By Jason McKeown
Oli McBurnie’s loan move to Chester is a reflection of the fact things have not gone to plan this season for the young striker – although it’s highly dubious as to whether that plan is being executed appropriately in the first place.
At just 18-years-old and with the cushion of a two-year Bradford City contract, the pressure upon McBurnie’s shoulders should not have been intense as it has unfortunately proved during his early season Bantams appearances. McBurnie struggled during this run of games and has seemingly lost a lot of goodwill from supporters.
In an ideal world, McBurnie should have been eased much more gently into first team action, with the occasional substitute cameo appearance here and there; the frequency of his involvement steadily increasing as the season progresses.
McBurnie is one for the future, not necessarily for the here and now. The bonus of achieving more game time than he might have expected, early doors, was negated by a growing number of people rushing to form conclusive judgements – which are inevitably negative – over his ability and prospects.
With James Hanson injured, Mason Bennett flattering to deceive and Aaron Mclean struggling for form, greater responsibility was placed on McBurnie, early doors, in terms of starting matches or being asked to come off the bench and affect games. It was a big, big ask that has so far proven beyond him, but at this stage of his career that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of ultimately making that big step up – providing he is managed in the right way.
McBurnie has only legally being able to drink since last April, yet is conclusively judged by some over whether he can make it in a man’s game. Initial bursts of promise – such as his cameo against Leeds in the cup – have not being built upon, and the weight of negative pressure from many supporters has started to affect his confidence. During appearances against Port Vale, Crewe and Barnsley in September/October, he looked drained of self-belief. But that was after being involved in six straight City games; part of a team that at the time was not firing on all cylinders.
Needs must that McBurnie figured so often, but it hasn’t necessarily being fair on the youngster that he was expected to make up for the failings of others. The arrival of Jon Stead and return to fitness of James Hanson meant McBurnie was taken out of the Bradford City firing line, although ironically McBurnie would perform better playing alongside a big striker like Stead or Hanson.
A loan move now makes perfect sense, and there is some relief that he is making a temporary move to a club only two divisions below, with a healthy fanbase that has its own expectations. Much more welcome compared to ending up too far down the ladder, at a Bradford Park Avenue or Guiseley, which would offer limited value. Chester City will provide an excellent test of his ability, and if can score goals at Conference level it will have some relevance over whether he can ultimately score goals at Valley Parade.
For inspiration he should consider how in 2007 youth graduate Joe Colbeck – also only 18 at the time – was loaned to Darlington after struggling badly in the first team. He found his mojo in the North East, returned to Valley Parade brimming with belief and won the player of the season award for his subsequent performances. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forwards.
But this shouldn’t be a make or break period of McBurnie’s career. He has so much to learn, and mistakes and difficult periods to go through, in order to emerge a better player and a stronger character. Again it needs emphasising: he is just 18-years-old. His stunning goal record at youth level suggests there is something in the player, and in time and with the right backing he can demonstrate it where it counts and make a career out of the game.
Some players burst through from a young age, others take longer to bloom. The problem for many is that the age period of 18 to 21 offers limited opportunities to develop beyond appearing in the first team, which they might not be fully ready for. It was for this reason that the short-lived Development Squad was established three years ago, and if it was still around, McBurnie would be a player who could benefit from these focused age group coaching. At Bradford City now, there isn’t even a reserve team for him to develop from appearing in.
For a player who only 18 months ago was selected by Manchester United to play in the Milk Cup, and who represented them so well – with five goals and the golden boot trophy on the way to United winning the Irish youth competition – there deserves to be patience and goodwill shown towards McBurnie during this tricky period. At times over the past year, he has been thrown into the deep end and struggled for it.
The big impact is yet to come, but this isn’t yet the time to judge McBurnie in sink or swim terms.