Football: Brown faces future with renewed optimism

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The Independent Online
CRAIG BROWN is not given to wearing his heart on his sleeve or indulging in melodramatic gestures. Scotland's failure to qualify for the finals of a major tournament for the first time in his six-year reign was therefore no occasion for breast-beating or gnashing of teeth yesterday - and certainly no resigning issue.

Instead, Brown offered a positive evaluation of his team's performance over the two legs against England, a firm defence of his tactics in the 2-0 defeat at Hampden Park as well as the 1-0 win at Wembley, and an upbeat assessment of Scotland's prospects of rectifying the situation by making it to the Far East for the World Cup in 2002.

"I was proud of my players and they have been very supportive of me," said the Scotland manager, going on to express surprise that his job security became an issue before the return match. "Here we were trying to prepare for a vital fixture and yet some people wanted to talk about my future."

Brown's critics maintain that he should have striven for greater width and penetration in the second half of the first game, when England were 2-0 up. There is a case, too, for arguing that Mark Burchill's pace ought to have been introduced earlier than the 74th minute at Wembley. But he insisted: "Tactically, I think everything was spot-on in both games. It's easy to say `why not do this?' or `do that', but substitutes are designed to improve the team. England made one at Wembley [Emile Heskey for Michael Owen] which in all honesty weakened them, whereas we had a team playing well and controlling the game."

The 59-year-old manager is under contract until December 2001 and made it clear after Wednesday's bittersweet success that he believes such arrangements should be honoured. Sections of the Scottish media had argued that it was time for a more charismatic manager. In the unlikely event of dissent having spread to the Scottish FA, the manner of the Scots' victory surely stopped it in its tracks.

To this dispassionate English observer, it seems incredible that anyone could contemplate replacing Brown. Working with a group of good, honest players but few outstanding ones, he has taken them to Euro 96 and France 98, and now to within tantalising reach of Euro 2000.

Lest there was any doubt about it, he also proved himself an excellent motivator and strategist by shrugging off the flak which followed a somewhat unlucky defeat in Glasgow and preparing a team which exposed England's pretensions. It was said that no one from the Scotland side would get in England's team. On Wednesday it was the other way round.

The most influential performer over the two games, moreover, was the Wembley scorer, Don Hutchison. A Geordie whose father hails from Nairn, Hutchison's record of four goals in six starts would be an exceptional record for an out-and-out striker rather than simply an occasional one.

At 28, the Everton midfielder should be around for both the next World Cup and Euro 2004, forming the hub of the team alongside Paul Lambert, whose injury a week before Hampden looks more costly with hindsight with every showing of Paul Scholes ghosting in to score.

Their emergence as performers of genuine international quality should, in time, diminish the damaging effect of Gary McAllister's retirement from the national team. For the moment, though, those pious "patriots" who hounded out the former captain might do well to reflect on the part they played in hurting Scotland's chances.

Looking forward to the World Cup, for which the qualifying draw takes place early next month, Brown enthused: "There's a great group of young players coming through, such as Paul Ritchie, Callum Davidson, Christian Dailly, Barry Ferguson, Neil McCann, Alan Johnston and Mark Burchill. We'll approach the group games aggressively and confidently."

The need to blood fresh talent may mean the end of the Scotland careers of stalwarts like Colin Calderwood and Kevin Gallacher. But Brown was adamant that Colin Hendry's gesture of throwing his shirt into the Tartan Army's throbbing ranks at Wembley was no more than that.

Meanwhile, Scotland's renewed credibility means they will be in demand for friendly fixtures with Euro 2000 finalists. France, the world champions, are already booked in for Hampden in March.