Football: Burchill may earn chance

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The Independent Online
NEVER MIND the quality, savour the four points. Scotland returned from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia to justified criticism of their performance in Tallinn, but secure in the knowledge that one win from their last two games, against Bosnia and Lithuania in Glasgow next month, would confirm them as runners-up in Group Nine and book their place in the play-offs for Euro 2000.

Craig Brown is sufficiently confident of their progress that he hinted yesterday at a first cap for Mark Burchill in one of the matches. The Celtic striker, 19 last month, understudies Henrik Larsson and Marko Viduka at club level but scored four goals for the Under-21s over the past week, prompting the Scotland manager to suggest there was a "viable possibility" of his playing.

Burchill, 5ft 8in and hyped as a Scottish Michael Owen, could come in as a replacement for Don Hutchison. The Everton player is suspended for Bosnia's visit to Ibrox on 5 October. Another player not regularly involved in his club's first team is the last thing Brown needs after Estonia exposed a lack of match-sharpness in Allan Johnston and Craig Burley, but he said: "Celtic have a heavy league, Cup and European programme coming up, so it could augur well for Mark."

A call-up for Burchill, or for Celtic's uncapped goalkeeper, Jonathan Gould, would provide further evidence of how the relatively old Scotland side of a year ago is evolving. Seven of the 13 who saw action against Estonia had 10 caps or fewer, and only four appeared in the France 98 opener against Brazil. The question is whether the emerging side can break the cycle of euphoria over reaching major tournaments and plucky but predictable failure once at the finals.

Until he finds out, Brown, who confessed that he envied Bosnia their three strikers, is putting his trust in the old Scottish stand-bys. "We know our limitations. We've no Souness, Dalglish or Bremner, no one from Serie A and we have fewer players in the Premiership. But we do have camaraderie and commitment."

They are also masters of their own destiny now, unlike England. True, there was nothing masterful about their part in Wednesday's 0-0 draw, and little in their 2-1 success in Sarajevo. That, however, was in keeping with their unconvincing showing in a group which is probably the weakest in the whole competition.

Brown bridled at the latter suggestion yesterday, but the evidence is compelling. Even the runaway winners, the Czech Republic - whom he claims are "arguably the best team in Europe" at the moment - did not make the last World Cup, and Scotland lost both their meetings.

The Scots' three victories, all against countries new to international football over the past decade, have each been by the odd goal. And they could not manage an away win over the might of the Faroe Islands, Lithuania or Estonia respectively.

Nor, admittedly, did they lose any of those games, and it must also be said that Scotland have been more impressive on the bigger stage. Away to the Czechs, a makeshift line-up led 2-0 with 25 minutes left before going down to defeat, while in a friendly in Bremen they beat Germany.

Brown conceded that if the old system was still in operation, whereby only the first-placed nation went through, Scotland would have had "no chance" of qualifying. "We're fortunate to be in contention, but no more so than France, the world champions, who are fighting to finish runners- up in their group," he argued. "All over Europe it's very tight. Look at Sweden: we beat them to a place in France, yet they've now won England's section."