Sheffield United: Too boo or not to boo? That is the big Oli McBurnie question

I’m not about to go the full ‘Gareth Southgate’.

Thursday, 31st March 2022, 5:00 pm

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This column isn’t designed to be a propaganda sheet for the footballing Thought Police.

Unlike England’s manager, I don’t think players should be supported “regardless”. And if some of them really are questioning whether they want to represent their country, as he explicitly stated following Harry Maguire’s treatment the other night, then perhaps that explains our 56 year trophy drought. Because it doesn’t reflect well on the type of characters the sport is producing. Or, come to think of it, their commitment either.

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But neither, as Maguire’s former club Sheffield United prepare to return to action on Saturday with an awkward assignment against Stoke, does that mean Yours Truly enjoys hearing or seeing anyone get singled-out. Or always agrees with people’s reasons for giving them the bird.

As sections of the media go into meltdown about the booing of Maguire’s name before Tuesday’s friendly with the Ivory Coast - piously creating the impression he was the victim of something akin to a Stasi zersetzung campaign - it’s worth remembering that Oli McBurnie suffered something similar earlier this month.

Introduced as a substitute during United’s win over neighbours Barnsley, the centre-forward was given the bird by a section of home supporters. Only a small minority, it must be admitted. But still big enough to make themselves heard.

As I stated at the start, these fans are perfectly within their rights to voice an opinion. If they want to criticise McBurnie, then go ahead and do it.

Oli McBurnie of Sheffield United prepares to come on against Barnsley: Darren Staples / Sportimage

But I would ask them to question, if they’re thinking of doing the same at the bet365 Stadium, whether they think it’s helpful while United are trying to win promotion. Or, given the 25-year-old’s problems stem from ‘poor’ form rather than a lack of desire or ambition, even warranted. If they answer ‘yes’ then so be it. Even though most of us, I suspect, won’t understand their reasoning.

I’ve debated the McBurnie issue countless times on these pages. And, if you’ve missed my previous musings or simply chosen to forget about them, here’s a brief recap: Why he’s viewed as a target man is completely beyond me. It takes away everything he’s good at - dragging defenders out of position, harassing them into submission - and accentuates none of his strengths. Still, some sharper sporting brains than mine have decided otherwise. So that’s the role, so long as he remains in South Yorkshire, McBurnie seems destined to perform.

Footballers themselves haven’t created the environment whereby folk feel compelled to criticise them whenever they struggle. But football itself has. By paying them obscene amounts of money for doing something which, if we didn’t live in a market economy with a moral code 100 miles wide and half an inch deep, would probably command a pretty average salary. While the rest of us are struggling with the cost of living crisis, it’s difficult to have much patience with someone earning thousands of pounds a week.

That doesn’t make it right. But it does explain why punters no longer have much patience when players they pay pretty handsomely to watch aren’t doing the business.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Those who earn a living from the People’s Game have never felt further away from the people. Particularly when, prancing around with an over-inflated sense of their own importance, they deliberately chose to separate themselves from the rest of us.

The shame is, in my experience, that’s something McBurnie doesn’t like to do. In fact, often to his own detriment, he’s remained down to earth and seems to live a normal life. Even responding, when chased down the street by some berk with a mobile phone, in exactly the same fashion plenty of us would.

Too many of his fellow professionals seem to be acting under the impression the rules don’t apply to them. Or even the laws of the very thing they earn their wages doing. Why else, after Serge Aurier was sent-off for dissent during his team’s defeat by Southgate’s men, would plenty of pundits effectively criticise the referee for not showing leniency because it wasn’t a competitive fixture? Surely, given that many of them lent their names to the Respect campaign, they should be asking why Aurier felt compelled to insult the official? Still, it’s a funny old world.

Anyway, enough of all that, back to McBurnie. Who, as I said, always comes across as a bloke who happens to play football rather than a footballer trying to be a bloke.

Gareth Southgate criticised people for booing Harry Maguire: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

United can help him by either modifying how they use him or explaining exactly what his responsibilities to the team are. Paul Heckingbottom is articulate enough, when pressed gently on the reception McBurnie got against Poya Asbaghi’s side, to do that without making the situation worse. Something I suspect Southgate did when confronting Maguire’s detractors. Even though his intentions and motivations were clearly good.

McBurnie can also help himself by continuing to show the same work ethic and determination which has won the respect of his colleagues inside the dressing room. Doing that is likely to see him get back on the goal trail. Because scoring goals is something he hasn’t done enough of lately. Even though, I suspect, coaching staff don’t view that as his most important job on the pitch.

And in the meantime, so long as McBurnie fulfils his side of the bargain, those giving him stick should ponder whether it really serves any purpose.

Personally, I’d be happy to call McBurnie out if he wasn’t putting it all in. The thing is, even though he’s only netted once all season, I actually think he is.

Harry Maguire of England during the International friendly match between England and Cote D'Ivoire at Wembley Stadium: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images