Football: Brown lacking quality control

Back to basics: Scotland return home to undertake rebuilding programme with limited resources
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The Independent Online
ONCE UPON a time in the 1960s, Scotland were leading 1-0 against what used to be described as a "crack Latin outfit". One of Hampden Park's legendary fans with typewriters was dictating his report. "Magnifico, magnifico, magnifico," it started. Then a last-gasp equaliser went in. "Scrap that," he barked down the phone. "Make it: `This won't do, Scotland'."

A similar lurch in perceptions was clearly discernible among the present- day supporters with laptop computers and their compatriots in the stands as Craig Brown's team succumbed 3-0 to Morocco in St Etienne. On a night which began with genuine hope of a first-ever place in the second round, Scotland gave their worst display in four and a half years under Brown's management.

After all the great expectations, the Scots slipped back into Glasgow last night with the final Group A table showing them a distant fourth with a solitary point.

Statistically, they have fared worse in the World Cup, but only just. 44 years ago they lost both matches in Switzerland and failed to score while conceding eight goals. In both 1958 and 1986 they returned with only a draw, although all their defeats were by a single goal. On each of their remaining four visits to the finals, Scotland recorded a victory. Even the infamous Ally MacLeod-led expedition of two decades ago, garnered four points and a win against one of the eventual finalists.

Yet it would be a mistake and unfair to deduce that this is the worst Scotland side since 1954. Brown, with arguably fewer players of international class to choose from than any of his predecessors, has attempted to compensate with a collective spirit allied to virtues which Scots deride in England: work-rate, discipline and organisation.

In the anguished aftermath of Tuesday's collapse, it is easy to overlook how far such qualities have taken Scotland since Brown succeeded Andy Roxburgh. Coming in at the tail-end of a failed campaign to qualify for USA 94, he led them to Euro 96. Only a Dutch consolation goal against England prevented their advance to the last eight.

Then, from a section which included Sweden, the 1994 World Cup semi-finalists, and Austria, they made it to France largely on the back of extraordinary defensive meanness. Sod's law, which has a specific sub-clause covering Scotland, therefore dictated that they would be undermined by lapses at the back. First they gifted a goal to Brazil inside four minutes. Later, after a fully-merited equaliser, came Tom Boyd's own-goal, a throwback to the self-inflicted wounds of the past.

Morale was still high at that point. Scotland could easily have drawn and Brown, not unreasonably, was confident the world champions would also beat Morocco and Norway.

With hindsight, Scotland's own meeting with the Norwegians was the crucial missed opportunity. "We slaughtered them 1-1," one player told me. After donating another soft goal to their opponents they had to rely on a Craig Burley special to make the last game meaningful.

The heady possibilities blinded people to the fact that many of the Moroccan team play at a high level in Europe. In the event, Scotland were victims of the sucker-punch, three times over. The north Africans allowed them possession and territory, sure that their pace could be punitive on the break.

So it proved. Jim Leighton, in particular, endured a torrid evening. The image of him floundering in the net after the second goal, like a freshly-landed salmon was sadly symbolic.

However, Leighton's 40th birthday looms next month and Scotland must look to the future. In the short term that means European Championship qualifying. Neil Sullivan, of Wimbledon, should start in goal, while Boyd and Gordon Durie may gradually fade from the front-line.

Therein lies a dilemma for Brown. Seven of those on duty against Morocco were in their thirties. Unfortunately, the younger players coming through, like Celtic's Jackie McNamara, do not look ready.

The most impressive unit at France 98 was the midfield axis of John Collins and Paul Lambert. Burley, notwithstanding the irresponsible lunge that led to his sending off, put in enough shots to suggest that he deserves a run as their attacking foil.

Goal-scoring remains the biggest problem. Kevin Gallacher, top scorer in qualifying, did not receive a chance in the three matches, though neither her nor Durie averages better than one in five anyway.

The return of Gary McAllister would give Scotland's passing greater range and penetration. His injury last winter proved to be only the tip of an iceberg of ill-fortune. Witness the incapacitation of Colin Calderwood and Billy McKinlay, plus two plausible penalty appeals that were rejected.

The spot-kick with which Norway reached the last 16 was enough to turn the mildest Scot into a conspiracy theorist. But, as the Tartan Army headed home, having enriched the spectacle with sound, colour and boozy affability, the real hard luck story belonged to Morocco.

When they went from ecstasy to emptiness in the time it took for word of Norway's win to come through, my mind went back to 1990. Egypt had just beaten Scotland and another scribe of the old school was filing his copy. On putting the phone down he turned to his colleagues and said: "Are these guys Arabs?"

"Aye," came the answer. He went back on to his office, instructing them to delete Egypt and make it "the Arabian Knights of Soccer". The fez fits Morocco nicely, but Scotland must focus on the European nights ahead.