Rated as the “best centre half in Ireland”, Newtonards born William Burns made his name with Glentoran while still in his teens. In his first season with the Glens he appeared in the 1923 Irish Cup Final, a 2-0 defeat by Linfield. Two years later he appeared in another Irish Cup Final, suffering a 2-1 reverse at the hands of Distillery. The season did bring success in the form of an Irish League title as well as Co. Antrim Shield and Charity Cup Final wins over Belfast Celtic.
In the autumn of 1924 Burns was twice honoured at representative level. On 24th September he appeared in an Ireland side selected solely from the Irish League against South Africa. In what was their first full international the Africans won 2-1. On 11th October he then appeared for the Irish League in a 5-0 defeat by the Football League at Solitude.
A strong defender, excellent in the air and on the ground, Burns was also a ready goalscorer from the back. In December 1925 he moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers, but in a two month stay at Molineux made a single appearance against Blackpool the same month, before moving to America as many players did at the time. He played briefly with Philadelphia Celtic, so named after they signed several Irish players, and J&P Coats in the American Soccer League.
On his return from the US Burns joined Shelbourne before re-joining Wolves in 1928. His second spell at Molineux was only slightly more noteworthy than his first – he appeared three times. He returned to Ards for season 1928-29, making the centre-half position his own and featuring in the Gold Cup Final which Ards lost 3-1 to Linfield. In June 1929 he joined Workington but failed to settle in Cumbria so returned to Ireland in September 1929 to re-join Ards for a further two seasons, scoring a useful 6 goals each season.
In 1931-32 Burns returned to Glentoran for one un-eventful campaign, moving into junior football with Ards United for the following season. In August 1933 he returned to Ards as an Amateur, his good form earned him a professional contract in October 1933 and he completed two further reliable seasons with Ards before retiring from senior football. Still producing important goals, he helped Ards into the Final of the County Antrim Shield in April 1934 with goals in the 2-2 and 4-2 matches with Belfast Celtic 2nds in the semi-final, only to go down 7-1 to Linfield in the Final. As “Tosher” was playing at inside-right in this match, it must be concluded that he was missed at centre-half! Burns’ career total of of 60 goals was a remarkable total for a defender. His best was a hat-trick in the 4-0 defeat of Glenavon in a League match in September 1933. Later in the ’30s he coached briefly in Washington.