As with any live television veteran worth their salt, Neil McCann had arrived prepared. Before speaking to reporters yesterday the Sky Sports pundit jotted down the Scotland team he’d most like to see line-up this Sunday against Malta. Included on this wish list was one Oliver Burke, the name presently on everyone’s lips.
But whether the 19 year-old is on Gordon Strachan’s team-sheet, which is the only one that matters, remains to be seen.
Many hope the £13 million man will feature, if only to absolutely confirm his status as Scottish. Slightly worryingly, Burke, who has made two friendly appearances for Scotland to date, can still be poached by England, where he was schooled and grew up.
But if he plays even so much as a minute of Sunday’s Group F World Cup qualifier, everyone can relax: it means Scotland can continue to enjoy the benefits of being able to call upon someone already drawing comparisons with Gareth Bale.
McCann, who scored the winner the last but one time Scotland managed to kick-off a qualifying campaign with a victory, against Latvia in 2000, stressed the need to make a positive start.
There are no guarantees of course. Scotland failed to qualify on that occasion too. But in order to progress from a qualifying group that includes England it seems imperative that three points are secured this weekend.
McCann believes Strachan should take advantage of the circumstances that saw Burke become Scotland’s most expensive ever player just days before the international team return to competitive action. He reckons the player will rarely feel as confident and ready to shine as he does now.
As a fellow winger, McCann was always likely to be drawn to Burke. But even before the Nottingham Forest player’s eye-catching move to Red Bull Leipzig, the former Dundee, Hearts and Rangers winger had done his research.
“I have been reading a lot up on him,” McCann said. “Before the squad came out I was looking ahead to us showing the game live next weekend.
“So I was looking at Oliver prior to his fantastic move, just because I wanted to know more about him. He is something different.”
He is certainly different to McCann, who fitted the traditional idea of a tricky, diminutive Scottish winger when he burst onto the scene at Dundee in the early 1990s. Burke, on the other hand, conforms to the modern notion of a wide player – tall at 6ft 2in, powerful and pacey.
He is perfectly built for Europe’s top leagues, hence RB Leipzig’s eagerness to spend such a huge amount of money on the teenager, who has the potential to be something rather special if he continues improving at his present rate. McCann highlighted Burke’s physical qualities. “Wingers generally, when you think about the norm, and certainly Scottish wingers, like me, are smaller in nature,” he said. “This boy bucks the trend totally – and that is why it is so easy to draw comparisons with Gareth Bale, he is so strong and powerful. Sometimes when you get that type of player the fluidity of movement does not come hand in hand but I have seen a lot of him. And I think he has the full package.”
Whether Strachan will be swayed by the burst of headlines hailing Burke’s shock move remains to be seen; McCann senses not. According to the former Scotland cap, pictured above, the manager is more likely to remain loyal to Matt Ritchie, now at Newcastle United, and James Forrest, currently enjoying a new lease of life at Celtic. But McCann would prefer Strachan surfed the wave of optimism surrounding Burke.
“Considering the lack of games in certain positions throughout the team, I was just wondering, given the high young Oliver will be on, whether it is worth throwing him in v Malta.
“I do believe we will have enough to take care of Malta. Because of the buzz and excitement that he will be experiencing and the high he is on as well as the confidence then I think he is worth a shout for inclusion. He has four goals already this season for Nottingham Forest, who are doing well in the Championship, so why not?”
“I have a team written down here in front of me and I had Burke starting. Just to see [what he can do]. Sometimes coming on as substitute can be difficult. People are up to speed, the pattern of the game could already be set. Whether Gordon will do that, I am unsure. I don’t know if he will.
“I think he will look to Matt Ritchie, who is performing for Newcastle, and James Forrest, who is resurgent under Brendan Rodgers, I think those boys might be ahead of Oliver in Gordon’s thinking.
“But I’d be tempted to throw the boy in, I really would,” he added. “That’s the choice Gordon has to make.
“This is a good start for us. Look at England who are away to Slovakia, that’s a really tough game. Something has to give there. That’s the top three sides in the group. So it’s a good opportunity for us to be brave.”
l Sky Sports will show over 200 games from the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifying campaign including Malta v Scotland on Sunday.