Oliver Burke is beginning to make a big impact with Alaves and on Friday became the first Scotsman to score in the LaLiga for over three decades. We caught up with the on-loan West Brom winger, who was happy to deliver a brutally honest interview about his career.
From being Scottish football's record transfer, to falling out of love with the game and rekindling his passion for football now in Spain, Burke takes us through his entire fledgling career in this revealing Q&A.
You were born in Scotland but grew up in England. Listening to your accent it's more English and Scottish. Do you consider yourself to be a kind of cultural hybrid between the two cultures?
Yeh of course. Obviously, my mum's side is English and my dad's side is Scottish so, I'm sort of half and half. I've got the accent too, so people are usually quite shocked. When I first came here my teammates were like 'Ah, you speak English, I can understand you better!' and would say 'Yeh, I don't have the 'raw' Scottish accent.'
When you were eight years old you started with Nottingham Forest where you grew up, you came up through the ranks there. A legendary club when it comes to English football. What was it like to grow up at such a great club?
Obviously, it was amazing, starting my journey there. And what a journey too. Coming up through the academy ranks, such an amazing feeling to break into the first team there. I was there since I was little. It's such a historic club, it's such a big club so it was a great honour.
Very early on into your professional career you broke the transfer record for a Scottish player twice, first with RB Leipzig then with West Bromwich Albion. Does the price tag ever weigh on you? Does it ever get to you?
At the beginning, when I made my move to Germany, to Leipzig… I didn't really know how it got done, how it all went about. I was just going to training, playing football every day, turning up to matches and just playing. I didn't have a clue about that side of transfers, the money… I didn't really look into it. I didn't really realise that side of things until I started doing interviews and people started talking about it a lot. A lot gets said on social media too. Seeing it, you think 'Wow, that's crazy.' I didn't even realise. Obviously, it weighs heavily on your shoulders, especially at such a young age. Sometimes it was difficult to get over the fact that that's happened and everyone looking at you in a different way. They expect bigger, more things. It can be difficult but that's part of the journey, I guess.
Is that pressure you mention quite difficult to cope with, then? Have you found a way to channel that pressure into motivation, or some kind of inspiration?
Yes, of course. There's going to be pressure everywhere. Everybody expects so much, so early. You have to take a step back and realise how far you've come and not pressure yourself too much. At such a young age I was starting to expect so much and wanting to do everything, 100% right. It's never going to be like that, that's everyday life. It's not going to be exactly how you want it to be. You just have to deal with it, it's part of being a footballer really. Having that pressure and trying to block out the social media, the noise. Just focus on yourself, training and the rest.
You're only 22 years old, we're talking about so much that you've achieved, how you've played in four countries. Your CV reads a mile long, you've played for six teams. What's all that moving around like, going to different countries? How's that affected you?
It's been a whirlwind, everything that's happened so far. I've been in the game for a while now, it feels as if I should be 27 or 28 or something, nearly retiring! But I'm still young, I've got my whole career ahead of me. There's a long way to go. Moving around to different clubs, loans can be difficult, but it's part of the game and you need to take these steps to take forward. Just like every other footballer. I've you're not playing at the club you're at, you have to look elsewhere for the opportunity and put yourself out there again.
I read that you fell out of love with the game. Is that true? What happened there?
For a certain amount of time, it sort of started when I made the move to West Brom. With the manager change and getting the injury at the beginning… everything gets on top of you. Not playing as much, not even being part of the team. You feel left out. You do lose that love for the game. Obviously I was coming into training, and as soon as I was out on the pitch I loved it. But it's when you come away, you go back home, you overthink everything. You think 'Why am I not playing?', 'What do I need to do better?' But it's part of the game, you just have to learn, push yourself forward and know that there's light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, I did lose some love for the game; but playing again like I am now, I'm really happy and I love it again. It's a great feeling.
Let's talk a bit about Alaves. How did this loan move come about? How did you end up here?
It came about speaking with my agent. We had a few options, but all last minute. Everything seems to be last minute with me, I don't know why! We saw it as a massive opportunity as soon as it came around. Alaves were showing great interest, more than the other clubs. Where I'd be didn't really faze me, just as long as I'd be playing football. My main goal is to be somewhere realistic, where I'll have an opportunity to play and where they believe in me. I saw coming here as a big chance for me, so did my agent so we snatched it up and here I am.
