The Sheffield United and Scotland star who could benefit from a change of role for both club and country
Oli McBurnie can use his involvement in the Scotland squad which faces Israel, Austria and the Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifiers later this month to dispel the myth that his performances since joining Sheffield United contributed to the breakdown in the relationship between the Premier League club’s hierarchy and its former manager Chris Wilder.
Together with his United colleague John Fleck, McBurnie has again been selected for international duty by Steve Clarke, as the 57-year-old combines trying to reach next year’s finals in Qatar with preparing for the forthcoming European Championships.
Despite costing around £20m when he moved to Bramall Lane from Swansea City in the summer of 2019, McBurnie has scored only seven times since leaving the Liberty Stadium and is yet to find the back of the net in open play for his country.
However, with Paul Heckingbottom taking temporary charge of United until the end of the season following Wilder’s departure last week, the centre-forward could see his role at domestic level change over the coming weeks. Rather than being deployed as a target man - Wilder’s preferred role for McBurnie - Heckingbottom and his new assistant Jason Tindall could be tempted to allow McBurnie to play in the manner which saw him plunder 22 goals in only 39 league starts for City.
Although he approached his new role with enthusiasm - winning Wilder’s respect in the process - McBurnie admitted followers of the Welsh side would be “surprised” to see him going toe to toe with opposition defenders during United’s pre-season training camp near Edinburgh.
“I’ve probably headed more balls over the past 12 months than in my entire life beforehand,” he joked, before clarifying he was “more than happy” to do “whatever it takes” to “help the team”.
Perhaps out of a desire not to complicate matters and retain a degree of tactical continuity, Clarke has also asked McBurnie to physically engage with opposition defenders in recent months, mirroring his job in South Yorkshire.
But if Heckingbottom begins to change United’s style over the coming weeks, perhaps beginning when they visit Chelsea in the FA Cup on Sunday, McBurnie could be asked to sacrifice himself less and focus on being more selfish in and around the final third. This, in turn, might influence Clarke’s own thinking.
Speaking before his departure last week - in far more acrimonious circumstances than the official statement released to confirm his exit would suggest - Wilder refuted suggestions that McBurnie’s statistics for United should be viewed as a disappointment; describing him as “selfless” and “a real handful”.
Despite suspicions that Billy Sharp remains the United player most skilled at holding the ball up, United’s system under Wilder demanded McBurnie adapt his style.
Rather than his displays over the past 19 months, the sporadic use of record signing Rhian Brewster - a £23.5m capture from Liverpool - is likely to have been a greater source of tension between Wilder and United’s board of directors.
McBurnie and Fleck will be joined in the Scotland squad by former United striker Che Adams, after he pledged allegiance to Clarke’s men. Adams, now of Southampton, joined Birmingham City soon after Wilder’s appointment in the summer of 2016. United will not benefit financially from his maiden call-up.