Tickets for Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania really ought to fly out of the door on the back of the pitch provided for the encounter yesterday by national team assistant Mark McGhee.
The Hampden match on 8 October is presented by the Motherwell manager as a must for every age of Scotland supporter who craves the opportunity to glimpse the successor to Kenny Dalglish in dark blue. That is the bracket into which McGhee is willing to place Scotland’s most expensive footballer, Oliver Burke.
McGhee pays little heed to the £13 million that RB Leipzig paid Nottingham Forest for the 19-year-old last month. He didn’t need that value placed on the Kirkcaldy-born winger to know that he has priceless talents, utilised in a competitive international for the first time in Scotland’s 5-1 win in their World Cup opener in Malta ten days ago.
Burke made an instant impression in German football by coming off the bench to set up Leipzig’s late winner over Borussia Dortmund for a debut contribution that secured the promoted side’s first ever Bundesliga victory. McGhee has no doubts that the 6ft 2in winger will be a game-changing performer for club and country, the sort that Scotland supporters should thrill at being able to see at such an early stage of their careers.
“From the first day I saw him I was staggered by how good a player he was and just his physicality, his athleticism, and in particular his speed,” McGhee said of Burke. “He is a hugely exciting player for the supporters to see. For the supporters, they have been looking for this iconic player for some time – since Kenny maybe, I don’t know – but this boy could be that and I would recommend to young supporters particularly and parents who want to get their kids on board, then this is the boy who might do it for us. They should get their kids along to the Lithuania game because he really is a tremendous prospect.”
McGhee cautions that Burke won’t be the man/boy who all on his own will elevate a national side to succeed where in the past nine qualifying campaigns they have failed. Still a teenager, and with only a couple of dozen senior outings, Burke can’t be to Scotland what Gareth Bale is for Wales or Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Sweden. Such figures take proven abilities at the highest club level into the international domain. McGhee, though, believes Burke can be one of a clutch of players to provide a fresh impetus to Gordon Strachan’s side, helped in part, by the fact they are really untainted by previous campaign failures.
“That is really important,” he said. “You have got to have that freshness coming in, not only for the fans but for the manager, for the coaches, the other players. They have seen Olly Burke coming in and they have thought ‘wow, this is going to be good for us, this is going to help us’. And it gives them a positive thing as well, something that they can look forward to as well. Players in form, new players coming in, can’t do us any harm.
“We are going to have to provide a platform for him [Burke]. Then when you come to those critical moments – where someone has to beat someone, or someone has to provide a cross – you have someone who can definitely do it when the going is tough. The rest of them have to provide the platform for him to do that.
“As much as there will be the star players, [you need people like] Barry Bannan, I am a lover of him as a player as well, he is a tremendous trainer, always brilliant in training, he was brilliant in Malta as well. We have Barry back in form, James Forrest back in form and we have not seen Barrie McKay yet but, oh my goodness, what a good player he is. I thought he was a good player but when I have seen him up close, his eye for a pass and his weight of pass, he is terrific.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the campaign a lot of these boys had emerged as regular starters and they are all really exciting players for people to come and watch. It is not just humdrum – but the rest of them have to be solid behind that. We have to have a shape and way of playing behind that which gives them the opportunity to produce the important moments which give you a chance to win games.”
The success in Malta has certainly provided a fillip to a Scotland support that had begun to exhibit signs of fatigue over the flunking out before finals – and the particularly dispiriting way in which this happened across the second half of Euro 2016. For the early part of that campaign, Strachan and his team had the Tartan Army firmly on side. McGhee wants that unity restored and believes a full house against Lithuania could be the means to build momentum.
“I can only go back to my own experience as a player playing for Scotland. Everyone knows I played for Aberdeen against the likes of Real Madrid but the biggest moment in my career and the best feeling I had as a player in a football match was the moment I scored against England. I remember the noise that was produced at Hampden. It was just the pinnacle of my career,” said one of the Pittodrie side’s 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup titans. “If someone like Steven Fletcher, Chris Martin or Oliver Burke go out and produce a wonder goal and there’s 20,000 people there it’s not quite the same as if there were 50,000 people bringing down the roof.”