Bravehearts miss main chances

Phil Shaw on the lessons the unlucky Scots must learn
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The Independent Online
In the end it all turned on the involuntary intervention of an English elbow and a Dutchman's deft right foot. Yet when Craig Brown analyses the anatomy of Scotland's exit he would be advised to resist the feeling that fortune did not favour his brave hearts.

In the aftermath of his team's 1-0 victory over Switzerland at Villa Park, which left the Netherlands ahead by virtue of scoring more goals, the Scotland manager referred more than once to their lack of luck. Brown was still thinking, no doubt, of the moment at Wembley when David Seaman stopped the Gary McAllister penalty which, in all probability, would have reduced Patrick Kluivert's place-saver to the status of a consolation goal.

McAllister's miss was, in the quarter-final analysis, symptomatic of Scotland's deep-rooted problem: a lack of conviction when confronted by the main chance. Brown said before the finals that Scotland needed "a wee break" in front of goal, and with hindsight they got it six minutes into their opening fixture. The referee's failure to spot John Collins' handling offence against the Dutch could hardly have been more fortuitous; likewise England's unexpected goal glut on Tuesday.

The Scots, alas, were unable to keep their half of the bargain. Ally McCoist's fulminating finish was a cathartic moment, just reward for a first-half display of extraordinary pace, passion and precision. Sadly, it should have brought up his hat-trick, and misfortune could not be blamed for McCoist's wastefulness with two infinitely easier chances in the first seven minutes.

So while Scotland were by no means deflowered, it was homeward to think again yesterday. The inquest should be informed by reflection rather than recrimination; and by a resolve to carry the "club" spirit they brought to Euro 96 forward into a World Cup campaign that starts in Austria in August.

Brown's stock soared, both at home and in Europe, during Scotland's 10- day cameo. Having been derided as an ex-schoolteacher - strange the values of a society and a media which belittle education and culture - he proved himself a shrewd tactician, a powerful motivator and, in Bobby Gould's phrase, a "master of man management" with players and press alike.

Ruud Gullit, apparently realising Brown's existence for the first time, led the lavish praise of his ability to maximise limited potential and resources. In terms of the latter, Andy Goram demonstrated that he is a world-class goalkeeper, making a staggering save in each of Scotland's matches. Two clean sheets, to add to the seven amassed in qualifying, also rendered the non-selection of Richard Gough a non-issue.

In midfield, McAllister was a colossus. After Wembley he reckoned he owed the team the game of his life. He owed nobody anything. The strain of an arduous season, in which he played 64 high-pressure games, caught up with him when the applause of the Swiss fans brought him to tears. But the Leeds captain showed he has the enduring class and strength to grace the Mondiale in 1998.

Collins and Stuart McCall both enhanced reputations largely built north of the wall, and it was "only" in the middle-to-front area that Scotland suffered by comparison with their Group A rivals. The presence of Duncan Ferguson, a giant target man with a tanna ba' player's touch, would have been an enormous advantage. If the Scots were unlucky, it was in the Everton striker's unavailability.

Ferguson must come into the reckoning next season, when Brown's task will be to freshen up a squad with an average age of nearly 30. Stalwarts such as Stewart McKimmie, Gordon Durie and McCoist are likely to be become more marginal, while the integration of players like Arsenal's Scott Marshall and Celtic's Jackie McNamara would help Scotland accentuate the positive aspects of their latest heroic "failure".