Oli McBurnie explains why one of his tattoos provides Sheffield United with a roadmap towards Premier League success
“I got it when I was a kid, it’s my favourite film so I thought why not go and do it,” Oli McBurnie smiles as he explains how a portrait of Tony Montana, the protagonist of Scarface, came to be etched onto his left forearm.
“There’s little parts of him I like, obviously not all of him with how the story ends. But I reckon there are some similarities between us and I can’t help but like parts of his outlook.”
Montana, a refugee turned drug smuggler and cold blooded murderer, might not be the most obvious choice of role model for a top-flight footballer. Or, in an era where the sport is becoming increasingly sanitised, a particularly desirable one for the PR gurus and corporate consultants who flinch whenever someone utters anything other than mundane blandishments. But then again McBurnie, the Sheffield United and Scotland centre-forward, has never been one to follow convention. With his untucked shirt, rolled down socks and bushy ginger beard, he looks more like a rock musician than high performance athlete at one of England’s elite level clubs.
Still, as he continues to tell the story behind his first major tattoo, it becomes apparent why McBurnie was so inspired by Brian De Palma’s gangster epic, he felt compelled to have its central character permanently carved into his skin.
“What really struck me about Montana, the thing that appealed to me about him, is that he saw what he wanted and he went out there and took it,” McBurnie, whose journey to Bramall Lane includes pit stops at places like Bradford City, Barnsley and Bristol Rovers, says. “I definitely reckon there’s something in that you’ve got to look up to. Okay, so the way he went about it wasn’t the best and there’s lots about him not to like. But he was determined to make a name for himself and become a success. Hopefully, if you know what I mean, that’s a trait I’ve got as well.”
McBurnie is sitting in a small stand at Oriam, a state of the art training centre on the outskirts of Edinburgh, as he talks through a career which, following a prolific spell at Swansea City, saw him briefly become the most expensive ever purchase in United’s history last summer. Chris Wilder’s side have been based at the site, which this weekend will play host to McBurnie’s international team mates ahead of their meetings with Israel and the Czech Republic, as they prepare for the new Premier League season. The 24-year-old impressed as United finished ninth last term, growing in confidence and stature as the campaign progressed. With Wilder demanding more goals from his attack, which could soon be boosted by the arrival of Rhian Brewster from Liverpool, McBurnie knows he needs to display the same ruthless streak as Montana in order to fulfil the manager’s wishes and help United build on their good work since being promoted from the Championship 16 months ago.
“As a striker, of course it’s my responsibility and yes, you do feel that,” McBurnie admits. “The defence was so good last year but it’s not just the lads at the back because a lot of the work we do up top as well is about defending from the front. But of course we need to score more than we did last time out.
“Yes, we did really well. Yes, we got a lot of plaudits. But it counts for nothing now because we start again on zero points. So we’ve got to have that mentality of wanting to go out there and do it all over again.”
Insisting he does not set personal targets - “I don’t look too far into the future, I prefer to take things match by match” - McBurnie’s tutorial about United’s psychology prompts another revealing insight; this time relating to the chemistry of a dressing room he believes is one of the “tightest” in the business.
“Everyone talks about the ‘keepers being a real unit to themselves,” McBurnie says, as a deadly serious expression creeps across his face. “Actually, I think it’s us, the forwards. We’re as close as anyone.
“We’ve all sat down together as a group, and talked about what we need to do in order to make us better. We know we’re not a team that creates millions of chances but there were moments when we should have done better.”
“A lot of that closeness is down to the manager,” McBurnie continues, highlighting Wilder’s preference for rotating his frontline. “We can do that because he brings the right characters in. We know he likes to change us about to suit the game and, if someone wasn’t on board with that, it could turn toxic. But it doesn’t because we all put the group first.”
Although United suffered a dip in form towards the end of last season - winning only three times in 11 outings when competition returned following the Covid-19 pandemic - McBurnie believes those victories over Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers confirms Wilder’s men are once again equipped to challenge in the upper reaches of the table. McBurnie scored his sixth goal for United against the visitors from Stamford Bridge.
“In the end, we felt we belonged in the division and in the top half of the division,” he says. “And I think feeling that way was important. We know we have to work hard but we also know we can hold our own and that we have nothing to be scared of, so long as we put a shift in.”