On an evening when physicality is likely to be a key feature, the Tartan Army might have relished the thought of Oliver Burke being let free to run at the English defence
But when Scotland are lining up next month ahead of the World Cup qualifier against England, the 6ft 2in winger will be at the Toulon tournament with Scot Gemmill’s Under-20 squad, having recently taken on the might of Brazil. Scotland’s youngsters will also have games against Czech Republic and Indonesia in a demanding seven-day schedule.
Following discussions between Strachan and Malky Mackay, the SFA performance director, Burke has been dropped to the Under-20 squad. Being sent to play Brazil in the south of France doesn’t seem like a particularly hard pill to swallow.
But Strachan hopes Burke understands that playing in such an environment with team-mates around his own age is for the benefit of the winger’s development. The Scotland manager admitted he is partly culpable for Burke’s struggles in a Scotland jersey to date.
Playing in Toulon, an annual event for selected under-21 sides, certainly did not do players such as Barry Ferguson any harm. The former national captain played when Scotland were last invited to attend, in 1997. The Scotland side that finished third in 1991 included Paul Lambert and Eoin Jess.
Lambert is a good example since he would later become a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund. Strachan hopes Burke, who is also now in Germany having joined RB Leipzig earlier this season for £15 million, can savour playing in a high-quality tournament without the suffocating pressure bound to accompany a must-win appointment with England.
“The expectation from myself, the media and fans have maybe put too much on him,” he said. “We all expected it because he can run like the wind, he can do this and he can do that. But he’s only played something like 23 starts in his career so the expectation on him was maybe too much.”
Burke started RB Leipzig’s final Bundesliga fixture of the season, Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt. But it was his first start since early April. He has scored only once since joining from Nottingham Forest in August.
While continuing to include him in recent squads, Strachan had clearly become wary of asking too much of Burke.
The winger, then aged only 19, started Scotland’s opening Group F qualifying win against Malta in September. But by the time Scotland were taking on Slovenia later that year he wasn’t even named on the bench. Burke had been replaced shortly after half-time in the home clash with Lithuania a few days earlier.
He was again left on the bench for the 3-0 defeat by England towards the end of last year and substituted at half-time in the friendly with Canada in March.
Strachan accepted some blame for exposing Burke to the pressure of competitive international football before he had even established himself at club level.
“Every time he walked on to the pitch, whether he started or came on as a sub, it’s very hard to have that expectation,” he said. “When you are not (playing regularly) and it’s only ten minutes it can be very hard to live up to that expectation.
“Speaking to Malky the other week, that’s why we thought the three games in Toulon will be great for him. I don’t think he’s played three games in close proximity. It’s a good level of competition where he can be free and enjoy himself without that much pressure. He’s going to be a top player, that’s for sure. But you need games at that stage of your career.”
Strachan was speaking yesterday at Hampden Park after announcing his 29-man squad for the clash with England on 10 June.
Former Motherwell winger Jamie Murphy, now at recently-promoted Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion, is among those who could potentially win their first international cap in such a vital fixture.
Kenny McLean has also forced his way back into the squad after impressing for Aberdeen.
“I saw Kenny a couple of weeks ago on the Friday night (v Celtic) and I thought he was terrific,” Strachan explained. “I thought he was terrific in a terrific game of football.
“I thought the first 45 minutes was as good as I’ve seen all season. The 90 minutes was good, but I thought the 45 minutes was absolutely fantastic. Kenny was in there surrounded by good players, but looking comfortable playing against these right good players and comfortable playing with good players. I thought he did very, very well and can be pleased with himself.”
McLean’s clubmate, Mark Reynolds, has been recalled to Strachan’s squad as well, having also enjoyed an impressive season in helping Derek McInnes’ side finish second in the Ladbtrokes Premiership and reach this Saturday’s Scottish Cup final.
Whether or not the pair survivesthe cull following the Hampden showpiece, when up to eight players named in the Scotland squad yesterday are likely to be involved, remains to be seen.
Strachan intends to reduce the squad to just 23 players as the countdown to such a vital and emotionally-charged fixture intensifies.
“There is an excitement factor about this game,” said Strachan. “Some games when you play in the summer don’t have the thrill factor. The thrill factor is here.
“We know what we are going to get from the players. They are a group I trust absolutely. When you play in big games you have to play players you could trust.
“It’s starting to get exciting.”