Sheffield United's Oliver Burke on playing against Lionel Messi, his crash course in real pressure and THAT goal against Leeds

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To begin with, Luke Ayling didn’t sense the danger. The same could be said of Alex Mowatt who, despite loitering only a couple of yards away, decided not to attempt a challenge.

But after bringing the ball under control and then rolling the full back, Oliver Burke suddenly turned on the after-burners, outmuscled Liam Cooper and, from the acutest of acute angles, rolled it nonchalantly into the back of Leeds’ net. Rob Green’s frustration was almost palpable as the Scot, playing his final game for Nottingham Forest before joining RB Leipzig, wheeled away in celebration.

Four years on from that match at the City Ground, Burke will renew his rivalry with the team from Elland Road when they visit Bramall Lane this weekend. Nearly 50 months might have passed since that display of skill, strength and finesse mesmerised Ayling and left Cooper flailing. But with Chris Wilder declaring that Burke will be deployed through the middle after joining Sheffield United from West Bromwich Albion earlier this month, footage of the goal which introduced him to a nationwide audience and convinced one of Europe’s most ambitious clubs to spend nearly £15m in order to acquire his services is most compelling piece of evidence that the 53-year-old’s hunch - about Burke being a natural centre-forward rather than a winger or midfielder - is correct.

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“It’s a change of position for Oli, so he’ll have a bit to learn,” Wilder said, explaining the reasoning behind his decision when Burke was unveiled. “But we have to think smart, we have to be cute and being in that area of the pitch will bring the best out of him.”

Burke has yet to realise the potential which once made him the talk of the game on both sides of the border and in bathrooms across the continent too. There is no shortage of theories as to why, ranging from suspicions his development has not been managed correctly to claims, put forward by compatriots Steve Clarke and Gordon Strachan, that he has yet to find somewhere he can truly call home. Burke politely disputes some and takes exception to others. But what he does agree with is, after a nomadic career also involving spells with Celtic and Alaves, where he found himself competing against some of the greatest names in the game, that the time has now come for him to start producing, on a consistent rather than sporadic basis, the moments of brilliance he is capable of.

“My main reason for moving to United was to find a home, yes,” Burke explained, revealing how his first conversation with Wilder made him “really feel” wanted. “I want to settle down somewhere, I’m sick of moving. The way it’s been, whenever I’ve felt like I’m about to get going I’ve been packing my bags again and on the way out. It can be a bit unsettling, yes. And frustrating.”

Although it has been a bind at times, one benefit of Burke’s nomadic journey through football is that he has collected a great deal of knowledge and experience at an early age. After completing a loan spell at Parkhead, where he took part in two Europa League ties and one Old Firm derby, the switch to Spain saw him share a pitch with the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Diego Costa and Toni Kroos during matches against Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid.

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“Doing that was brilliant,” he said, reflecting upon his time at the Mendizorrotza. ”Playing against such great footballers, seeing what they do and how they do it, it was such a great learning experience and hopefully I can take all of those experiences now and put them all together here.

Oliver Burke brings a wealth of experience to Sheffield United, who face Leeds on Sunday, despite still being young player: Simon Bellis/SportimageOliver Burke brings a wealth of experience to Sheffield United, who face Leeds on Sunday, despite still being young player: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Oliver Burke brings a wealth of experience to Sheffield United, who face Leeds on Sunday, despite still being young player: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“When you’re out there with them, you see why they are the best players playing for some of the best teams in the world and it teaches you a lot. They do things differently in Spain, and it changes how you look at things. At Celtic, the spotlight is immense and so is the expectation. That gives you an insight into a winning mentality, because anything else isn’t an option.”

The tactical insight Burke gained during his stay in the Basque country, coupled with the crash course in handling pressure he completed in Glasgow could prove invaluable for United this season as they attempt to navigate safe passage through another top-flight campaign. After finishing ninth last season, they enter Sunday’s meeting with Leeds still searching for their first win and first league goal of the new season. The slow start, however, must be put into context. Having conceded twice inside the opening six minutes of their game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, United’s brains were scrambled for at least half of the contest. Then, after losing on penalties in the Carabao Cup at Burnley, United saw John Egan controversially sent-off less than a quarter-of-an-hour into their loss to Aston Villa. Burke, who made his debut for United at Turf Moor, impressed in the Midlands and was the architect of the move which saw Wilder’s men awarded a spot-kick while the score was still deadlocked. Although that was missed, John Lundstram’s effort being saved, United went about their business in disciplined fashion suggesting, with Burke bringing a different dynamic to their attack, that their first points of this term are not far away. Leeds make the short trip south having lost to Liverpool and Hull City, before recording their first victory in the competition by dispatching Fulham last weekend.

Although Marcelo Biela’s team will prove a threat going forward - scoring eight times since returning to the PL - the fact they have conceded exactly the same number suggests there will be opportunities for Burke to register only his third goal in English football since that memorable finish at the City Ground capped a 3-1 victory for Forest.

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“This match will bring back a few good memories,” he said. “Hopefully, if selected, I can do the same again.”

Oliver Burke played againsr Lionel Messi during his time in Spain: Nick Potts/PA Wire.Oliver Burke played againsr Lionel Messi during his time in Spain: Nick Potts/PA Wire.
Oliver Burke played againsr Lionel Messi during his time in Spain: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

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