for winning and being successful but the real beauty about that Celtic team is that nobody seems to care that the 1995/96 side won nothing. I was always fascinated by that. Historically any Celtic team that finished second to Rangers were branded as failures – not the class of 1995/96.

“I will always remember the Celtic supporters to a man, woman and child giving the team an emotional standing ovation after the final game of that season when we beat Raith Rovers 4-1 at Parkhead. They were in raptures and yet this Celtic team had won nothing.

“We had regained our pride in the eyes of the supporters and under Tommy Burns we did it playing attacking football - the Celtic Way. The fans appreciated that more than anything and they knew we had given it our all and just come up short.

“There are not many leagues in Europe or the world where you could pick a team from any season who have lost one league game in the whole campaign and who still did not win the title. We were brilliant on their day but we drew too many games – 11 in total – that season.

“We just couldn’t get over the line on many occasions and I remember one day when Allan Johnson was scoring a hat-trick in a 3-0 win for Hearts at Ibrox in January and we were drawing 0-0 with Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.

“Kilmarnock were a bit of a bogey team for Celtic back then and somehow we just couldn’t seem to get the better of them. It was 1-1 at Celtic Park and 0-0 at Rugby Park. Those kind of results did for us in the end in terms of the title race.

“I remember we were 2-0 down to Kilmarnock at Celtic Park and we came back to beat them 4-2 and there was a spell in that game where the opposition did not touch the ball for 10 minutes…I swear to you.

“Back then it wasn’t uncommon for Celtic to finish fourth and fifth in the table which was unbelievable when you think about it

“Celtic were back competing with Rangers and that was the main thing for the supporters and they all felt leaving the stadium that day that it was only a matter of time before we’d be on top of the pile once again.

“The foundations that were laid by Tommy Burns were the blueprint for every modern-day Celtic side since in their quest for continuing success.”

Celtic Way:

The Three Amigos

Burns' philosophy manifested itself in the three-pronged strikeforce which contained a trio of stars who would affectionately become known as ‘The Three Amigos’ – Paolo di Canio, Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete.

It didn’t matter that Burns had thrown together a fiery Italian, a deadly Dutchman and a clinical Portuguese hitman.

They all seemed to speak the same language on a football field and they were determined to end Rangers bid for an eighth successive title as well as their stranglehold on Scottish Football.

McKinlay admits that it was a real pleasure to take the field alongside some of the best attacking players to ever grace the Scottish game.

He is convinced that had Celtic won the title under Burns the trio would have been persuaded to stay on for one more campaign as well as a crack at the Champions League.

It ended in acrimony for Celtic and Burns in the summer of 1996 as ‘The Three Amigos’ all cited contractual differences and demanded bumper new deals.

Hoops owner Fergus McCann refused to bow to player pressure or budge on the financial details of the triumvirate’s original deals and all three headed for the exit door.

The current Celtic scout reckons it is a massive case of what if for the club and their supporters.

And those three could even have been joined by French attacker David Ginola who was on the verge of signing but opted for Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United after a last-minute change of heart.

McKinlay said: “What a pleasure it was to play alongside players of that calibre. Celtic had a wonderful scouting system back then and David Hay and Andy Ritchie recommended all sorts of top drawer players to the club.

“Paolo di Canio was eccentric. He was the definition of a loose cannon and completely nuts but a supremely talented and gifted player. Only he could pull off wearing white boots at training and then dare to wear a pair of golden boots for a match.

“The intensity at Celtic training back then was something else as Tommy Burns demanded that and Di Canio loved that especially. He was a fantastic trainer.

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“Tommy had gone to Ajax to study their training methods and techniques and he brought them all back to Scotland with him. Training at Celtic Park in those days was a joy but it was also a high-octane affair with no quarter asked or given and Di Canio was always at the root of any disputes or arguments that happened as he was just such a passionate and volatile character but he loved football and he loved the club. A big part of his love came from Tommy.

"Pierre Van Hooijdonk was an amazing striker for Celtic and it seemed that every cross I put into the box he would head it into the net.

“Jorge Cadete was absolutely sensational and one of the best finishers I have ever seen. He was a wonderful player and as we all now know his registration was held up by Jim Farry at the SFA and he missed crucial league games where he could have been the difference. There was real disappointment at things off the park which were outwith our control.

“Cadete was on fire from the moment he made his debut for Celtic and scored that memorable goal in the 5-0 hammering of Aberdeen. There is a story that BBC Radio 5 Live’s microphones went down such was the roar that greeted his goal that night at Celtic Park. I’ve never heard noise like it. It was incredible.

“Cadete scored 38 goals in 47 appearances for Celtic which are phenomenal stats for any player. He was absolutely immense.

“It wasn’t just the fact that the Three Amigos were brought in by Celtic back then.

“The club were linked with a whole host of top drawer names.

“The one that most definitely got away was David Ginola who had agreed to join Celtic but then changed his mind and opted to sign for Newcastle United in the English Premier League. Ginola was a fantastic winger and wonderful player for PSG.

“The Celtic fans knew what he was all about as the French side had knocked the Hoops out of the European Cup-Winners Cup earlier that season with a scintillating display at Celtic Park when they were outstanding. Celtic came really close to signing him.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I think that Celtic team with the Three Amigos would probably have stayed together for another season had Tommy Burns side won that title.

