Brown rejects possibility of defeat

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The Independent Online
The confident utterances of Scotland managers make a habit of returning to haunt them. Ally MacLeod must still squirm at the mention of Iran, while Andy Roxburgh probably feels no compulsion to visit Costa Rica. If the unthinkable happens on the European Championship campaign trail tonight, Craig Brown's name will be for ever linked with San Marino.

To hear Brown talk yesterday, there would be more chance of Gala Fairydean beating Rangers in the Scottish Cup than of the Group Eight makeweights shocking Scotland in the tiny Serravalle Stadium. "I've no fears whatsoever, but then I'd feel the same if we were playing Italy," he said. "Defeat would at least be a possibility against the Italians. I honestly don't think it is here."

Facing the likes of Cyprus or Luxembourg, against whom the Scots have laboured in recent times, such a remark might be tempting fate. In the case of San Marino, whose sole triumph in more than 20 competitive fixtures was a draw with Turkey, the conventional wisdom about "no easy matches" would have been tantamount to defeatism.

After all, they lost 7-1 to England even after being gifted a goal in nine seconds. But playing an open game or acting the plucky losers is not their way, and Brown has tailored both his tactics and selection to overcome a defence which he expects to be as congested as Sauchiehall Street during the January sales.

To illustrate the point, he has shown his players a video nasty: San Marino's home game with Finland. The Finns, who eventually won 2-0, were allowed possession as their opponents withdrew virtually every player into an area in or around the edge of their penalty box.

Brown wants his team to be more direct. "We're asking them to compromise a bit," he admitted. "We've always encouraged them to pass the ball, but this time the delivery has to be quicker. If we try to play through them we'll get frustrated."

Pat Nevin will be asked to do from the start what he achieved as substitute in 1991 when Scotland won 2-0, crossing from the byline in preference to the midfielders pumping balls in from 40 yards out. Colin Hendry, unlikely to be overtaxed by San Marino's customary one-man forward line, will have "freedom to be cavalier", and Darren Jackson's ability to make runs from deep positions looks certain to earn him a second cap playing off the front two.

"We may have to be inelegant, but this is a totally unreal situation," Brown said. "The team I've picked is very adaptable, and there's also a hunger about them." Famous last words? Should Scotland lose or even draw with Europe's worst side, they might become their manager's epitaph.

San Marino's record shows, however, that their negativity seldom does more than delay the inevitable. The sharper tempo demanded by Brown may reap dividends, but in the longer run, patience is more likely to be a virtue.

SCOTLAND (3-4-3): Leighton (Hibernian); McLaren (Rangers), Hendry (Blackburn), Calderwood (Tottenham); Jackson (Hibernian), McAllister (Leeds), Collins (Celtic), Boyd (Celtic); Nevin (Tranmere), Shearer (Aberdeen) McGinlay (Bolton).