CHRIS Burke is one of those footballers whose date of birth is as surprising as a slap in the face.
When Burke first played for Scotland he was just 22 and scoring twice on his debut against Bulgaria amounted to a pretty emphatic declaration of his potential. And then, in a Scotland shirt, nothing. After Gordon Strachan had recalled him to the team against Estonia, the manager looked genuinely surprised when a reporter told him how long the winger had gone between caps, and how old he now was. Burke will be 30 before this year is out.
More than a hundred appearances for Rangers established him as a talented but inconsistent winger, capable of winning a match or disappearing from it, sometimes both within the same 90 minutes. Injuries and patchy form added to a sense of fragility which deepened when a virus once led to him fainting during a Rangers game at Pittodrie. Moves to Cardiff City and then Birmingham City took him off the radar for most supporters in Scotland but Strachan – who now lives in the Midlands – remained watchful. He saw a Scottish player he admired, and did not trouble himself making inquiries about age or the date of his last cap.
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Walter Smith gave Burke his only previous caps against Bulgaria and Japan but did not select him for any of his remaining four games as manager, all of them qualifiers. Burke occasionally made himself unavailable to Scotland for personal, family reasons, which was a factor in Alex McLeish, George Burley and Craig Levein coming and going as managers without ever using him.
"I honestly didn't have a clue how long he had been out of the Scotland set-up," said Strachan, who depolyed him on the right and gave him the first half before making substitutions. "I would have said a year, or a year-and-a-half. It shows what I am like: if they look good then I am not fussed. I can understand if he had family reasons for wishing to be left out sometimes in the past because your family comes first. He seems a happy and content man now. I thought 'I'll take him off at half-time because that is as good as it gets!'"
Scotland have not stumbled across an undiscovered gem. Burke's limitations are evident in the fact he plays for a club in the bottom half of The Championship. There was never a clamour from fans demanding that he be rushed back into any Scotland team since 2006. Players like Paul Devlin, David Clarkson and Stephen Pearson all briefly showed promise at international level only to melt away. Still, Burke had a fine match. He was eager and productive; his attacks helped fans warm to the new manager's opening night.
Strachan's pleasure at Pittodrie would have been tempered when news reached him of Wales' 2-1 friendly defeat of Austria. The Welsh are up next at Hampden on Friday, March 22, when the World Cup qualification campaign resumes. The player who tore Scotland apart in October, Gareth Bale, was at it again against the Austrians. He scored his seventh goal in his last nine international games and his 17th of the season, and later delivered an excellent cross for Sam Vokes to score the second. Bale's goal was significant for Scotland because his pace took him away from the Austrian left-back Markus Suttner, whom he then cut across before scoring into the far corner with a left-foot shot.
Charlie Mulgrew scored his first international goal for the winner against Estonia but defensively he was up against Sader Puri of Kuopion Palloseura, who hasn't lately been mistaken for Bale. Given that Bale tends to come down the right for his country, left-back has to be a worry for Strachan. Neither Paul Dixon nor Danny Fox – one of whom had played in the position in Scotland's six games before Estonia – have been playing enough club football for Huddersfield or Southampton respectively. Phil Bardsley can play on the right or left but ankle problems have disrupted his season at Sunderland and he has not started a Barclays Premier League game for two months.
"We aren't overblessed with left-backs," said Strachan, putting it mildly. "So do you play players who don't play regularly or do you play a right footer at left-back because he is playing more regularly? That is the problem you get. You look at the bench and you think 'wow, there are a couple of good attacking players there who can play'. Then you look at the other side of things and there aren't many defenders there."
Levein had tried to double up on Bale with Shaun Maloney helping Fox, but he was too much for them. Another way of reducing his threat would be to cut the supply. Joe Allen was given time to float a ball over the top of the Austrian back four to set Bale away. Scotland must work to ensure Allen and others are hassled into giving fewer balls.
Strachan has six weeks: lots of time to theorise, very little for practical work. There will be only four training days with the players before the Wales game, a frustration to which he must become accustomed. "I would love to have had more time to work with them because there is talent there," he said. "I would love to have more time with them because some of the boys take things too literally and we have to say 'you don't have to do it for the entire game'. Just little things, like you have to move somewhere else if that doesn't work.
"They have been good to work with but Craig Levein told me that a couple of weeks ago. He never told me anything specific about how they play but they are a great bunch and I will enjoy working with them. I was telling the defenders and midfielders to trust the forwards and play it into them. We need to be ready to find these people and be brave.
"You need to build up confidence. You need to practise and practise. If you want to improve then you must look to play on the front foot, play balls into players with ability, and make the passing nice and sharp."
Generally Scotland were bright and alert against Estonia and surely there is no prospect of that slipping against Wales. Anyone liable to let their mind wander against Bale would deserve all the punishment it would inevitably create.