Scotland forward Oliver Burke just needs somewhere to call home - so he could fly at Sheffield United
It is a measure of Oliver Burke’s talent that, despite struggling to realise the potential which persuaded one of Europe’s most ambitious clubs to acquire his services, he has still commanded transfer fees totalling nearly £30m since turning professional nearly six years ago.
The Scotland centre-forward’s problem isn’t lack of skill. Quite the opposite, with former colleague Thomas Lam once likening him to Gareth Bale. Rather Burke’s choice of club, or choice of manager to be exact, appears to be a factor behind his inability to fully harness the skills which captured the imagination of RB Leipzig’s coaching staff. Sheffield United, who are poised to officially unveil the youngster at Bramall Lane later this week, believe Chris Wilder can unlock it.
Although Burke did not start his career in the lower reaches of the English Football League like so many of United’s players, Wilder clearly has the knack of helping those in danger of losing their way or drifting into obscurity to scale the type of heights folk always knew they could reach before failing to make the summit. Jack O’Connell struggled for a game at Brentford when United came calling. Enda Stevens, now a permanent fixture in the Republic of Ireland’s starting eleven, was signed from Portsmouth. Burke became the most expensive ever Scottish footballer when he swapped Nottingham Forest for Germany in the summer of 2016. After subsequently returning to England with West Bromwich Albion, the striker has been loaned out to both Celtic and Deportivo Alaves as he attempts to rediscover his form.
Although Burke will not arrive at United at the peak of his powers - scoring once in 14 starts at the Mendizorrotaza Stadium last term - it is easy to understand why United are attracted by the prospect of working with him. Burke’s final effort for Forest showcased the combination of hulking power, poise and venomous shooting ability which have attracted glowing testimonies from the likes of Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee and most recently Steve Clarke. Leaving three defenders for dead with a delicate feint, he then steered the ball beyond Rob Green from the acuest if angles to seal a 3-1 win over Leeds. “I was licking my lips the first time I saw him train,” McGhee admitted soon after Burke’s international call-up. “There was something really special about him - his size, his movement, his ball control.”
Speaking after last week’s friendly with Preston North End, and looking ahead to Monday’s Premier League opener against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wilder outlined how he wants to reinvigorate United’s attack after unveiling defenders Ethan Ampadu, Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe on Monday.
“We want some power up there,” he said, “Ability of course and even more presence.” Burke, at his best, can provide all three, hence United’s interest in overseeing what could turn out to be a hugely rewarding project.
Lam, who played alongside Burke at the City Ground, was the person who compared his capabilities to Bale - despite noting their differences.
“He is similar,” Lam told the media soon during Burke’s breakthrough season in the east Midlands. “I don’t want to say he will be as good as him. But there are definite similarities. He does scare the life out of opponents.”
Before being succeeded by Clarke at Hampden Park - the former Chelsea defender continues to select him - Strachan made a similar observation about Burke.
“There’s something different about him,” he noted. “He’s a quiet lad and doesn’t have a wacky haircut. He lets his football do the talking and, for me, that’s the mark of a good player.”
Wilder’s challenge, on the face of it, appears to be helping Burke come out of his shell and repairing his confidence. Also, providing him with the type of clearly defined development programme and list of objectives which have probably been lacking since leaving Forest. It might require patience, particularly when it comes to learning what makes Burke tick. United’s research into his personality traits is likely to have started long before they entered talks with officials at The Hawthorns.
Clarke suspects Burke will rediscover his form when he feels he is truly wanted and appreciated. He will be at United where his ability to unlock defences - using either an iron fist of a velvet glove - should bring a welcome degree of unpredictability to a frontline which has lacked a little flair since Mark Duffy’s departure last summer. Lys Mousset could also provide it but seemingly lacks the self-discipline required to maintain his fitness levels.
“What Oli needs is a home,” Clarke told the Scottish media towards the end of last month. “He’s been drifting around, going here and there.”
“He needs a manager who loves him and a club he can call home,” Clarke added. “When he does, he’ll get better and better.”
Born in Kirkcaldy, Burke, aged 23, was raised in Leicestershire before entering Forest’s academy. After making his debut during a game against Tottenham Hotspur, a loan spell with Bradford City was followed by his gradual introduction into Forest’s starting eleven. Thirty appearances and six goals later, Leipzig paid around £13m to trigger his release.
Although Burke only spent a year in Saxony, it would be a mistake to paint his time there as a disappointment. He scored on his full league debut against FC Koln and impressed with his strength, dribbling ability and willingness to press. That is another characteristic, being happy to harass opponents high up the pitch and make a defensive contribution, Wilder also likes his attackers to display.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve sympathy with how his career has gone,” Clarke said. “I just think Oli’s been unfortunate with some moves.”