Oliver Burke: Why I haven't yet given up on one of Scottish football's great mysteries - Alan Pattullo
Some comments from posters reacting to the news were brutally to the point although they could not be dismissed completely. Many were making the same point. Sheffield United fans. West Bromwich Albion fans.
“Pace but no brains,” was one comment. “A speedboat without a driver,” was another.
That gif of Forrest Gump/Tom Hanks running out of the gate of his house and then into the distance appeared at least twice. “I’m not sure what he is, but it’s not a footballer,” someone else mused.
Here we are again. The ballad of Oliver Burke. “One of life’s great mysteries,” a colleague responded in reference to the player in correspondence earlier this week. It isn’t only keyboard warriors who are baffled by him. What are we to make of him? Is it really possible to make a career out of football while not actually possessing football intelligence, something many seem to think is what is holding him back?
They fear he is just not savvy enough. Now 25, and yet to start 20 league games with any one club, these detractors might be right. After all, football intelligence is something they say that’s impossible to teach. You either have it or you don’t.
Amid the harsh judgements on Twitter were some warmer words expressing the hope Burke can get his career back on track out in Germany. There are some not ready to give up on him quite yet. I’d add myself to this group. He still tantalises. There’s a sense of what if that’s hard to shake off. What if he can build on the promise of several years ago. The thought has extra allure because for all that Che Adams has been a success since coming into the Scotland team, Steve Clarke still lacks a forward with the X factor. It was patently obvious in the World Cup play-off defeat to Ukraine.
Some clubs are clearly still seduced by the idea Burke can come good as well. It might be a long time since Werder Bremen could still consider themselves to be among the top clubs in Europe but they are back in the German top flight. They seem a better bet for Burke than some of the other options said to be available to the player.
Indeed, it says everything about the direction of his career that he was seriously considering a move to Millwall, where he spent the second half of last season on loan. Sheffield United had already decided to listen to offers for him. Former Hibs manager Paul Heckingbottom had made up his mind about the player, who joined from West Bromwich Albion in a player exchange deal with Callum Robinson.
It’s been a while since his transfers involved eye-watering sums. It cost West Brom a reported £15m to sign him from RB Leipzig. The deal taking him back to Germany has been described as an “undisclosed fee”, which, again, speaks volumes.
He’s already made a decent start at proving his critics wrong after scoring twice on his debut in a friendly against Karlsruher, with his first coming 25 seconds after stepping on the park as a second-half substitute. Manager Ole Werner’s words were slightly ominous when he noted how he had “faded away” on the running side of things. As many of the comments on social media sought to point out, some believe running is all he has.
There have been glimpses of other parts of his game. His only international goal in 13 appearances came just over three years ago when he struck the winner in a 2-1 victory over Cyprus in Clarke’s first match in charge.
It was a classic No 9’s goal. Burke took up good position in the heart of the box and flicked Ryan Fraser’s cross towards goal with a neat header. The ball bashed back off the post and he tucked away the equaliser. Finally, lift off. Or so we thought.
Chris Burke, currently without a club, is probably nearer an international return than his younger namesake right now. Time is running out.
It seems like only yesterday when the Kirkcaldy-born Burke was running amok at the Toulon youth tournament in successive summers. Peter Grant was one of the Scotland coaches in France in 2017 when Burke burst on the scene, leading his side to a win against Brazil and scoring a stunning solo goal v Czech Republic.
“If you could carve a footballer out, as in physicality, then he’s the perfect specimen,” says Grant. “He is like a middleweight boxer – lightning quick and very strong. All the attributes are there.
“But my question is – you might have all these attributes, but if you don’t have a football brain, what good are they?
"What you do with the ball is so important,” he continues. Because he didn’t have pace to rely on, Grant himself had to develop game awareness. It can be done.
Grant recalls the disastrous 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan when he was assistant to Scotland manager Alex McLeish. Burke started on the left. “In the first five minutes, we had two unbelievable chances and he was the reason for both, breaking down the left-hand side.” Burke failed to find the net or a teammate.
“Is there something missing?” wonders Grant. “It’s not because he refuses to listen. Maybe he is too quick for his brain upstairs.”
Grant is sympathetic. He argues that Burke has not worked with a coach long enough to work on this aspect of his game.
In the first month of the Bundesliga season, Burke is due to come up against Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt. Simply staying in the team must be Burke’s first aim at Werder Bremen. Try to start 20 league games at least. This might be his time. At last.
Let’s hope that before long, rather than Forrest Gump, the gif used in reference to Burke will be Homer Simpson retreating into a hedge as critics concede they got it wrong.
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