THE boyband looks largely remain, even if now set within a 29-year-old frame. Gordon Strachan has, though, spared Chris Burke an international fate suffered by so many such fleetingly-famous manufactured acts.
For all too long it seemed as if Burke’s Scotland career would end up only being big in Japan.
The Birmingham City player still has a twinkle in his eye as he recalls the Kirin Cup win in the Far East back in May 2006 that represents the country’s only tangible success of the past decade-and-a-half. With good reason. Ahead of his starts for Gordon Strachan’s Scotland in the defeat by Wales on Friday, and the friendly win over Estonia the previous month, the two games in the Japanese tournament were the sum total of his senior Scotland involvement.
As debuts go, Burke’s substitute contribution to the 5-1 win over Bulgaria in the Kirin was of the corking variety. He scored with his first touch, and added a second goal with another intervention shortly afterwards. He then did well in the 0-0 draw with the host country that he remembers as “mad”. “The Japan fans were cheering Japan if they even went over the halfway line,” he says. “It was as if they scored a goal. It was a great atmosphere, and that made it that extra bit special.”
That international reward for a breakthrough season at Rangers – in which he had announced his arrival courtesy of some sparkling Champions League displays – remained extraordinary for a variety of reasons. Burke became a peripheral figure at Ibrox and when he returned centre-stage following a move to Cardiff City, family issues led to him declaring himself unavailable for the early months of George Burley’s tenure. “I’d rather not go into it, but it wasn’t a long time at all,” he says. The then separation and limited access to his baby son was what he was required to deal with as he revived his football fortunes in Wales.
That self-imposed Scotland exile seems to remain in minds. It is forgotten, meanwhile, that Burke was back in the fold as early as May 2009, when he played a B international against Northern Ireland. And that he was selected by Craig Levein for a friendly against the Faroe Islands in November 2010, only to be forced out with a hip injury. During his international absence, a perception somehow took hold that the player wasn’t fussed about adding to his two caps. That contention wounds him. “I was always bothered,” he says. “I always wanted to play for my country. I have been available for selection for a long, long time. It’s an honour to play for your country and be selected and you do miss it when you don’t get a call-up but fortunately for me when the new manager came in he picked me.”
Burke had started to question whether any Scotland manager would turn his attentions to him again when Strachan made the winger’s recall one of his first acts. “Obviously you think: ‘is it going to happen again?’ So when it actually happened it was a bit of a surprise,” he says. “I got the text to say I was being considered and thought nothing of it and then I got the phonecall to say I had been selected, so it was a surprise, but a nice one.”
There was nothing nice about the circumstances of his fourth cap the other night. Burke admitted afterwards he hadn’t got on to the ball as much as he wanted in yet another horribly dispiriting defeat for the national side. Yet, in the two games he has played under Strachan the winger has demonstrated in flashes that he has something to offer at this level. More than he has ever previously had to offer, indeed, he says, with his 21 months at Birmingham City being the most satisfying spell of his career. Strachan was alerted to the player when performing media duties in the Midlands last season, and covering the Europa League campaign of the St Andrews club that pitted them against Braga, Club Brugge and Maribor. Burke excelled in these games as his team narrowly failed to make it out of their group. These showings underpinned a campaign in which he featured in 61 of the club’s 62 games as they made the Championship play-offs and he won various player of the year awards thanks in part to his 14 goals and 19 assists.
“I would probably say I am a more mature player now. My all-round game has become better, as it does for any player that grows up, and that probably comes down to playing regularly and getting experience and I got that when I went to Cardiff and Birmingham. My best season was Birmingham last year. It was a great achievement to play in Europe, a great journey, very enjoyable and it was very unfortunate we did not to qualify in the group stage. We had ten points and with that total you would think you would. I think some teams in other groups were qualifying with eight or nine. It was probably my best season plus the most enjoyable because of the European journey and we did so well carrying that on with the Championship.”
Burke might have been playing for Nottingham Forest by now under Alex McLeish, the man who mentored him at Rangers and has had a profound impact on his career. McLeish attempted to bring him to the City Ground in the January transfer window, only a matter of days before he himself departed it. That scenario was precisely what played out two summers ago with Birmingham, McLeish bringing Burke there from Cardiff then promptly leaving for Aston Villa.
“Forest might have put in one or two bids and they were rejected so that showed that Birmingham didn’t want to sell me which was a good thing. There was nothing I could do. As a football player, when things like that happen you have to not think about it and not watch Sky Sports. If you are professional and mature enough you will be able to do that and I think I have. Alex might have signed me and then a week-and-a-half later gone to Villa, but it actually worked out great for me. As I said, I am a firm believer in what is meant to be is meant to be. I had my best and most enjoyable season after Chris Hughton came in so you never know what’s going to be. I still had to prove myself to the Birmingham fans, to my new team-mates and to myself playing in another team.”
Birmingham, now managed by Lee Clark after Hughton was enticed to Norwich City last summer, are mired in messy financial and ownership issues. Yet Burke, whose contract is up in the summer, is in no hurry to vacate the club that seems permanently on the brink of crisis. “They have an option on me but whether they take that… A few of us are in that situation at Birmingham at the moment so we don’t know what’s happening yet. I think it may be the end of the season, May time, before they actually make the decision,” Burke says.
“I love Birmingham. I think it’s great. My family is settled down there, my little boy is at school. It’s great, I have enjoyed my time there, but if I am asked to move on, then there is nothing else I can do.
“I have to support my family and do what’s best but what I will say is I have enjoyed my time at Birmingham. I have only been there two seasons but it has felt longer because of the way I have been welcomed. It’s a massive club, I didn’t realise how big until I went there. The fans are great and I feel sorry for them at the moment because of the way things are going. There’s a lot of uncertainty and it’s been uncertainty for the two seasons I have been there. It’s just getting to the bottom of it. Hopefully sooner rather than later we will have a buyer or know what’s happening and how the club is going to go forward.”
Burke at least knows he’s going forward with Scotland. Never mind that it is another team constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.