This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Nutmeg: The Scottish Football Periodical. You can…
Sunday evening was probably a frustrating ordeal for Scotland’s Oliver Burke. The West Brom talent had just scored a wonder goal against South Korea the day before to ensure Scotland topped Group B of the Toulon Tournament, but rather than bask in the achievement at hand the 21-year-old was having to contend with fresh criticism.
After his second goal in three games for Scot Gemmill’s side, Burke found himself the sole topic of a Sunday Mail feature criticising the forward’s body language on and off the park. According to the writer, Scott McDermott, the former RB Leipzig forward portrayed the modern cliche of a figure that has “had too much too soon.”
Within the piece, McDermott notes that Burke has been “sulky” at this summer’s tournament in France, had been “hooked” in all three games so far and could “barely raise a smile” when he scored against France. He also noted, importantly, that Burke hadn’t yet taken time out of his schedule to speak to the press.
That last point may seem sarcastic, but it carries far more weight than it ever should in an article criticising the very personality of a young, professional player. The responses to McDermott’s piece on Twitter seem to be easily broken down into two camps: normal fans defending the young lad and certain members of the Scottish press praising the article. It seems a match-winning goal against France or a career-defining moment against South Korea aren’t worth much if you opt out of speaking to the media after the match.
It’s understood that Burke had seen the article and along with a number of the coaching staff and fellow players, he was disappointed in how it portrayed him as a disinterested and perhaps even disobedient figure within his squad. And that’s largely because it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Kirkcaldy-born player has always been a quiet, tepid figure that has had to contend with the fact that people tend to judge him on his physique long before they get to know him. What may look like a hunched-over, moody young man is, in fact, an athlete trying to come to terms with the ox-like figure that genetics granted him. Put a football in front of Burke and the world falls silent, but watch him in a training session or off the pitch and you’ll see a shy lad trying to contend with the pressure that has been heaped upon his broad shoulders from day one.
We all know that Burke first burst on to the scene at Nottingham Forest before moving to RB Leipzig. And after his spell in Germany didn’t quite work out he then moved to West Brom, where he is currently fighting for a first-team spot.
What you probably didn’t know is that Burke could have opted for a far more lucrative move to another English club, instead of choosing Leipzig because of their track record at producing young players. You probably also didn’t know that he wasn’t purposefully sold by the German giants, but instead opted to leave for game time and because his family were struggling to adapt to life in Eastern Germany.
It’s also worth noting that despite choosing West Brom with the clear intent of getting more game time, Burke has had to contend with Alan Pardew offering little guidance or support. His manager publicly criticised him after one game this season and one source told TheTwoPointOne that when he arrived at the club last summer, Burke had to go out of his way to introduce himself to the manager. Such was the cold, unwelcoming tone of the coach who was now in charge of developing one of Scotland’s most promising young players.
At this point, Nottingham Forest fans may be feeling a sudden sense of schadenfreude come over them, but we mustn’t confuse Burke’s somewhat ill-advised career path to date with a cynical money-grabbing exercise. Every move that he has made in the four, short years that he has been a senior professional has been purposefully made to develop him as a player and allow him to prove himself at the very highest level. And that much is perfectly clear with his involvement in the Scotland U21s this summer.
After making five appearances for the senior Scotland team, Burke could have quite comfortably stated that he was no longer interested in playing for the youth side, but instead, he opted to jump at the opportunity of not only getting further experience within the national team set up but in captaining a group of similarly-ambitious young players.
On Monday the world was shocked to hear that Leroy Sane was dropped from Germany’s World Cup squad. Yet while the English press mourned for their young player of the year, German journalist Raphael Honigstein suggested that Jogi Low had opted for Julian Brandt over the Man City star because he had agreed to take part in last summer’s Confederations Cup. In contrast, Sane had made up an excuse about some cosmetic nose surgery, deeming the tournament a needless distraction. That’s not to say that Burke is of the same level as Sane, but they do rub shoulders and mingle within the same world. And while Sane has just been dropped by his country for negligence that may be an offshoot of his stardom, Burke has essentially signed up to summer school and is applying for as much extra credit as he can.
Indeed, Burke does curse and howl on the pitch when a shot goes astray or he mistimes a pass but his criticism is always aimed directly at himself. It’s a simple characteristic of any young, driven athlete. Many rolled their eyes when Burke claimed that Scotland could win the Toulon Tournament but there’s no doubt that the young Scot truly believes it.
Gemmill’s decision to make the young forward his captain wasn’t a hopeful move to entice him to France in the first place. It was based on Burke’s professionalism. The young West Brom talent never barks back at his coach when he’s singled out in training and he has cherished the responsibility entrusted to him among a truly special group of players. In each game, Burke has had to learn to track back with the same enthusiasm as he has sprinting towards goal and while his facial expressions may not portray it at the time, he’s grateful for the tactical coaching that Gemmill has brought to his game.
When called to defend his points on Twitter, McDermott justified the article by stating that it was an opinion piece and one that he was perfectly entitled to. He’s right. Then he added: “The fact you’ve read it and obviously feel so strongly about it means I’ve done my job.” Again, he’s spot on. But while a simple hatchet job may sell newspapers or bring unsuspecting readers to a website, it doesn’t paint a fair picture of one of Scotland’s most talented and most conflicted young players.
No player in Gemmill’s squad or indeed the Scotland senior team has had to deal with anything like the amount of attention, pressure and criticism that Burke has endured in just four years. And while sports journalists certainly aren’t supposed to be cheerleaders, they do have a responsibility to gather all of the facts. This young player doesn’t deserve our criticism. He deserves our full support.