James Shield: Sheffield United's relegation was a blow but now Oli McBurnie can get back to doing what he does best

The last time Sheffield United were at the Liberty Stadium, Oli McBurnie scored the only goal of the game.

By James Shield
Thursday, 12th August 2021, 5:00 pm

It was a clinical finish which befitted what had been an expertly crafted move: Nathan Dyer exchanged passes with Mike van der Hoorn before producing the cross, just beyond the hour mark, which his team mate slid home.

Two years later, as United prepare to face Swansea City in the Championship again on Saturday night, lots of things have changed. Dyer has retired. Van der Hoorn now plays for Arminia Bielefeld. McBurnie, having joined them seven months after condemning them to defeat, now represents the visitors.

Signed for around £20m soon after his new club had reached the Premier League, the Scotland international has endured a mixed time of things since moving to Bramall Lane.

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Oli McBurnie during Tuesday's EFL Cup win over Carlisle United: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

There have been flashes of the talent which persuaded United to write what, by their own standards, was a pretty hefty cheque. But more often than not, McBurnie has struggled for momentum after completing his move to South Yorkshire. His statistics at the end of last season - seven strikes in 65 appearances - reflect that.

It’s worth reflecting upon that match, in January 2019, ahead of this weekend’s fixture. Why? Because those who remember the role he performed for City - and how it differs from his one at United - will understand what McBurnie has sacrificed in order to try and help The Blades. Rather than being granted the freedom to run, roam and forage in search of strikes and space, McBurnie found himself being employed as a targetman by Slavisa Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder.

“If the people at Swansea could see how many balls I’ve headed,” he laughed during last summer’s training camp near Edinburgh, “I don’t think they’d believe it. They’d probably not stop laughing.”

Although the 53-year-old barely put a foot wrong during his time in charge of United - twice winning promotion and then to ninth in the top-flight before last term’s relegation - handing McBurnie the job of roughing-up opposition defenders was probably a misstep. Even though no one was admittedly saying that when, during the first of their last two top-flight campaigns, United were pushing for Europe.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

McBurnie tried to be a buttress. And at times he was. But he didn’t possess the physical attributes to be consistently effective and the job negated the things he is damn good at. The things which saw him find the back of the net 24 times in 47 outings during his final campaign in south Wales. It took more away from McBurnie than McBurnie could bring to the team.

Speaking ahead of his first competitive fixture at the helm of United, Jokanovic confessed to being excited by the possibilities the attack he inherited from Wilder have presented him with as he attempts to lead them back into the top-flight.

Lys Mousset, Billy Sharp, Oliver Burke, David McGoldrick and Rhian Brewster, a former Swansea loanee, can all be devastating at Championship level. The same goes for McBurnie too. Providing one of the possibilities Jokanovic is considering allows him to get back to doing what he does best - surging forward from deep and buzzing around the pitch rather than masquerading as a battering ram.