The scout credited with unearthing Oliver Burke was in no doubt of the winger’s quality.
“Of course he will be as big as Kenny Dalglish,” instead Leicestershire-based Scottish FA talent-spotter Mick Elliott not long after Burke had completed a £15 million move from Nottingham Forest to RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. That, of course, was an outlandish thing to say.
Something else from that interview stuck with Burke, though. While the comparison may have been drawn before by somebody somewhere, it was Elliott who proliferated the idea of Burke being, as he put it, “Scotland’s answer to [Gareth] Bale.”
There was something in the way the two played the game, in their pace and physicality and also in the way they looked abroad when so many British players choose to stay at home. However, the Bale comparisons fell flat as Burke failed in Germany and struggled to make a mark at West Brom too.
Celtic’s loan signing of the 21-year-old in January was a gamble. There was little to suggest Burke would hit the ground running having spent so long on the sidelines in the first half of the season, and yet that’s exactly what he has done with his performance against St Johnstone on Saturday his best in the famous green and white hoops so far.
Tommy Wright’s visitors to Celtic Park had no way of coping with the driving runs of Burke, with the winger’s highlight reel moment coming in his assist for Scott Sinclair’s second, when having given Jason Kerr a head-start of a number of years he chased down a ball, surged to the byline and played a perfect pass right across the face of goal for his teammate to convert.
It was a Bale-esque contribution from a player who is finally starting to emulate the Real Madrid man.
Of course, Burke is a long, long way short of reaching the heights scaled by the Welshman, but he is performing the same role for Celtic that Bale has for Real Madrid, Spurs and Wales over the years.
“Oli has shown and started to progress as we thought he could,” Brendan Rodgers explained after the Scottish Cup win over St Johnstone. “He has wonderful attributes and his pressing sets a real tone. He’ll be difficult to play against because the one thing that frightens defenders is pace. It’s a joy to watch a Scottish player with that physicality and quality. There are things that he continues to work on, but he’s doing exceptionally well and he has to keep improving.”
Indeed, having proven himself against domestic opponents in Scotland, Thursday’s Europa League last 32 clash with Valencia presents Burke with an opportunity to show just how important he now is to Celtic. He could be crucial in getting in behind the Spaniards, who will likely claim the majority of possession.
Despite recent performances, it might still be the case that Burke is not nailed down for a place in Celtic’s strongest line-up. However, should he maintain his current form then Rodgers will surely have no choice but to find a place in his team for the winger. And in that case Celtic will surely look to make Burke’s loan deal a permanent one.
“Right now I’m just focusing on day-to-day,” the winger said when asked whether he would make to stay at Celtic past the summer.
“I don’t want to look ahead too far because sometimes decisions can be taken out of your hands. But if I’m enjoying my football, then I want to stay. It’s obviously an amazing club to be at, the fans are great, we have a great manager so what’s not to love? I’m really happy so we’ll just have to see what happens.”
It can sometimes be easy to forget that Burke is still only 21. Hyped as the next big thing in Scottish football from his teenage years, it’s only now that he is fulfilling his true potential. The Bale comparison, for a time, became a weight around Burke’s neck, but it might still hold up somewhat.