There could be no doubting the desire of Oli McBurnie to give his absolute all for Scotland as the ungainly 23-year-old striker bounded around ceaselessly despite earning little reward – and receiving pitiful service – during Friday’s bleak loss to Russia.
Sheffield United’s £20 million summer signing from Swansea City is cursing he ever allowed questions to be raised over his commitment to the country he grew up loving from Leeds through tales told by his fierce patriot of a father, Glasgow-born Neil. Yet, it could be no other way after the clip that emerged from his new club’s social media channel last week. It went viral because within it McBurnie was seen chatting to team-mate and fellow Scot John Fleck, pictured inset, before their Carabao Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers a week past Tuesday and saying that he hoped he wasn’t called-up by Steve Clarke because the set-up was “s****”.
The Scotland display in their 2-1 reverse at home to Russia on Friday could certainly be dismissed with such colourful, damning language. Not that the eight-times capped McBurnie ever would now. Not after being handed a painful lesson over the need to pick his words carefully – even in what might seem to have been simply having a laugh with a pal – for fear of being misinterpreted.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me,” McBurnie said. “Things like that only happen to me! It was stupid to put myself in that position. It was a private conversation in the dressing-room and five seconds was taken out of context. No-one heard the rest of the conversation. But nonetheless it looked terrible and it was stupid from me.
“My old man was raging at me. As soon as it came out, I rang the gaffer [Clarke] and gave him my point of view. We had one conversation and that was it cleared. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love playing for Scotland. I have done since I was a kid. My stupid mouth ran away from me.
“I got down about it because of the backlash. I could see how bad it looked. When I put myself out there like I do, it’s easy for people to use it as a stick to beat me with. But it’s my own fault, I have to realise where I am, what I can and can’t say.
“The family were angry with me, asking why I was saying that. But they know I love being up here and so do the boys in the squad. It was tougher to explain to the gaffer because he doesn’t know me. But he’ll have seen that I was trying to prove a point last week in training, to show how much I want to be here. I ran myself into the ground for the team on Friday.”
McBurnie seemed to want to run Sheffield United’s media team out of town after they placed him in an invidious position. “They’ve clipped a five second bit – who needs enemies, eh?” he said ruefully. “They apologised but the damage was already done. I shouldn’t have said it, even if it was banter and having a joke. I’ve had to suffer the repercussions.”
He sought to minimise those repercussions with a swift apology to Clarke, whom he hadn’t met before last week owing to missing the manager’s opening games in June, and an explanation to his team-mates when the squad met up.
“I just wanted to clear it up with the manager quickly,” McBurnie said. “I didn’t want that to be the first impression he had of me. We got it dealt with and we’ll put it behind us. I wanted to make that gesture. I don’t want people thinking that coming up here for Scotland is a chore or I don’t want to do it. If it was, I wouldn’t come. I love playing for Scotland, it was just a stupid thing said in a dressing-room.
“The whole episode was a shock to me. I’d played a game, I came off and people were sending me the video. That’s not what I wanted to see or the impression I want people to have of myself. So I was relieved to meet up with the boys. I spoke to them about it right away, I put across my side of the story and it was a big relief the way they accepted it.”
Were McBurnie truly a reluctant recruit when it comes to serving Scotland, he wouldn’t be able to point to a five-year association with the international set-up dating back to his call-ups for the under-19s and no fewer than 12 appearances for Scotland Under-21s.
“I wouldn’t have done all that if I didn’t consider myself a proud Scotsman,” he said. “My old man came to every one of those games – home and away. So he gave me a clip round the ear.”
McBurnie avoided any verbal clip round the ear that he had feared might have been dished out by the Tartan Army – and indeed they offered him audible backing the other night.
They are knowledgeable enough to know that the player is hardly the half-hearted type, or ever has been in international football.
“It was a relief not to get a negative reaction from the crowd on Friday. The fans were great with me,” he said.
“I put myself out there to be shot at but I understand the territory that comes with it. The fans gave me a great reception and I was thankful for that. I want to make an impression now to show what I can do for the country.
“I won’t try harder just because of this. Every time I go on the pitch for Scotland I want to give everything and score goals. If I keep working hard they will come.”
Ultimately it will be actions rather than words that McBurnie is judged on for Scotland.