Sheffield United: Oli McBurnie reveals he has ditched his unusual pre-match routine ahead of his return to Swansea City

Of all the words spoken on the subject over the past few weeks as they prepared to flood back through the turnstiles, an admission from Oli McBurnie about his old pre-match routine revealed more about how sterile football can be without fans than a thousand saccharine interviews or condescending platitudes.

Friday, 13th August 2021, 3:45 pm

“One million percent,” the Sheffield United centre-forward said, when asked if playing behind closed doors had affected his game. “One of the big hindrances for me last season was the fact there was no one inside the grounds. I was asking for caffeine shots and everything to try and get my adrenaline going. It’s hard to try and explain what a boost the supporters give you.”

Last season was memorable for all the wrong reasons in the McBurnie household. With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the overwhelming majority of it to be played behind closed doors, United surrendered their Premier League status following a wretched start to a campaign played out in front of empty stands. McBurnie sat out the end of it after suffering a foot injury. He missed this summer’s European Championships with Scotland too, but did manage to create headlines after confronting a man harassing both him and his partner in Knaresborough. The incident, captured on the perpetrator’s mobile telephone, predictably went viral before finding its way into a tabloid newspaper.

Tomorrow, when United face Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium, McBurnie is looking forward to enjoying a much more pleasurable experience. He spent four years contracted to the Welsh club, scoring 22 times in 58 league appearances, before becoming the most expensive signing in United’s history 24 months ago. But McBurnie admits that what he is looking forward to the most is performing in front of a packed crowd. Something, barring a brief cameo appearance against Birmingham City last weekend, he has done too little of since returning to Yorkshire.

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“Most of the boys in this team, whether it be opposition fans screaming at you or your own ones cheering you on, they’ll tell you what a massive help it is and what a big difference it makes,” McBurnie says, attributing United’s demotion from the top-flight to the lack of atmosphere inside stadia. “Do you know what? I’ve even missed getting abused and having things shouted at me whenever we go away. Now, when it happens, I’m going to relish every thing that’s said.”

McBurnie’s cult-hero status among City’s following means he will receive the warmest of receptions on his return to West Glamorgan.

“I’ve never played against an ex-team before,” McBurnie, previously of Bradford City and Barnsley, confesses. “I’ve got some great friends down there and I watch them when I can but, on this occasion, they won’t be getting any help from me.”

But after struggling to translate his £22m price tag into goals, despite finishing as their joint-leading scorer during his first season at Bramall Lane, McBurnie still feels as if he has something to prove to United’s following. With new manager Slavisa Jokanovic looking to adopt a much more attacking approach than the one his predecessor Chris Wilder felt compelled to employ against some of the biggest names in world football, McBurnie, aged 25, is excited by the prospect of working for the Serb.

Oli McBurnie admits he needed caffeine shots before games when matches were being played behind closed doors: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“I think I’ve sacrificed a lot, it's something that comes naturally to me, different ways of playing football/ though,” McBurnie said, conceding that whilst operating as a targetman didn’t always suit his style, it has made him a more complete forward. “Under the old gaffer I had to play that way, I had to do that but it made sense and I was happy with it, adding a different string to my bow.

“This gaffer wants to play a different type of football. Iut is similar to the way we used to play when I was at Swansea.”

“I don’t think a lot of Swansea fans will have seen that from me,” he continued. “It was something that we did and it was effective when we were in the Premier League. Now we’re doing it another way and I think the fresh ideas have helped lift everyone. We’re all on the same page.”

Jokanovic’s presence - before leading Watford and Fulham to promotion, he lifted the title with Partizan Belgrade - has provided McBurnie with the pick-me-up he required after the disappointment of being relegated was compounded by missing the Euros.

Slavisa Jokanovic: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“That was a real tough one for me because probably one of the proudest things I’ve achieved was qualifying for them,” he said. “Not being able to get there because of my broken foot. It was tough to take and it took a bit of time to get over.

“When I originally did it, it was 12 weeks out which took me past the Euros and I spoke to the medical department here and allowed myself a plan which didn’t rule me out. After eight weeks, I was still in a boot. I hadn’t even been walking on it before the squad was announced by Scotland. We realised that it wasn't an option. But these things happen.”

Like United, City are also adapting to life under a new manager following Steve Cooper’s decision to vacate his position soon after leading them into the play-off final. And like United, they are also searching for their first win of the new Championship season, after losing to Blackburn Rovers seven days ago.

“I spent a lot of time there at Swansea,” said McBurnie, describing Cooper’s replacement Russel Martin as a “natural” replacement. “I went there as a kid and left as a man. It's a nice family club. In the city, everyone loves the club. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the game. I’m just excited to be playing because it’s been a while.”

Oli McBurnie is glad to be back in action: Simon Bellis / Sportimage