Football: Collins dominates the central issue

Calum Philip looks at the Scottish favourites to fill a void left by Gary McAllister
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IF THE definition of a prophet is someone who is rarely appreciated in his own land, the predictions of Gary McAllister would be worth listening to.

Scotland's unfortunate captain has little else to do between now and June, so he may as well join the debate over who will succeed him in the playmaking role when Craig Brown's side open the World Cup finals against Brazil.

McAllister, though, will not share the relish of many of the Scotland supporters over the vacancy that his absence has now prompted. The Coventry midfielder's knee injury probably earned more sympathy in England than it did over the border.

There was an almost palpable sense of relief among the Tartan Army that McAllister had been taken out of the equation for France 98. So much so, that his manager at Highfield Road, Gordon Strachan, phoned the country's biggest-selling tabloid to vent his fury on the fans who once idolised his own talent but who callously praised the fates for solving the McAllister question for Scotland.

Brown has no time to dwell on the issue though. He has to find a replacement before that glamorous date in Paris on 10 June with the world champions.

The candidates for McAllister's role may not possess the A-rating that Hollywood will require of its own nominees on Monday night, but the prize on offer - taking centre stage on the greatest show on earth - is almost certainly football's equivalent of winning an Oscar.

Monaco's John Collins, Craig Burley of Celtic, David Hopkin of Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers' Billy McKinlay comprise the short list. The overwhelming favourite is Collins, who has found not only wealth since he moved to the millionaire principality on the Cote d'Azur, but also the position he craved most during his six years at Celtic.

Collins desperately wanted to be playmaker at Parkhead but was thwarted in those ambitions by the presence of his friend Paul McStay. Ironically, McStay retired prematurely last summer through injury, but even hindsight would not have kept Collins from moving to Monaco.

"I am playing well here," he reflected, "and one of the reasons is that I have been given a position that suits me. I always felt I was better in the middle of the pitch, but at Celtic I had to play on the left-hand side.

"Last season I shared some of the playmaking duties with Enzo Scifo, but when he moved back to Belgium last summer, the coach, Jean Tigana, told me I would have greater responsibilities."

Responsibility is something that Collins thrives on. The 28-year-old underlined that at Old Trafford last Wednesday night when he probed and harried Manchester United out of the Champions' Cup.

"I am a better player now than I ever was at Celtic. There is more to my game and I understand more about how the team should play," Collins said.

However, Collins shares Strachan's anger about the ghouls in Scotland who have displayed a lack of sympathy for McAllister. "I cannot understand why anyone would criticise Gary. You only have to look at what Scotland achieved under him to realise his contribution. He had supreme confidence and that spread through the team. What I like about him as a colleague is that he never hides and always makes himself available. However, fans don't always appreciate these qualities - they want a dribbler."

The chief contender to Collins for the playmaking role is Burley, who has flourished at Parkhead since his pounds 2m move from Chelsea. Where Ruud Gullit encouraged only doubt, dropping the Scot on the morning of last season's FA Cup final, without even a word of consolation or explanation, his countryman, Wim Jansen, has sought to encourage.

The Celtic coach believes that Burley, who is used more often by Scotland as a wing-back, has all the attributes that an international playmaker needs.

"Everyone knows that Craig can play in that position," Jansen said. "He did it for us in the two Uefa Cup matches with Liverpool and there is no reason why he cannot do it again. There are sometimes different reasons for a manager's decision and I cannot speak about Craig Brown's decision. The only thing I know is that Craig Burley has the quality."

Since Jansen played in two World Cup finals for Holland, he is a person worth listening to. The argument for Burley may gain further ground if he is voted Scotland's Player of the Year, for which he is highly fancied.

Certainly, his rating is higher than either McKinlay (four goals and 21 caps) or Hopkin (two in three), but neither of whom is holding down a permanent place in the Premiership.

Like the members of the Academy of Dramatic Arts and Motion Pictures, only Brown knows the identity of the lucky star.