You had a funny encounter on your first day here, apparently, that involved Scotland and bagpipes…
When I first arrived we went to the stadium to check everything out and all of a sudden the groundsman came over and started speaking, with a Scottish accent. Everyone was telling me before that they don't speak such good English but they were showing me around and kept talking about bagpipes, Scotland… I kept thinking, 'is this banter?' So yeh, the groundsman just came over and started speaking Scottish with me and it hit me, 'Ah, they're talking about you! It makes sense!' Apparently, he plays the bagpipes. He's a great guy and we've had some good chats since.
He must be delighted you're here, a fellow Scot.
Yeh, of course. His Spanish is a lot better than mine but it's amazing, it made me feel at home straight away. He told me all about the place, it was quite settling.
In terms of the language, how are you handling the Spanish? And the Basque!
I'm taking lessons, as many as I can without it being too much. It's difficult. But if I'm playing, you pick things up around the training ground straight away. That's how it is in football, we have a strategy in training, you know what you're doing. I have Javi, one of the coaches, to show me and tell me if we're doing something very different and it clicks right away. Very thankful for that. Without that I'd be a bit lost! But it's all part of learning, you have to keep learning the language to speak with the lads. Some of them speak English, which is a big bonus. They tell me quickly what's going on in training, how many touches and that.
You said before we sat down how you expected sunny warm weather in Spain then you come here to the north and it's very similar to the highlands of Scotland, the UK! In terms of adaptation that must have been quite helpful.
Yes! There's not a huge difference in the climate, it's pretty much the same as it was back at home so yes, normal.
When it comes to British players there are only three of you in LaLiga Santander right now: you, Gareth Bale and Kieran Trippier. Have you spoken to them to see what you could expect in Spanish football?
No, not really. I don't know them. But to be honest I didn't speak to anyone about the move actually, everything came so quickly – as usual. I found myself on a flight within a couple of days. You don't really have the chance to ask around, you have to have a feel for it yourself, do your research. That's the best way around it. I think, so far, it's been very positive.
Spain isn't traditionally a very common destination for British players, for some reason. Bar a few who have been successful it's a very difficult place for British players to be successful.
I guess so. When I first got here, they asked me how it came about, because there haven't really been British players at the club. But that's just how it works, opportunities pop up. So far, it's been really positive, it's been a plus for me. I've been given a great opportunity and I'm grateful for it. Things are starting to fall into place.
Northern Spain is known for fantastic food. How are you finding the cuisine?
Well, at the start I was surprised at how they don't really have a breakfast in the morning. They don't do the whole English breakfast! It's all small things, coffee and that. But the food is great, the restaurants are really nice, it's nice round here. Obviously, it's a great place to be. It's not a huge city so you can focus on your football. It's ten minutes to training, it's easy to walk around. Everything is really close so it's easy to adapt. I think that's a major plus, the fact that it's so easy to adapt. It's such a small place, everywhere is easy to get to, it's less stress.
It's only been a few months, but how do you think it's changed you as a footballer and as a person?
Everyone says you grow as a person when you move to a different country. You learn different lifestyles, different cultures. I think it's a big plus to have on your CV. Even more so playing and being part of the team, it's amazing. Even though I don't speak much to many of the players, we have a connection out on the pitch. I'm really enjoying it so far.
How's your relationship with coach Asier Garitano and how is he helping to improve your game?
He's helping me a lot, even with the language barrier. In training we try very hard and I often do extra work at the end to work on their patterns of play, knowing where to be on the pitch. That way when gameday comes I know where to be. Before games I'll do video meetings with him, look at the other team. It's really positive for me. It's a nice feeling that someone cares, wants you to do well and be part of the team.
What would you say are your strengths and some areas that you maybe want to develop some more?
My strengths are my speed, my power and taking on the man. My heading, leaps… we use that a lot here. When we get a goal kick sometimes they'll kick it up wide to either Joselu or me. And there's a lot of areas in my game to work on. Every day you learn on the training ground. I need to work on my shooting, I've had a lot of chances but haven't really put the ball away with regularity. Hopefully that will come, just have to keep practicing in training.