“They would have loved a crack at the Champions League that’s for sure. Celtic were a stepping stone for them and that’s fair enough but they loved their time at the club. The three players in question then had their much-publicised problems with their respective contracts.

“Fergus McCann ran a tight ship at Celtic back then and once you had signed a deal that was it. Once that ink was dry on the paper it was non-negotiable irrespective if you have over-performed. You had committed your signature to that contract and as far as Fergus was concerned that was the matter closed.

“There is a school of thought that leads me to believe that they would have stayed had we won the league but they were always going to be the subject of interest from bigger and better clubs and they all left for pastures new in the summer.”


Celtic Way:

Winning the Scottish Cup in 1995

Two events stand out in McKinlay’s five-year playing career with Celtic.

Winning the Scottish Cup in 1995 which ended a six-year barren spell and being a part of Wim Jansen’s Celtic squad that shattered Rangers 10-in-a-row bid in season 1997/98.

And he will always be grateful to Tommy Burns for allowing him to fulfil his childhood dream of playing for Celtic and wearing his beloved Hoops.

McKinlay said: “The first season I played for the team we won the Scottish Cup against Airdrie in 1995. It was a terrible game but it didn’t matter as Celtic just had to show that they could be winners again.

“There was a lot of pressure on Celtic that day to win the Scottish Cup as we had not won a trophy for six years. That’s a long time in Celtic’s history not to claim any silverware at all.

“Everybody pointed out that we had lost the Coca-Cola cup final to Raith Rovers just months before and that brought its own stresses and strains. The supporters Celtic demanded that we were victorious against Airdrie this time. It wasn’t as cut and dried as that though.

"I crossed the ball in for Pierre Van Hooijdonk to head the only goal of the game and it was a great feeling to do that and to go on and lift the cup.

“Tommy Burns offered me the chance to live my dream. There is no better feeling than getting the opportunity to turn out for your boyhood heroes and the team that you supported as a boy. I like to think I did my best whenever I pulled on that Celtic jersey.”

Celtic Way:

Shattering 10-in-a-row

Having been frozen out of the first-team picture by Dutch boss Wim Jansen who favoured Stephane Mahe in the left-back position in 1997/98, McKinlay’s role in Celtic’s squad was reduced to bit-part player when they finally ended Rangers quest for the 10.

However, the former Dundee and Hearts star played a pivotal role cajoling and exhorting his teammates to give every ounce of effort for the Celtic cause in that particular season in order to preserve Jock Stein’s domestic record.

McKinlay revealed how he reassured Celtic midfielder Paul Lambert that the league championship flag was Paradise bound after the Hoops 2-0 triumph over their arch-rivals Rangers in the New Year derby at Celtic Park.

It’s a story that Lambert always recounts to McKinlay whenever they meet up.

The 56-year-old said: “I didn’t feature a lot in the 1997/98 season that Celtic shattered Rangers bid for 10-in-a-row. I was in training every day and in and around that squad so it was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of it in some capacity.

“I like to think I was a great teammate to the foreign players like Marc Rieper, Harald Brattbakk and Henrik Larsson by letting them know exactly what it meant for Celtic to stop Rangers winning 10-in-a-row.

“That’s what I did on a day-to-day basis as Wim Jansen didn’t give me regular game time and he preferred Stephane Mahe instead and that was the managers call. I contributed in other ways that season even though I wasn’t playing.

“My abiding memory of that season is the 2-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park in the New Year. Craig Burley and Paul Lambert scored the goals. Lambert’s was an absolute screamer from outside the box.

“That win was pivotal to the destination of the league flag as it showed Celtic were right up for the title run-in. Lambert takes great delight in reminding me that I told him I was convinced that Celtic would go on and win the league after that victory as traditionally the team that triumphed in the New Year fixture usually won the championship. Paul was an inspirational figure for Celtic back then and he remembers the surge of belief that win gave the players.

"It was a wonderful feeling to see that Celtic team under Wim Jansen win the title. I had been at the club during the lean years and I had been really unlucky in the 1995/96 season under Tommy. It was just special for Celtic to preserve their nine-in-a-row record.

“Harald Brattbakk didn’t know back then what all the fuss was about – he certainly knows now! He will probably never fully comprehend the enormity of that achievement and scoring the goal that ended a decade of hurt.

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“I disappeared and shot up the tunnel at the final whistle and the first person I spotted was Peter Grant in the foyer at Celtic Park. He was blubbing and in floods of tears. This is what that title win meant to every Celtic supporter.

“My mind flashed back to when my father and grandfather both took me to Celtic Park as a youngster. We used to stand in the old Celtic End and when you came through the old-fashioned turnstile you didn’t actually see the park as you had to climb up a wee hill and then ascend some stairs before the stadium and the pitch in all its glory came into view.

“I think my first season watching Celtic properly was in 1971.

“I even remember asking my dad when the teams were read out what the Celtic players real names were. They were like film stars to me and the green grass was their silver screen.

“I graduated from being a youngster watching Celtic as a supporter with my dad and granddad to playing for Celtic boys club to finally signing for the club I have supported all my life. I won the Scottish Cup with Celtic in 1995 and I was in the Hoops squad that halted Rangers dreams of winning 10-in-a-row.

“As a born and bred dyed in the wool Celtic supporter how can you not be proud of being a part of something like that? They are precious memories and wonderful achievements.

“They will never leave me and nobody can ever take them away.”