Football: Brown looks to midfield for goals

Phil Gordon says the Scotland squad is primed to go on the attack
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The Independent Online
CRAIG BROWN'S reputation as a stickler for the correct dress code will be left behind when he and his Scotland squad fly out next Friday for a six-day trip that could decide just how Brown and many other Scots will be spending their summer holidays next year.

While many believe the Tartan Army will be on the beaches rather than at Euro 2000, Scotland's national coach is the eternal optimist. Should his team bring back six points from the voyage to Bosnia Herzegovina and Estonia, then the European Championship Finals might still be on the agenda, albeit by the circuitious route of the play-offs.

It is not a time for dressing up. Working clothes, as Jock Stein once observed, are what you put on to get the job done. Brown's players will find that fashion statement remains true to this day, when they face Bosnia next Saturday in a match crucial to the aspirants who wish to follow the Group Nine winners, Czech Republic, who have already booked their ticket with a 100 per cent record.

The Scots cut a dash when they wore kilts to the opening game of the World Cup Finals in 1998, against Brazil, but Sarajevo is no place for a suit, unless it of the white variety modelled by Martin Bell. "I spoke with Ian Durrant who was in Sarajevo last season with Kilmarnock for a Uefa Cup tie," Brown explained, "and he said the facilities at the Olympic Stadium, where we play, are not the best. Kilmarnock got changed into their strips at the hotel and then put their tracksuits on over them, and we might do that too."

However, it is Brown's ability to mix and match on the pitch that will prove more influential to Scotland's future. For Scotland, goals are as difficult to come by as an Armani suit in Sarajevo, so the manager will be relying on a core of adept midfield scorers rather than his threadbare strikeforce to find the net in the vital double-header. It is little coincidence that nine midfield players have seats on the plane bound for Bosnia next Friday morning, whereas the attackers are travelling light with just five in the 26-man squad.

The return of John Collins after a year's absence - the Everton player has missed almost the entire European Championship campaign because of his injury problems - is a godsend, for his goals as much as his experience. Similarly, other midfielders such as Craig Burley, Colin Cameron, David Hopkin and Neil McCann have all got a scoring streak in them.

"John being back is a great boost for us," reflected the Scotland manager. "He is our current top scorer with 11 goals, but his presence will make the opposition give us a bit more respect because of the clubs he has played for and the fact that he scored that penalty under pressure against Brazil in the World Cup. But when you look at others in that area, they can all contribute goals. Burley and Hopkin have done it for us in the past, and Colin Cameron has been very impressive when I have seen him recently for Hearts."

The other middle man Brown is itching to get his hands on is McCann. The Scotland manager travelled back with the jubilant Rangers party from Parma in midweek and McCann's role in both games in the Champions League success has stirred Brown. "Neil has only been able to play one-and-a- half games for me because of injury," he said, "but he has huge potential, which he is proving all the time with Rangers. Obviously, he did well in creating both the goals against Parma at Ibrox, but he also performed very well in a thankless defensive role in Italy as a substitute."

Brown knows that Scotland cannot contemplate losing to the Bosnians, who share second place with the Scots and Lithuania, and will eschew the more open 3-4-3 formation which brought the win in Germany last April and was then used in the heroic 3-2 defeat by the Czechs in Prague, for his tried and tested - and tighter - 3-5-2.

"The Bosnians play 3-5-2, so it is better for us to match up to them," Brown said. "Rangers use McCann in league games essentially a winger, but they can afford that luxury because they are not under the kind of pressure we will be. They were in Parma though, and McCann showed he has the discipline to defend and counter-attack.

"We have had injury problems all through this tournament and been denied our best players, such as Collins, but now I am getting them back I have more options. I feel if we win these two games, then we will be in an unassailable position to take second place, especially with two home games to come."

While Bosnia may be short on material comfort, they are not on star quality. Striker Elvir Baljic moved from Fenerbahce to Real Madrid for pounds 10m, while midfielder Hasan Salihamadzic played in Bayern Munich's European Cup final defeat. Scotland, though, will hope they are the rags-to-riches heroes rather than the Bosnians.