Football: Brown broadens his horizons

Calum Philip finds the Scots are turning back to a glorious tradition
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GREAT Jimmy Johnstone did not realise the legacy he was bequeathing Scotland's wingers when he disappeared out to sea in the build-up to the 1974 World Cup finals. His partner-in-crime, Denis Law, had enough savvy not to clamber into the rowing boat with the Celtic player: Law played in Germany, while Johnstone sat on the bench.

If the message was not already clear, then it was reinforced four years later when Willie Johnston was sent home in disgrace from Argentina for taking drugs. Wingers were not to be trusted off the park, so there was no point in trusting them on it. Come in No 7, your time is up.

However, the tide is slowly turning for Scotland's wide men. At least three are on the horizon for Craig Brown and if the national coach trusts his gut instinct rather than the rational tenets that have created a durable but dull side, then he could be rewarded by feeling both quality and width.

The disappointment felt in Neil McCann's enforced omission from the Scotland squad for Saturday's European Championship qualifying tie with Estonia (and the subsequent Group Nine encounter with the Faroe Islands in Aberdeen on 14 October) was not confined to Tynecastle.

Hearts fans were keen to savour McCann's long-awaited debut on the pitch where he has consistently shone in the last two seasons, but an ankle injury in the Cup Winners' Cup against Real Mallorca on Thursday forced the 24-year-old to withdraw. Scotland fans in general also welcomed McCann's unveiling after the dreadful 0-0 draw last month in Lithuania, which even the players admitted was soporific.

At least, there are two stand-bys capable of carrying the wingers' banner. Allan Johnston of Sunderland and Newcastle's Stephen Glass are showing signs that they are capable of performing some restoration work on the forgotten art.

Johnston's club manager, Peter Reid, has been screaming for his player's call-up for over a season while Glass has shown the kind of comfort on the ball and wicked cross that made Newcastle's submission of a pounds 100,000 bid to the transfer tribunal for the former Aberdeen player laughable.

All three were ignored for the World Cup, by Brown, who had become so modern thinking (he copied the German system a decade ago) that he had forgotten his country's own past. "Craig likes wing-backs," explained Pat Nevin. "We are always the first to be dropped because of team patterns, but you can understand why. Football is more about what you do when you don't have the ball now, than what you do with it."

Nevin was dropped by Brown - his first-ever club manager at Clyde - just before Euro 96 because his talents were not broad enough. "Craig said he only felt confident in using me against weaker teams like Estonia or San Marino because bad defenders will give away fouls on players like myself. It was tough to take, but his analysis is completely correct."

Ironically, one of Nevin's five goals in a Scotland shirt came against Estonia in 1993. But Brown's fondness for using his traditional ball players against opponents of weaker technique may surface at Tynecastle.

Necessity has brought the return of the winger. For the last few years, Brown has utilised Celtic's Tosh McKinlay or Tom Boyd as his main suppliers of crosses but McKinlay's decline saw the Scotland coach scrambling about at France 98 trying to convert Christian Dailly into a wide player, which he proved he was clearly not.

"It is no surprise that Craig likes McCann, Glass and Johnston," said Alex Smith, the newly appointed Scotland Under-21 coach. "They all played in the Under-21 team which finished fourth in the European Championships in 1996. He likes to promote young talent, if it is doing well."

Johnston, especially, would relish being handed his full Scotland debut at Tynecastle. He spent four years at Hearts earning the sobriquet "Magic" for some of his displays. Indeed, such is the memory of Magic Johnston's demolition of Rangers at Ibrox in February 1996 when he rounded off a hat-trick by nutmegging Andy Goram, that many assumed a bigger club was waiting than Rennes, where he spent an ill-fated season in France before joining Sunderland.

In contrast to his famous namesakes, or near-namesakes, this Johnston is a Glaswegian with a taste for the quiet life. Glass is equally reticent, but is the best natural talent to come out of Dundee since Charlie Cooke, the former Chelsea star and another of Scotland's great wing generation.

Maybe this time, the wide men will get to dip their toes in the water once more, and make waves instead of waving bye-bye.