You've played in all of the Basque derbies, against Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, Eibar… results aside, what's it like to play in those games? Each team is so different in terms of playing styles and even their identity.
Look, every experience here is amazing for me. Being in a different country is something I really enjoy. The derbies, you tell the rivalry is huge. Unfortunately, I didn't make it out onto the pitch for the [Athletic] Bilbao game but that stadium is amazing. Great atmosphere too. That was up there for me.
How do they compare to other derbies you've played in the past?
I'd say my biggest derby was probably when I was at Celtic, when we played Rangers. That's… wow. I couldn't hear I thing, I just had a ringing noise in my ears, it was that loud! Especially being away at Rangers, wow. Incredible.
Talking about Mendizorrotza [Alaves' stadium] and the atmosphere there, you used the word 'rocking' recently to describe it. It's a perfect word to use, the fanbase there is tremendous. What's it like for you out there on pitch?
Unbelievable. I wasn't really ready for it. They told me when I first arrived that they had some of the best fans in the league and I was like 'Ok, maybe they're just saying that because they're big fans.' But then I came to the first game and they were roaring, rocking the whole game. It's amazing to see and it really spurs you on to win the game, to do your best for them because you can see their passion. It's incredible to see.
Someone equally passionate about the club is someone you have out there on pitch alongside you, [club captain] Manu Garcia. He's such a loved icon here, he embodies the club inside and out, been here through relegations and promotions. What is it like to play with him and have him as an influence on the squad?
It's amazing for him, he's grown up here at Alaves and in Vitoria. This team is his life. He's been through all the leagues with them and to see where he is now is amazing. He's had a big impact on me coming here, he's helped me so much. He speaks really good English so he's a great character to be around. And a great leader at that too. He spurs me on every day, even in training. If I switch off for just a second, he knows, he can tell! He's a great character, and a great person too.
When it comes to Scottish players there's only been five in the entire history of LaLiga. The greatest was probably Steve Archibald, who played at Barcelona in the 1980s. Does it ever cross your mind that you can count all of them on just one hand?
Yeh, obviously. But I didn't realise this at the beginning, these are things you see after the move. That's when everybody looks at that. For me, it's my next step, my next club. I don't think too much about who's been here, who's been in Spain. I just focus on myself, getting myself in the right place. But it's obviously a great opportunity to be here in this league. It's great to play here and I hope I can keep enjoying it.
Apart from your parent club, West Brom, do you get the sense that people back home in Scotland and the UK are keeping an eye on you, tracking your progression?
Yes, I'm sure they'll be watching and seeing how well I'm doing. That's part and parcel of going out on loan, that the club you're signed with are watching and keeping tabs. I hope so, anyway!
How do you think LaLiga is perceived in the UK?
To be honest I don't know. People when they think of Spanish football they think of big clubs, so everybody saw it as a great move for me, all my friends thought it was a great opportunity and they wished me luck, which was nice.
They'll come and visit you too, right?
You say you've rekindled your love for the game here. Your loan deal ends in the summer; is there any potential for you to extend that deal or even find a more permanent solution if you'd like to stay?
It's going really well for me here. I feel very settled and I'm enjoying my football. I feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable and learning more every day. That's a big bonus of coming here. The coaches are teaching me to be a better player. Sometimes when you go out on loan, they just expect to you get out there but here they appreciate my potential and they're helping me. I'm here until the end of the season and to be honest it's out of my hands really. We have to see what happens. At the end of the day I'm a West Brom player, I'll have to go back there. Whatever happens after that we'll have to wait and see.
You have your whole career ahead of you. Do you have any specific goals or objectives you'd like to achieve?
For me, right now I'd like to find myself a club where I can settle, enjoy and play week in, week out. And find my confidence again, which I'm slowly getting back, to prove all the doubters out there wrong. There's a lot of doubters out there – there's always going to be – but I'd love to throw it back in their face a little bit. Hopefully I can do my best here at Alaves and I'll have a bright future.