Oli McBurnie looks to make striking impression with Scotland

Oli McBurnie during Scotland  training at the Oriam.
Oli McBurnie during Scotland training at the Oriam.
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Born in 1996, Oli McBurnie was only two years old when Scotland last qualified for a major tournament, under Craig Brown. Which is just as well, since he would never have survived the former Scotland manager’s stringent views about appearance.

Even on the pitch, Brown was a stickler for his players maintaining high standards, which meant shirts tucked in and socks pulled up. McBurnie, by contrast, is a throwback to the days of Paul Sturrock; socks rolled down, shirt untucked. He does consent – indeed, must do due to rules – to wearing shin pads, but even these are micro-sized.

“When I was 17, I was on loan at Chester in the Conference,” he explains. “They didn’t have a lot of kit, so I had a big, baggy shirt and shorts. All the elastic had come out of the socks. I’m not the biggest guy now, but I was even skinnier back then so these socks kept falling down.

“After the third game, I gave up and kept them down. I scored my first professional goal and got man of the match, so ever since then it has been more of a superstition.

“I keep the socks down and my shin pads are not that big. I’m quite superstitious. If I score one week, I will keep wearing the same boots and trainers leading up to the next game. If I don’t score then I will change it all.

“But it’s fashion with the socks,” he concedes. “I get hammered for it!”

McBurnie, 21, is a genuine partner-in-crime for Jason Cummings, his international room-mate and pal. They are a potential Scotland forward pairing in the up-coming friendlies against Cost Rica and Hungary.

Like Cummings, McBurnie is partial to a tattoo or seven – he has the face of Tony Montana, from the film Scarface, etched on his left arm. “I think I’ve got about six or seven tattoos in total,” he says. “But Jason has more.”

It’s good to have McBurnie outline such distinguishing features since some Scotland supporters could require help recognising someone who has played all his club football south of the Border. However, those who watch the Scotland Under-21s, and also Under-19s, will be aware of his potential, which Alex McLeish clearly hopes he can help fulfil.

McBurnie has been a regular at both age-levels, scoring twice in ten appearances for the Under 21s. Currently on loan until the end of the season at Barnsley, where he has scored five goals in his last six appearances, he will return to Swansea, where he has another year left of his contract.

Despite being born and raised in Leeds, with an accent to match, there was never any doubt about which international team to play for – his Glaswegian father, Neil, made sure of that. McBurnie satisfies such Tartan Army stipulations as cheering when England are knocked out of the major finals.

“I never really had any choice with my old man,” he explains. “My brother (Zander) and I always got brought up as being Scottish. We would go into school when it was a dress-down day and we would be wearing our Scotland tops. It seems weird to me when people are saying ‘you’re English’. I’m like ‘I’m Scottish, I’ve always been Scottish’.

“We were brought up Scottish. We were brought up to celebrate when England got knocked out of the World Cup. That was my childhood. I didn’t really have any say in the matter.

“All my family are from Glasgow. When I told my grandma about the call-up, she said that was enough for her. No matter what else happened in football, if I got called up for the Scotland first team, I would have done her proud.”

Now he has been and Morag, his 91-year-old Partick-raised grandmother, was among the first to hear. McBurnie is one of four strikers in a new-look squad. Slightly worryingly, these forwards have an aggregate tally of zero international goals to date.

McBurnie is unfazed by the pressure being heaped on his shoulders. So what is he? At 6ft 2in, there is a temptation to label him as the new Duncan Ferguson. He currently stands on the same number of international goals as Ferguson at any rate.

“He is desperate to get off the mark against Costa Rica or Hungary and help prove wrong the doubters he has often had to contend with.

“I was always small as a kid, that was why I got released (from Leeds United),” he explained. “I had to find a different way of playing, using my feet and movement. I then had a big growth spurt and people were like: ‘You have to be a target man’. So I had to learn that role as well and I think it has helped that I have done both sides.

“At Barnsley, I have been playing on the wing at the moment. I like to think I can play in a few different positions and a few different styles, but in the last few years of my professional career I have usually been a target man.

“I like to score goals and bring other people into the game. That’s what I want to do.

“Obviously, Leigh Griffiths is injured at the minute and he is the number one,” added McBurnie, conscious of Scotland’s eternal struggle to find a consistent goalscorer. “I just have to keep doing what I am doing at Barnsley and keep getting games and scoring goals.

“Who knows what will happen? I want to pull on the jersey for my country as many times as I can and score as many goals as I can. I am not just here to make up the numbers. I am here to try to have a positive influence and try to stay part of things.”