Opinion: Why I've got sympathy for Sheffield United striker Oli McBurnie

Your initial reaction probably depended on how, where and when you were brought up as a youngster.

Friday, 14th May 2021, 12:19 pm

Whether or not values like treating people with respect, sticking up for yourself and taking responsibility for your actions were always stressed as being important. Or if you adhere to the ‘Reality TV’ school of behaviour. The one where folk are encouraged to tell others: ‘This is me, if you don’t like it, tough because I’ll do as I damn well please.’ Which is all fine and dandy until you consider what society would be like if everybody else thought the same way. Still, that’s probably a subject for another column in another section of this newspaper.

Without getting into the legalities arising from the incident - and although they’d never say so publicly, I’m sure some of the coppers working the case think they’ve got better things to do with their time - the reaction to video footage of Sheffield United’s Oli McBurnie being involved in an altercation with a group of young men near his home, footage which ‘helpfully’ founds its way onto social media before the striker was hauled off for questioning - got me thinking. About how some of us, particularly those folk who seem to believe flogging is too good for him, have got remarkably short memories. And, judging by some of the holier than thou comments I’ve read, fuses a hell of a lot longer than mine.

McBurnie, for anyone without access to Twitter or who has spent the past week on Planet Mars, was captured confronting some cocksure lads who were verbally abusing him in the street before appearing to knock a mobile telephone out of the ringleader’s hands.

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Sheffield United striker Oli McBurnie

Predictably, after learning he had been arrested and questioned at his local nick, plenty of people were queuing up to have their say. “Kick him out of the club,” was one of those I read, before a second video emerged providing a little more context. “He’s a disgrace,” said another, “Nothing but trouble...and footballers are supposed to be setting an example.”

I won’t sound off again about my thoughts on this viewpoint. Other than a quick reminder about the numerous times I’ve suggested it is the job of parents, families and foster carers to educate kids on what is right and what is wrong. McBurnie’s job is to play for United, and represent them in the best way possible off the pitch too.

Clearly, this film isn’t a good look. For either McBurnie or United, who will presumably remind him of his responsibilities. Having been caught out a couple of other times in the past, the Scotland international clearly needs to be careful and behave with a little more maturity away from Bramall Lane.

In an ideal world, whatever else did or didn’t happen, he would have walked away and tuned the other cheek. Presumably, both his employers and his loved ones have spoken to him about that.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Former manager Chris Wilder certainly did when McBurnie was captured winding-up Cardiff City supporters after travelling to cheer on his former club Swansea City in a recent South Wales derby.

“Yes, I’ve spoken to Oli,” Wilder said at the time, recognising human beings are fallible and don’t always do the most sensible things. “We received a letter from the FA about Oli’s future, which is right I believe.”

Privately, however, he was surprised the governing body had felt compelled to send it in the first place.

“I can relate to it,” Wilder continued. “There were times when I’d come to watch United when I was manager of other clubs. I’ve spoken with Oli, but I’ve got no problems with him going down there to watch them.”

Sheffield United's Oli McBurnie helps raise money for charity with team mates Rhian Brewster and Enda Stevens

But in this instance, I have sympathy for McBurnie too. Having interviewed McBurnie several times in the past, I’ve always found him to be daft - but in the nicest way possible - good humoured, self-effacing, polite and understanding of the job I am trying to do. The same understanding he showed when paying for the funeral of a Swansea fan, who used to watch him play for the Welsh club.

Folk are perfectly entitled to an opinion on the rights and wrongs of the situation, which may or may not yet come before the courts. But I don’t mind admitting the knowledge that, if McBurnie had scored 20 rather than one this term, plenty of those criticising him would have been a little more patient, does grate a little.

I’m not saying they would have responded in exactly the same manner. Or that they necessarily agree with how McBurnie chose to respond. But I’d be prepared to wager a pretty hefty amount that if it had been Chris Basham, Billy Sharp or David McGoldrick getting harassed and then blowing a gasket, the tone of the debate would have been very different.

What also gets my goat a little is that, two weeks ago football came together to condemn vitriol on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Yet, when a person becomes a target for foul mouthed abuse in the street, and their patience inevitably snaps, they appear to end up in hotter water than the guy - or the girl - dishing it out.

Oli McBurnie and Sheffield United have had a tough time this season both on and off the pitch: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

These, from where I’m standing, are strange times indeed. Then again, maybe I’m just a dinosaur with a skewed moral compass. I don’t actually think so. But I’m old enough and long in the tooth enough to appreciate that some people will.