Mark McGhee clearly anticipated the line of questioning when sitting down yesterday to meet with reporters as the countdown to another international campaign continues.
“Guten morgen,” is how the Scotland assistant manager greeted visitors to the team base at Mar Hall. As was the case the last time Scotland prepared to set off on a qualifying adventure, at the start of the Euro 2016 campaign, the assistant manager knew he’d be tasked with casting his mind back to his German sojourn in the mid 1980s.
Two years ago it was the prospect of a trip to face Germany in the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, where McGhee made his debut for SV Hamburg in 1984, which prompted a trip down memory lane.
This time it was the surprising turn of events involving Oliver Burke that sparked a Bundesliga re-tread.
When Burke was named in Strachan’s original 27-man squad for Sunday’s trip to Malta, he was just another promising newcomer hoping to build on two friendly appearances at the tail end of last season.
Now he is Scotland’s most expensive ever player following this week’s astonishing £13million transfer to Red Bull Leipzig, a relatively new club based in the east of Germany.
McGhee obliged by flicking through his own back pages. He approached Kevin Keegan levels of enthusiasm as he contemplated Scotland’s latest export to the Bundesliga. “I’ve not had a long conversation with him, but I did say to him yesterday, it’s a great move – he will love it, absolutely love it,” said McGhee.
He recalled how he was introduced to a different level of professionalism upon his own arrival in what was then West Germany. Aberdeen, where McGhee played with so much success for five years, were a well-run club. Hamburg, however, were something else.
“They had a much better commitment to what they were doing which even we didn’t have at Aberdeen, where we were good to a degree,” said McGhee. “But there was another level we didn’t even know was there.”
There is little that has occurred since to give McGhee reason to change his view. Germany are the reigning world champions, after all. Burke is going to the right place – for his sake, as well as Scotland’s.
McGhee wished he could have stayed in the Bundesliga for longer than 18 months. But he returned to Scotland, and to boyhood heroes Celtic, a far better player. “And I was later in my career – for a young player to go there and be influenced by their regimes they have in place and the mentality they adopt over there is fantastic, you’ll see a difference,” he said.
“It is such a great league,” he added. “The standards are so high over there with everything they do, and obviously he is at a club who are hugely ambitious.”
McGhee cautioned Burke against thinking it would be too easy. He has already pulled him up for one comment during the short conversation they had earlier this week at Mar Hall. Burke suggested to McGhee that everyone would be able to speak English. Not so, warned McGhee.
“Not everything will be straightforward,” he said. “The language is important. He made the comment to me that ‘everyone speaks English’. Well, not everyone does speak English. The people immediately around him may speak English but a lot of them don’t, especially in east Germany.”
Although he was only at Hamburg for a short spell, McGhee left with a fine command of the language. It continues to stand him in good stead today.
“He will certainly benefit from learning the language,” he noted. “But it’s a brilliant, brilliant move for him.
“He seems a calm boy and very focused. He doesn’t seem as if he’ll go there and go off the rails.”
“He’s the sort of lad that will embrace it,” he added. “You can see in his eyes he’s excited by it and I hope he sticks with it. Leipzig is not the same as Dortmund, Munich or Hamburg as it’s the former East Germany. But I think he’s at a club that has big ambitions and that’s important.”
McGhee expressed surprise that the player wasn’t a target for a top English Premier League club. “I am just amazed none of the big clubs in England didn’t have a punt on him,” he said. “It was an obvious one for me. You think back to Arsenal taking people like [Theo] Walcott early on for millions and I thought he was another obvious one. They are all buying players from abroad and there is one under their nose who I think will turn into a super player.”
In terms of raw talent, McGhee compared Burke to Robbie Keane, who began his career under McGhee at Wolves. There is no higher praise from McGhee, who once described Keane as the best player he’d ever worked with.
McGhee got an initial glimpse of Burke’s potential at a training game at Mar Hall in March, after the then relatively unknown Nottingham Forest winger was called up to the full squad for the first time. “He had everything about him – the way he moves, his size, his touch,” recalled McGhee. “From the very first moment I saw him up there I was licking my lips, I really was.”
Tartan Army fans are savouring the thought Scotland’s long wait for a world- class player could be set to end with Burke, who McGhee noted, carefully, has the potential to become a “super” player. Hopes of a further upgrade to superstar certainly won’t be harmed by a spell in Germany.