During an otherwise drab south Wales derby, in which Cardiff and Swansea blustered to a goalless draw, the highlight for the neutrals was a cameo from Oli McBurnie. The former Swansea forward – now doing well with Chris Wilder's Sheffield United, of course – was caught by the Sky Sports cameras in the away end, swaying along with the travelling support.
The Football Association have subsequently warned McBurnie for gestures he may or may not have made in the direction of the Cardiff fans. How joyless. How right Gary Neville was to argue on McBurnie's behalf. Away from any repercussions, though, most would agree that there are few sights in football quite as restorative as a player standing alongside the fans.
Oli McBurnie LOVES Swansea City!
He may be grabbing the goals for Sheffield United in the Premier League these days - but there is no way the striker was missing this one! pic.twitter.com/mddPpUMZDu— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) January 12, 2020
Over the past few years, Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have been pictured among their own at Liverpool games, Denis Irwin, Andy Cole and Gary Pallister travelled to Anfield for Manchester United’s Europa League tie a few years ago, and Michael Carrick, Jamie Carragher and Phil Neville have all been photographed shoulder to shoulder with fans. Kevin Nolan, a childhood Liverpool supporter but a Bolton player at the time, even bought a ticket and travelled to Istanbul for the 2005 Champions League final.
In 2010, during his brief spell at Lazio, Mauro Zarate was invited to watch a home game with the club's ultras. Zarate was serving a two-game suspension at the time, but gladly took up the offer during a match against Bari, posing on the Curva Nord fencing at the Stadio Olimpico while his teammates fell to a 0-2 defeat.
So it's not uncommon. But it is universally popular and when the photographs appear, they generate more or less the same observations each time– about how refreshing it is to see and how reassuring it feels that the game still means something to those who it so richly rewards.
Reassurance is probably the right way of describing it, too. Football snapped its ideological moorings decades ago and supporters and players haven’t lived side-by-side for a very long time. At the highest level, there is very little overlap. They live, shop, and exist in entirely different worlds and the distance between them is increasing all the time. But the greater the divergence becomes, the more these little moments come to matter.
Oli McBurnie actually grew up in Leeds as a Glasgow Rangers fan. There’s something heartening, though, about his attachment to Swansea compelling him to travel from Sheffield to Cardiff on one of his few days off, in support of his former team-mates or just to be with a few of his friends. For a bubble match, no less.
It’s just so normal.
While the FA might have found reason to censure him for his behaviour, there was also comfort in seeing him caught up in the occasion’s animosity. No, it may not have set the very best example, but if there was a wholesome aspect to it, then it’s in knowing that not all footballers are desensitised to the game’s rivalries.
Or immune to the energies which surround it. As revealed in this piece, by Stuart James of The Athletic, part of what brought McBurnie to watch Swansea last weekend and made him a semi-regular at their games since his departure, was how he and his family were treated during his time at the club. It's lovely that that should have meant something to him - that he noticed.
In this instance, the timing has been important too. It occurred at the end of a week during which an Everton player, in the wake of his side’s humiliating recent derby defeat to a team that was essentially Liverpool's U23 side, had given a sneering online rebuttal to one of his supporters. The fan didn’t cover himself in glory either, that's certainly true, but it was a distasteful episode which betrayed a malignant and dismissive attitude in the player. Essentially, it was an unsavoury incident which appeared to confirm some of the suspicions which exist around the modern game.
“You’d ask for a picture.”
The problem isn’t really money, even though that hardly helps. No, the issue is that the money encourages a lack of humility. A lot of footballers seem to believe that they’re beyond reproach and that occasionally manifests in the way they treat fans; as lepers essentially, something to be avoided and, if the chance presents itself, soometimes even belittled.
But in his own little way, McBurnie and others like him provide an antidote. He’s an interesting character – a scruffy, unorthodox forward (with an apparently horrendous dress sense) – but his willingness to stray outside the bubble offers a pertinent reminder that football remains a joint enterprise.
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