Stephen Halliday: Oli McBurnie is a distraction Steve Clarke could do without
Striker’s 45-minute outing in Sheffield United friendly after withdrawing from Scotland duty raised eyebrows
If perception does indeed precede reality, then Oli McBurnie’s prospects of being accepted as the genuine article by the Tartan Army have just taken another dunt.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder’s decision to field his £20 million centre forward as a half-time substitute in Tuesday night’s pre-season friendly against Derby County, just two days after the player withdrew from international duty because of a foot injury, may well have been made with the approval of Scotland head coach Steve Clarke.
As Wilder and Clarke have both quite reasonably pointed out, turning out for 45 minutes in a bounce match for your club can’t be compared to the physical intensity required to play in a competitive match for your country.
But regardless of the rationale behind McBurnie’s recovery programme, it created a distraction Clarke and Scotland could certainly have done without ahead of Friday night’s Uefa Nations League opener against Israel at Hampden.
Had he been fully fit and available, the 24-year-old was more than likely to be named in the starting line-up after Clarke offered a robust defence of his credentials when the initial squad was announced last week.
There are no shortage of Scotland supporters who remain less than convinced about McBurnie who has yet to break his scoring duck at full international level after nine appearances.
Question marks were previously raised over his commitment to the cause in August last year when Sheffield United’s club TV channel showed footage from the tunnel before a League Cup tie against Blackburn in which McBurnie was heard to make apparently disparaging remarks about the Scotland set-up to his fellow squad member John Fleck.
McBurnie’s father Neil, through whose Glaswegian roots his Leeds-born son is eligible to play for Scotland, was quick to respond to the social media furore which inevitably ensued.
“No one should ever question his commitment to the national team,” said McBurnie senior. “It means the world to him. He’s never pulled out of any squad, from youth level up to the first team.
“And he couldn’t even comment on the current regime as he hasn’t worked with Steve Clarke yet. Playing for Scotland means everything to Oli and, as his dad, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Clarke, too, wasted little time in trying to draw a line under the issue when McBurnie reported for duty the following month for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Russia and Belgium.
“It was completely clarified within the group,” said Clarke at the time. “I did it in public, as it were, so everyone could hear the clarification. I could have just spoken to Oli inside, no problem, but it was better to do it outside on the training pitch. Clarified and clear – we have moved on and urge everyone else to move from it. It’s finished.”
Unfortunately for both Clarke and McBurnie, this week’s events are now seeing those old coals being raked over.
As Clarke attempts to lead Scotland to a first major tournament finals since 1998, he has gone to considerable lengths to try and establish a squad ethos which, at its core, has unity of purpose and a shared desire to wear the dark blue jersey.
Having inherited an environment in which his predecessor Alex McLeish’s second spell as Scotland manager was dogged by an impression of being undermined by too many reluctant conscripts, Clarke has been admirably decisive on that front.
Players such as Steven Fletcher, James McArthur, Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass have all placed their club careers ahead of any willingness to either extend or resume their time in a Scotland jersey. Clarke’s approach has been to make it clear he is happy to do without them and won’t be making any efforts to tempt them back.
Clarke is clearly content that McBurnie’s attitude towards Scotland is very different and his opinion is the only one that matters in this instance.
It’s not difficult to understand why Clarke hopes McBurnie can still emerge as the man to successfully fill a position which has been problematic for Scotland for some time.
A prolific scorer at Championship level for Swansea City, McBurnie enjoyed an impressive first season in the Premier League following his move to Sheffield United. Buying into the work ethic and physicality which helped Wilder’s side to a pundit-confounding ninth place finish in the English top flight, McBurnie proved an effective focal point for his team and also scored some notable goals against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs.
McBurnie has been in the Scotland international system for six years now, since his first call-up for the under-19 side for which he made four appearances. He then earned 12 caps for the under-21s before his promotion to the senior squad, hardly an attendance record of a player lacking in any enthusiasm to represent Scotland.
“Dad’s been brought up to be Scottish, and my brother and I have been brought up to be Scottish too,” he said during one under-21 camp back in 2017.
“We’re as patriotic as it comes. We’ll be bursting out the national anthem when it comes on. I’m always so proud when I pull on the jersey, especially when you score and win.”
Perhaps his chance to score and win for Scotland will come around again next month in the crucial Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel. Until he does, McBurnie will just have to live with a perception of him which, however unfairly, has been reinforced in many minds this week.
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