Eager England in buoyant mood

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The Independent Online
Football Correspondent

As the Dutch and Scottish supporters journeyed to Villa Park on Monday, an Orange-clad supporter turned to a tartan equivalent and said: "We hope you beat the English." "Not as much as we hope we beat them".

The Dutchman, with mock innocence, said: "Oh, you have a grudge against them?" "It goes back to the 1740s," said the Scot, only for a compatriot to interject, in equal seriousness: "It goes back a lot further than that."

Many are the ghosts that stalk this fixture, the oldest in international football. Which will be in evidence this afternoon? Those of Culloden and Bannockburn, or of Jim Baxter and Steve Bull. Baxter inspired Scotland's Wembley win of 1967, thus enabling the Scots to cheekily claim to be world champions. Bull was the last man to score in this fixture, his debut goal earning England a 2-0 victory at Hampden Park in 1989 (the first goal was a diving header from Chris Waddle).

Scotland have beaten England only once in 15 years and nine matches. That was through a Richard Gough goal in 1985. Since then the Scottish game has, in most judges' eyes, slipped some way behind the English. Against that Scotland played considerably better against the Netherlands on Monday than England did against Switzerland last Saturday.

Will all this history, ancient or modern, mean anything at 3pm this afternoon? A little. The traditional rivalries dictate that the game will be different from anything else in Euro 96 while Scotland may draw enough strength from ancient enmities and recent performances to counteract the perceived imbalance.

England may appear the better side but Scotland are stronger in the key midfield department. Gary McAllister, Stuart McCall and John Collins have achieved a balance which England are yet to emulate.

To counter them, England will start today with Paul Gascoigne, Paul Ince and, if fit, David Platt. If the captain fails to make it, Jamie Redknapp or Gareth Southgate will replace him.

Of the English only Stuart Pearce, Tony Adams and Paul Gascoigne (as sub) have experience of these matches. Stewart McKimmie, Ally McCoist and Jim Leighton have played in them for Scotland.

More experienced than any is Bryan Robson, now part of England's coaching staff, who won four and drew two of eight Anglo-Scottish clashes. "It's a great occasion to play in," he said. "I used to love it when the Scottish supporters booed you when you were on the ball.

"Everybody says it is going to be a difficult game for us but I can promise it's going to be a difficult game for them too. I'm fed up with hearing about the passion the Welsh, Irish and Scottish have whereas it's supposed to be just another game for us. There's no question that our lads will give as much as any Scotsman."

Robson then echoed the thoughts of Craig Brown, the Scotland coach, as he added: "You tend to get a British style of game, end-to-end with blood, thunder and passion, but I've always thought it's the team who uses their head and keeps composed which goes on to win. We want commitment and endevour but we also want cool and calm heads when we're on the ball, we have more skilful players than Scotland and we have to use that to our advantage."

Which leads to Paul Gascoigne. "It's the perfect game for him," Robson added. The Scots have a lot of respect for him as a footballer. "He's nearly back to his best and if he had not had his injuries he would have gone on to be the best in the world. On his day he still is."

Gascoigne's battle with McCall, who will probably man-mark him, is one of two inter-club contests which may decide the game. The other is Alan Shearer's with Colin Hendry. When asked if he had any Scottish blood in him (Steve Stone having sheepishly admitted to having a "McStone" clan coming down to watch from Kilmarnock), Shearer replied: "I hope not."

England seemed in bouyant mood yesterday, Terry Venables jocularly calling a tartan-trousered reporter "traitor". His main decisions concern who to play in central defence and on the wings, where England believe Scotland are vulnerable. Adams and Stone, for their battling qualities, may be chosen ahead of the more polished Gareth Southgate and Steve McManaman.

Scotland have scored only twice in their last five games, one each against Australia and the USA, and if England get one goal they should avoid defeat. However, with England still to face the Netherlands, and Scotland meeting Switzerland, the home side are likely to need a win to qualify.

That both sides are expected to play three at the back is an indication of the changing nature of the British game, but the contest will still be more about guts than grace. If the players stay on the pitch, and the fans off it, it could be an epic, if not a classic.

SCOTLAND

PROBABLE TEAMS

GORAM

RANGERS

CALDERWOOD

TOTTENHAM

HENDRY

BLCKBURN

BOYD

CELTIC

McKIMMIE

ABERDEEN

McCALL

RANGERS

McALLISTER

LEEDS

COLLINS

CELTIC

T MCKINLAY

CELTIC

SPENCER

CHELSEA

DURIE

RANGERS

SHEARER

BLACKBURN

SHERINGHAM

TOTTENHAM

ANDERTON

TOTTENHAM

PLATT

ARSENAL

GASCOIGNE

RANGERS

STONE

NOTTM FOREST

INCE

INTERNAZIONALE

PEARCE

NOTTM FOREST

ADAMS

ARSENAL

G NEVILLE

MAN UTD

SEAMAN

ARSENAL

ENGLAND

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