‘Starved’ Oliver Burke eyes salvation at Celtic

Oliver Burke makes his Celtic debut against Airdrie. Picture: SNS.
Oliver Burke makes his Celtic debut against Airdrie. Picture: SNS.
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The route to Celtic’s secluded training ground in Lennoxtown proved difficult for Oliver Burke to negotiate. The on-loan West Bromwich Albion winger admits he got completely lost when driving out there for the first time last week. Ultimately, though, the complex is where the 21-year-old hopes he can find himself again.

The much-vaunted Burke arrived at Celtic in the opening week of the transfer window with an unwanted career record. He has moved for £28 million in transfer fees across his short career. That works out at more than £1m for every senior start he has made – there were only 27 of these on his CV before he moved to Scotland.

The likeable attacker is looking for Celtic and Brendan Rodgers to offer salvation. In the form of game time. The pace and power of the solid 6ft 2in winger that left observers slack-jawed accorded him wunderkind status at Nottingham Forest. That afforded him little opportunity to rack up appearances before RB Leipzig made an offer that neither he nor his club could resist in August 2016 in the form of £13.68m; the same sum the Birmingham club paid to return him to English football last summer. The fact he has played little for his past two clubs means that Burke has been blocked from delivering on his youthful promise. He doesn’t pretend that hasn’t dragged him down.

“I feel like I have been dying, starving from not playing games,” he said. “Hopefully now I can come here, enjoy myself and play games. That’s really important to develop me as a player. I want to train as hard as I can, give everything for the club and fight for a place in the team.

“It’s upsetting but I know I still have a lot of time on my hands. I’m still a young player so if I keep my head down and keep progressing and working hard hopefully I can reach that potential.

“A lot of hype and pressure came out of that but it’s understandable. That’s just how the football industry works. You have to take the pressure in a way to get through it. That’s not easy. I prefer to focus solely on football, I don’t like looking at media and stuff. I’m happy now. I’m happy to be at Celtic and hopefully I can enjoy my football here.”

It is almost three years since Burke made his senior Scotland debut. He was the fast racked into the senior set-up without having then come through the under-21 route because the Kirkcaldy-born, Leicestershire raised forward was considered the great young hope of a nation. He refuses to consider that Scotland recognition and big-money move to Germany in his teenage years was all a case of too much too soon.

“I was on top of the world and loving it so I’m not going to say I regret any of it,” he said. “When you’re doing well you’re not going to say you don’t want to go, are you?

“I enjoyed my time but a lot of pressure came with it, huge pressure. It all happened so quickly. I have never experienced transfers or media or anything like that before. To all of a sudden have that all in a oner, that’s a big shock to the system. You have to process all that.”

Celtic fans have been attempting to process exactly what Burke can be expected to contribute in what is essentially a four-month footballing spell north of the border. The case of Charly Musonda is a cautionary tale. He arrived on an 18-month loan from Chelsea to much fanfare a year ago but featured so rarely in the second half of last season that his agreement was cancelled.

Rodgers may see Burke as a player he can mentor to enhance his knowledge of the many forward roles he believes the player is flexible enough to excel in. Yet, with James Forrest occupying Burke’s default position of right wing, opportunities could prove far more limited than either the player or his parent club might imagine.

However, Burke takes heart from the fact that Forrest is now flourishing after having endured difficulties early in his career not so far removed from those the on-loan player is currently experiencing. In his early twenties, Forrest was written off in some quarters as one of those many players that fail to follow up on showing such dazzling capabilities at a tender age.

Indeed, there is a certain irony that when Burke was selected for Scotland, it was speculated that by establishing himself a role on the right he would leave Forrest permanently on the international periphery. Three years on, the Celtic winger’s stock has never been higher, following his double and hat-trick in the wins over Albania and Israel that allowed Scotland to win their Nations League section in November.

“What he has done for Scotland is a big inspiration for me,” said Burke. “I really admire that and I look up to James in a way because of what he has done. It’s great to play alongside him and be in training with him and the other lads now. You can turn things around. Anything is possible in football.”