MANY managers, pundits and supporters, not to mention a fair few journalists, have been left looking rather foolish over the years by confidently predicting a young player is a superstar in waiting after a bright display or an eye-catching goal.

Invariably, the optimism proves badly misplaced and the wonderkid with the world at his feet ends up plying his trade in non-league football within a couple of seasons.

But Steve Clarke is clearly too canny to fall into that age-old trap; he was careful not to go overboard with his praise of Oliver Burke on Saturday night despite his clear delight and immense relief at the late winner his substitute had scored in the Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus.

The West Brom forward, who has spent the second half of this season on loan at Celtic, had converted his chance brilliantly with just one minute of regulation time remaining on the clock at Hampden.


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He outjumped Nicholas Ioannou, got on the end of a Ryan Fraser cross and headed beyond Urko Pardo. When his attempt struck the right upright he showed great composure to pounce on and net the rebound.

Burke’s strike, his first for his country, could very well prove to be important in the national team’s attempts to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since France ’98.

If they had been held to a draw at the weekend their prospects of finishing in the top two in Group I and progressing automatically would have been minimal if not non-existent. Now they at least have an outside chance.

Yet, Clarke’s reluctance to shower his match winner with plaudits afterwards, something he could have been quite entitled to do in the circumstances, was noticeable.

Perhaps it was due to the fact he has worked with a few seriously talented players in the past and isn’t easily impressed. Not wanting to heap unnecessary pressure onto the broad shoulders of the scorer could have been another factor.

Or it might simply be because the shrewd Ayrshireman realises much work still needs to be done in order for his protégé to fulfil his vast potential.


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“Oli is a young man who has fantastic attributes,” he said. “But he is a young man who has to learn the game. His impact on Saturday night when he came on the pitch is there for everyone to see. He has shown everyone what he can do. What he has to do is learn to do that on a consistent basis.”

Could Clarke, though, be the man who finally brings the best out in an individual about whom there has been so much hype and expectation since he first burst onto the scene four years ago now? It is certainly to be hoped he is.

His predecessor Gordon Strachan was ridiculed by many for bemoaning the genetic disadvantages that Scots have when they play international football when Scotland fell short in their bid to clinch a Russia 2018 play-off place. But he had a definite point.

Anyone who has seen the country in action against the likes of England, France, Italy and Belgium in the past few seasons would be hard pushed to argue otherwise. The phrase “men against boys” has repeatedly sprung to mind in those encounters.

But being muscled off the ball is not an issue with Burke. The 22-year-old stands 6ft 2in in his studs and has the physique to compete with even the burliest of defenders. What is more, his pace is simply frightening. It is little wonder so many managers have got so excited about his considerable gifts.

It is, too, why he has been sold for Scottish record fees of £13 million (when he moved from Nottingham Forest to RB Leipzig in 2016) and £15 million (when Leipzig sold him to West Brom in 2017) twice.


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The Kirkcaldy-born footballer flourished under Brendan Rodgers, a coach whose track record improving players is impressive, when he moved to Parkhead in January. It looked as if he was on the verge of finally coming good. Alas, his development stalled due to injuries and loss of form after the Northern Irishman departed for Leicester City in March.

It was something of a surprise to see him come on at weekend given that he had featured only sporadically under Neil Lennon during the final weeks of the 2018/19 campaign. But he justified the game time he received and then some.

His involvement indicates that Clarke, as so many of his counterparts have been before him, is an admirer and is keen to harness his talents going forward. Working with such an experienced and gifted manager will only be beneficial for him. Ordinary Kilmarnock players have certainly blossomed in the past two seasons.

Not having Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith available for this double header enabled Burke to win his seventh cap. But he has done his cause no harm whatsoever with his contribution. His self-belief will certainly have been boosted no end.

His speed makes him a dangerous weapon on the counter attack. He could well find himself in the starting line-up against Belgium in the King Baudouin Stadium tomorrow evening.


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Clarke’s words at the weekend suggested that he will use Burke wisely. “We have got to give these young boys space and time to grow,” he said. “You can’t immediately, because he scored the winning goal against Cyprus, put all the pressure onto Oli to be the goalscorer going forward.

“To move for two combined fees of close to £25 million is a big pressure for a young man. It has probably been difficult for him. It is our job and the job of his club coaches and manager to protect him.”

If he can succeed it will be rival defenders who will need protection from Oliver Burke in future.