Leigh Griffiths rightly remains as Scotland’s undisputed first-choice striker. The applause ringing around Hampden Park for young Oliver McBurnie on Friday night offered hope that he can provide some stern competition.
It is a position where the national team seems perennially short on quality choices. McBurnie’s performance against Costa Rica belied the fact the Swansea City forward was winning his first senior cap. It was one of few bright notes on an otherwise bleak return to the international arena for Scotland manager Alex McLeish.
Chris Martin, Steven Fletcher, Steven Naismith and Jason Cummings have all attempted to challenge Griffiths’ status as automatic choice. With the Celtic striker injured, Cummings is alongside McBurnie in the current squad and is expected to feature against Hungary tomorrow. Naismith may well return to the group later this year.
McBurnie staked his claim unequivocally against the Costa Ricans. He showed flashes of the ability which has brought him six goals in nine games on loan at Barnsley – form which earned him promotion to the full Scotland squad. He received warm applause when substituted on 78 minutes – and it was well deserved.
“It was one of the main factors for me going out on loan, 100 per cent,” said the player, born in Leeds to a fiercely patriotic Glaswegian father. “I could have had the easy life, coming off the bench now and again in the Premier League, or I could go out every week and play in the Championship to put myself out there and get recognised on the international stage.
“I can only thank the gaffer for taking note of that, and hopefully if I keep scoring at Barnsley then the next cap will come. I never look too far forward, but when Griffiths was injured it was a massive boost. For a striker, there’s not a lot to pick from at the minute. It’s up to us to go out and stake a claim for that position. You’ve got to throw your name in the hat.
“The gaffer pulled me after the game and told me I thoroughly deserved my call up and my cap, so I can’t thank him enough. I’ll always be grateful of that, no matter what happens.”
As well as competing for the striking role, McBurnie and Cummings also happen to be room-mates. “It’s a handful at times. You have to rein him in a little bit, and it’s weird being the mature one in a room for a change,” smiled McBurnie. “He’s one of my best friends in football. We always have a good laugh. He sometimes gets a bit out of hand, but I just rein him back in.”
There is an element of McBurnie still pinching himself at being alongside players like Liverpool’s Andy Robertson. “It’s a dream. When I was at Swansea they were scrapping in the relegation zone and you weren’t getting many chances. I’ve gone to Barnsley, got more chances and scored a few goals.
“A striker is only as good as the service he gets. If you’re not getting any crosses or chances, there’s not a lot you can do. Andy is playing at a ridiculous level now. He’s got the Champions League quarter-finals in a couple of weeks. Playing with those players, you can only improve.”
It is clear in conversation that McBurnie doesn’t lack confidence himself, either. Don’t mistake it for arrogance, though. He enjoyed the reaction to his display despite the 1-0 friendly loss to Costa Rica, but he acknowledged this is the first foray into senior international football. He is not yet a cult hero. “I don’t know about that. I’ll just get the next game out of the way, I’m not looking too far ahead,” he said. “The fans were great with me, and everywhere I’ve been I’ve been lucky enough to get a good reception from the fans.
“I don’t know if it’s because I run around a lot or what, but the fans have always been great for me and I can only thank them for that. They obviously understand that it’s hard for a 21-year-old to come in for his first international start, but I felt I coped alright and they were brilliant with me. I can’t thank them enough.”
He came close to a debut goal, with a shot in the first half and an opportunity thwarted by a defender after the break. “It was frustrating that the defender got a little nudge on me. As long as I’m getting in the positions, that’s all that matters,” he explained.
“I had a shot in the first half and then a chance in the second. It was a good night for me. It was a proud night, although the result was disappointing.
“I’m a confident boy. I wouldn’t say I felt out of place there. There were a few nerves at the start and my first touch was horrific, but other than that I felt pretty comfortable.
“It would’ve been nice to get a goal but it’s my first game. I thought I looked alright.
“There are things I can improve on but I’m only 21 years old playing international football.
“This is where I want to be. I want to stay there and learn as much as I can.”
He also felt he deserved a penalty. “It was, 100 per cent. The defender isn’t even looking at the ball and he’s clotheslined me. The ref said he didn’t see it. I said: ‘Is that not your job?’. He said he was looking at the ball, then I think there was a language barrier.”