The Scotland legend who believes Oli McBurnie and Sheffield United are destined for very big things

Towards the end of last week, twenty-four hours before Sheffield United’s friendly against Heart of Midlothian, Oli McBurnie was spotted performing an individual work-out on the touchline of the training pitch Chris Wilder’s squad at been allocated at Oriam; the high performance sporting centre where they spent six days preparing for the new Premier League season.

Monday, 31st August 2020, 5:30 pm

It suggested, as the rest of his team mates were put through their paces by United’s coaching staff, that the centre-forward was unlikely to feature during the warm-up fixture Wilder had arranged to conclude their stay in Scotland.

When the teams were unveiled, and McBurnie’s name was absent, it was no great surprise. Nor, with a little over two weeks to go before Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Bramall Lane for the opening match of the 2020/21 campaign, will it have been a source of huge concern for United. At Hampden Park, however, McBurnie’s failure to take part in the 1-0 victory over Robbie Neilson’s side set alarm bells ringing. And Scotland’s worst fears were realised when, late on Sunday evening, it was confirmed the 24-year-old, capped nine times by his country, had withdrawn from their squad for Friday’s European Championship play-off against Israel.

Despite making an indifferent start to his international career, McBurnie’s displays for United during the second half of last term have raised hopes that he could develop into the genuine top-level striker Steve Clarke needs to help his squad qualify for a major tournament and, following a disappointing sequence of results, repair its fragile confidence. Scotland are not short on talent. John Fleck, McBurnie’s colleague at United, has proven his ability against some of the most powerful clubs in the country while Aston Villa’s John McGinn, Andy Robertson of Liverpool and James Forrest - the Celtic attacker - all boast excellent reputations. Likewise Kieran Tierney, who excelled during Arsenal’s victory over United in the FA Cup quarter-finals two months ago. But they do struggle for goals and Clarke, who has been a regular visitors to South Yorkshire since Wilder’s men were promoted, is clearly convinced McBurnie can be the player to provide them.

Aware the Tartan Army have question marks about McBurnie’s commitment to the cause following a well-publicised off the pitch understanding last year, Clarke has clearly taken it upon himself to orchestrate a makeover of the player’s reputation in the eyes of Scotland’s most loyal and devoted fans. Anyone who heard McBurnie speak about his determination and devotion to Scotland when he was interviewed by the media before the meeting with Hearts would have been left in no doubt whatsoever about his focus and desire. After Clarke urged Scottish journalists not to overlook McBurnie’s potential at an event in Glasgow last week, Joe Jordan, described as “the epitome of everything you would want in a Scotland striker” by the Sunday Post newspaper signalled he had signed-up to help Clarke’s campaign during an interview with the Dundee based publication over the weekend.

“I’m not sure what Steve will decide to do with the centre-forward position,” Jordan admitted, before news of McBurnie’s injury filtered out. “He has options like all managers...one man who will most definitely be in the frame is Oli McBurnie. He is a handful and has a presence.”

“He appeared t take a wee while to settle after he moved to Sheffield United from Swansea City,” Jordan continued. “But he really caught the eye after lockdown. I thought he looked the part, led the line well, was a real threat in the box and looked every inch a Premier League striker.”

High praise indeed from someone who represented Manchester United and AC Milan before eventually retiring after representing Scotland at two World Cup finals.

Oli McBurnie warmin g up ahead of a Sheffield United game last season: Peter Powell/Pool via Getty Images

As Jordan and Clarke both noted, McBurnie grew in stature following the enforced three month break in competition, imposed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Illustrating his progress with goals against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, as United finished ninth in the table, McBurnie demonstrated he is getting to grips with the subtlety different role he has been required to undertake at United - leading the frontline rather than receiving the ball in deep lying positions, as he frequently did in South Wales. That is good news for Scotland and United too, as Jordan was quick to point out.

“What Sheffield United achieved last season was absolutely brilliant,” he said. “Chris Wilder and his staff deserve enormous credit. It was their first season in the Premier League and they took to it all instantly. Nothing appeared to leave then on the back foot and they were prepared for all eventualities.

“Now they will look to show they are not one-season wonders and that will be the message Chris and his staff will be giving.”

With Wilder challenging his frontline to deliver more goals next season - despite their attacking approach, United climbed into the upper reaches of the table thanks to a strong defence - Jordan added: “Some people will want to see them (United) fall over in the new season and that will be used as motivation in the Sheffield United dressing room. Oli should be looking to kick on and improve even further.

Joe Jordan (R) with Harry Redknapp during their time together ar Portsmouth

“He has good ability, but there will be improvement needed in some areas as he is still young and learning certain aspects of the game.

“However, he should get better and better, and if he can keep growing with the Sheffield United manager and team, he’ll have a bright future.”

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Scotland manager Steve Clarke: Tim Goode/PA Wire.
Oli McBurnie will miss Scotland's game against Israel: Michael Regan/Getty Images