The Sheffield United star Chris Wilder told his squad 'can really play, even though he looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo'
It was Thursday January 17, 2019, and Sheffield United’s first team squad had been summoned to the media theatre which overlooks the pitches at their Steelphalt Academy training complex.
Chris Wilder was waiting for them, armed with a remote control and folder containing copious notes on the formations and play patterns he expected Swansea City to employ when, 48 hours later, the two sides faced each other at the Liberty Stadium.
The atmosphere was solemn. Everyone present, even the dressing room jokers, realised the fixture’s importance. So as he scrolled through the footage, detailing the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, Wilder attempted to lighten the mood a little when a picture of Oli McBurnie, who would later go on to join United, appeared on the screen.
“He told them I could play,” McBurnie laughs, “Really play in fact. But that I still looked like Shaggy from Scooby Doo.”
McBurnie can’t quite remember who told him about Wilder’s description when he arrived at Bramall Lane 16 months ago. It might have been John Egan. Or maybe Enda Stevens. “One of the Irish lads, definitely.” But the source of the information isn’t really important. The impression it made on the centre-forward, however, is. Particularly as he shouldered the burden of spearheading a Premier League attack and, until Sander Berge’s arrival earlier this year, being the club’s record signing.
Wilder’s pursuit of McBurnie, following United’s promotion from the Championship last summer, was both protracted and painstaking. After first expressing an interest the season before, numerous bids were made before City, aware the Scotland international had subtlety encouraged Wilder’s advances, finally accepted one worth an initial £18m.
Despite briefly being exposed to elite level football during his time in South Wales - making 16 starts before his former employers were relegated from the top-flight - McBurnie’s career with United has also been a slowburn. But after finding his feet during the build-up to Christmas, starting seven of their eight league outings before the fixture schedule was suspended because of coronavirus, McBurnie reveals Wilder’s support proved invaluable as he adjusted to life at Bramall Lane.
“One of the big factors behind wanting to come here in the first place was how much the gaffer always said he rated me,” McBurnie explains. “He’s kept that up all the way through.
“We do lots of analysis about the people we’re going to be facing here. It’s really in-depth stuff. Apparently, it’s not something new. He (Wilder) has always done it. So it was nice to hear what he used to tell the boys who were here then about me when I wasn’t.
“Things like that definitely stick with you.”
McBurnie, aged 23, built his reputation by scoring goals and demonstrating a voracious appetite for work. Although the step up in class means the former are no longer in as plentiful supply as they were during City’s first season back in the second tier, McBurnie’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his colleagues remains undiminished. This, more than anything else, makes him Wilder’s type of player. And explains why McBurnie, who has netted four times in 26 league outings, feels settled off the pitch.
“I’ve always been a ‘team first’ person,” he says. “I’d do anything for my team mates, especially when it’s reciprocated.
“I don’t mind admitting that I was really taken aback by the atmosphere inside the dressing room here, how tight it is.”
“The gaffer told me, when we first sat down and spoke, that he thought I’d be a really good fit here,” McBurnie continues. “That made me feel really wanted too. I feel I’m a perfect fit for this club, I really think it suits me.
“We’ve got such a strong bunch of lads behind the scenes but some really good players too.”
Despite scoring against United on a regular basis - “I think the gaffer wanted to do the deal because he was sick of the sight of me” - McBurnie, who netted twice against United last term and once during a spell on loan at Barnsley the season before, insists many of those are part of a defence which remains unchanged from the one Wilder deployed in the second tier.
“I always seemed to do well against us when I played for another team,” McBurnie laughs. “To be honest, though, I’m not sure why because I never enjoyed coming up against these lads.
“Jack (O’Connell) is a nightmare; just so strong and powerful. I’m not going to be surprised if he gets a call up (for England) pretty soon. John (Egan) doesn’t give you a yard. Enda and George (Baldock) just keep going all day long and Bash (Chris Basham) has got snake hips. He just does what he does and keeps powering through all the time as well.
“So I don’t mind saying I’m glad that I’m on the same side as them now.”
With United in seventh in the table, McBurnie is convinced they can qualify for Europe when competition resumes following a lengthy break next month. If Wilder’s men do find themselves lining up against some of world football’s biggest names, McBurnie admits the achievement would surpass the “proudest” moment of his time in South Yorkshire so far.
“That’s my first goal here, my first Premier League goal, against Leicester,” he says. “As soon as George put the cross in, I knew I was going to head it home. I’ll cherish that feeling, always.”