Swansea’s Oli McBurnie: Playing for Scotland Was Inevitable Despite Being Born in Leeds

Swansea’s Oli McBurnie: Playing for Scotland Was Inevitable Despite Being Born in Leeds

Thursday, 18 October, 2018 - 05:45
Oli McBurnie, whose father is Scottish, says he and his brother went to school in Leeds ‘in Scotland shirts with our face painted in Scotland colours’. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures
London - Stuart James
Oli McBurnie has only heard the words “your style of play” at the beginning of the question and he is already roaring with laughter. “I can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say,” the Swansea striker adds as he stretches out that lean 6ft 3in frame with a big grin on his face.

As it happens, McBurnie needs no prompting. “Everyone says I’m a throwback. The Steve Claridge shout – I get that one a lot. The way I look is not the way everybody else looks on the pitch. Even the way I play – people say I look clumsy, leggy, all that sort of thing. I guess I’m unorthodox but it works to my advantage, because I get underestimated all the time.”

For those unfamiliar with McBurnie, the Scotland international is a fascinating character. He plays with his shirt out and his socks rolled down by his ankles, and wears shin pads that serve no purpose other than to comply with the rules. “They’re toddlers’ ones,” McBurnie says, when asked about the size of his pads. “They’re the smallest I can find. We never wear shin pads in training, and then you go into a game and wear them, so that feels alien to me.”

McBurnie is not finished there. “I wear these socks on a match day,” he adds, pointing to his white ankle socks. “I know this might sound very pedantic to other people, but long football socks feel different and are a lot baggier in your boot, so I cut the foot bit off, so the rest covers up my ankles, and then roll it over. But effectively I’m just wearing these [ankle] socks with shin pads. I’m quite meticulous in terms of the things I do.”

The rather unusual dress code, McBurnie explains, is partly down to comfort but also a superstition that started with a loan at Chester, where the kit was so old the elastic had gone in the socks. “I kept pulling them up and was getting sick of it. I think it was the third game I played, Welling away, the pitch was horrific, they were kicking lumps out of us, and I thought: ‘I’m just going to see if it’s comfy with the socks down.’ I scored my first professional goal that day, so I’ve stuck with it ever since.”

That was in January 2015, when McBurnie was on loan from Bradford. He joined Swansea that summer and it has been a long and winding road to get to the stage where he is wearing the No 9 shirt for his club and is a mandatory pick for Scotland. Swansea’s relegation helped his prospects at club level but the real gamechanger was last season’s loan at Barnsley. McBurnie scored nine times in 17 Championship appearances and was their player of the year, despite being at Oakwell for only three months.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for Barnsley,” he says. “Before Barnsley, it had been stop-start at Swansea. I was involved; I was back down with the under-23s; I was on the bench. I never really got going. I’m starting a game at Anfield [on Boxing Day last year] and then the next week I’m in the squad for the under-23s – it’s hard to adjust. But Barnsley gave me the platform to be playing first-team football and I’ll always be grateful to them. And because of that, Swansea then trusted me to be the No 1 striker, because they’d seen me do it in a team that was struggling in the Championship.”

McBurnie should have joined Barnsley five months earlier but “one missing signature – not mine” meant that the EFL rejected the transfer a week after it had been announced. “I was actually at a house viewing up there, for a place that I ended up buying – I’ve moved my mum in there now – and I got a call to say my loan hadn’t gone through. I thought it was a wind-up,” says McBurnie.

When McBurnie returned from Oakwell for a second time in the summer he had a big decision to make. He had 12 months left on his contract and was not short of offers elsewhere but one conversation with Graham Potter, Swansea’s manager, was all it needed. “We must have spoken for an hour in his office. That was the first day of pre-season and he was taking the time out to speak to me, saying he wanted me to be here, that he wanted me to be his No 9 and that he thought he could make me a better player, and that he thought I could help us become a better team. I got out of that meeting, rang my agent and said: ‘I want to sign the deal.’”

Potter’s arrival, McBurnie says, has reinvigorated the squad. “It’s just a good place to come in to work every day. And it’s such a good dressing room now, in terms of players wanting to learn, wanting to fight for each other, and for the manager. And I think you can see that when you look at some of the games.”

In a season when he has played wide left and in the No 10 role as well as through the middle up front, McBurnie has two assists and four goals, including a superb double against Leeds that was especially enjoyable given he was playing against his hometown club. Not only that but a club who released him for – and it is hard not to smile at how ridiculous this sounds – “being too small”.

While a growth spurt in his mid-teens dramatically altered his appearance, nothing was going to change his international allegiances. Born in Leeds to an English mother and Scottish father, McBurnie could, in theory, have represented either country. The reality was rather different.

Asked what say his mum had in his choice, McBurnie replies: “Zero. She tried her best but had no influence whatsoever. The second me and my brother were old enough, we were wearing a Scotland or a Rangers shirt. Looking back on it I can see why other people would think it was weird. Me and my brother, with broad Yorkshire accents, going in to school on non-uniform days in Scotland shirts with our face painted in Scotland colours. I don’t know if people have had the experience of a dad who wants you to do something … you don’t have much say in it.”

McBurnie’s laughter as he makes that last comment captures his mood these days. Swansea are not so much in transition as starting over again, yet McBurnie gives the impression that being a footballer has never been so much fun. “At Sheffield United [on the opening day], we were looking around at each other during the game and we were smiling and enjoying playing,” he says. “It’s not been like that at this club for a long time and it’s such a refreshing attitude to have.”

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