In the eyes of just about every spectator of Ireland’s victory over the USA on Saturday night, Graham Burke turned in a fine performance.
The Shamrock Rovers forward looked lively in attack, wanted the ball and drifted into space in anticipation of dangerous passes (even if they rarely came). He capped the performance, in his first start for his country, with a goal before being replaced for the final half-hour. In scoring, he had ended a 40-year wait for a League of Ireland-based goalscorer for the national side.
It was not a display that warranted criticism, or even backhanded compliments, and that’s probably why Martin O’Neill’s assessment of Burke’s performance feels a bit off.
“It was tough for him out there; I wasn’t expecting miracles. I though maybe ten or 15 minutes of the game passed him by but was nice to see him score.“
That, in one sense, sounds like O’Neill is suggesting that the goal masked a below-par performance, which absolutely wasn’t the case. In the post-match press conference there was little analysis of Burke’s overall play, the positions he put himself in, the way dropped deep to make something happen, his composure, his confidence, the fact that he was the potentially the biggest danger to the American defence – only that the goal was “nice.”
Gary Breen on eir Sport took a much more in-depth at what Burke offered over the course of the hour that he was on the pitch, his strengths on the night and what he can offer the team going forward.
— eir Sport (@eirSport) June 2, 2018
That was not the performance of a player that had to rely on a goal to be praised – he had earned it long before the ball hit the back of the net.
What was arguably more worrying, however, the manager’s assessment of Burke’s international prospects going forward. It’s no secret that O’Neill would prefer his players to play at as high a level as possible – a reasonable hope that presumably all international managers have – but the phrasing of the answers he gave when asked would Burke be picked for the Nations League was a bit ominous.
“Whatever he has designs on, I think he has to push on. If, for instance, if he wants to go back and play in England, these things would give him a boost of confidence.
“I’ll keep an eye on things and see how he goes.”
For all of the talk of the “magic plane” that suddenly renders Irish players available for international selection as soon as they have left the League of Ireland, one would assume by now that Burke would be exempt from that. It wouldn’t be right or fair to suggest that Burke is definitely not up to the international standard while he is still at Shamrock Rovers because he’s been given two bites of the cherry in the past week – a cameo at the Stade de France and an hour at the Aviva – and he has shown his worth.
This feels like covering old ground to a large degree, insofar as it’s pretty reminiscent of the calls for then-Cork City striker Sean Maguire to be included in the squad. No sooner had he completed a move to Preston North End than he was suddenly called up, and while the management insisted that his City form alone earned him the inclusion, the nagging doubt persisted that, despite the fact that he was patently good enough when he was playing on Leeside, he was only truly taken seriously when he became a Championship player.
Burke should have an even greater advantage because there’s no hypothetical there. O’Neill has played him at international level and has seen what he can do. To leave him out of the next squad on the basis that he is a League of Ireland player would probably – consciously or otherwise – come across as snobbery.
Granted, one can say that they were only friendlies and that the competitive field will be tougher to an extent, and that’s true to an extent, but that will also be true for the likes of Enda Stevens, for Derrick Williams, for Darragh Lenihan and the rest of the debutants over the past week.
Ultimately, Burke shouldn’t have to move abroad to be taken seriously as an Ireland player. If he’s good enough, he’s good enough – the league in which he plays is irrelevant.