Football: Dedication the key to Dailly routine

He may be the most expensive Scottish player ever, but Blackburn's new central defender will not let the price tag weigh him down. By Phil Shaw
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ANYONE WHO has ever driven around an unfamiliar town, straining for a glimpse of a floodlight pylon, would have appreciated Christian Dailly's dilemma. A week after the pounds 5.3m transfer from Derby County to Blackburn Rovers that made him the most expensive Scottish player ever, he was due at the club for a photo-shoot. The only problem, he admitted sheepishly, was finding the ground.

Dailly is holed up in a hotel beside the M6 in East Lancashire, 100 miles from his family in the East Midlands. Working out the best route to Ewood Park, where he hopes to make his Blackburn debut against Leicester today, has been complicated by the fact that training is held at a retreat in the Ribble Valley rather than at the stadium. But at least his search for a position is no longer subject to the same agonising.

Ever since the 24-year-old Dailly broke into Dundee United's side at the tender age of 16, he has grappled with the double-edged sword of versatility. In one Premier Division season he played everywhere except goal. He remembers being in central defence the week before the Scottish Cup final and then on the right wing as United overcame Rangers at Hampden Park.

This year's World Cup finals highlighted his adaptability. Having been deployed in the back three during the qualifying campaign, the predominantly right-footed Dailly found Craig Brown utilising his strength and mobility at left wing-back in Scotland's matches against Brazil, Norway (whose ex-Blackburn player Henning Berg he gave a fearful chasing) and Morocco.

"Football's a team game and you play where you're picked," Dailly says. "But I have to be honest and say that sometimes it's difficult to get my head round the different roles.

"Although I love playing for Scotland, and I really would play anywhere, I want to be at my absolute peak in every match. I know that I can do that best at centre-back."

So it was something of a relief when the Blackburn manager, Roy Hodgson, told him he planned to use him in his favoured position. Colin Hendry's departure to Rangers had left him with only two experienced stoppers, Darren Peacock and Stephane Henchoz.

Nevertheless, the newcomer wants to be judged on his merits rather than as a replacement for his more dramatic, swashbuckling compatriot. "Myself and Colin are different types of player. I can't be the new Hendry, I can only be myself. There aren't many like him anyway."

By a curious twist, Dailly's only competitive game since Scotland's chastening defeat by the Moroccans was for Derby on the opening day of the season... at Blackburn. Unbeknown to him at the time of the 0-0 draw, Hodgson had already approached Jim Smith with a view to a deal.

"I don't know what would've happened if I'd played really badly. Fortunately, we defended well as a team and I had a good game. But I knew absolutely nothing about Blackburn's interest. Derby are a happy club who I loved playing for and I was all geared up for another season with them.

"A couple of days later we were having a bite to eat at home when the phone rang. It was Jim Smith saying he'd had an offer for me which he felt they couldn't turn down.

"The gaffer came round and we got a babysitter to look after the kids while we talked. He explained that Blackburn had made four bids and that they'd gone up from pounds 4.25m to pounds 5.3m, which he wanted to accept."

While Dailly must be one of the least money-conscious players around - during France 98 he mortified the agent handling Scotland's "player pool" by declining payment for a column in a broadsheet newspaper - he was obviously going to benefit financially. What was more important to him was to be sure that the move would be a positive step in footballing terms.

Impressed by the facilities and by Hodgson's reputation as a progressive coach, he rang Blackburn's Billy McKinlay, an international colleague and friend from their Dundee United days. "He reckoned I'd love it," Dailly recalls, "and I should give it a bash."

He signed on the day that Manchester United's more dubious courting of Dwight Yorke reached its conclusion, just in time to be eligible for Blackburn's Uefa Cup tie with Lyon. Hodgson had told him he could not expect to walk straight into the team at Leeds last Monday and he duly sat out the 1- 0 defeat. The wait has given him the chance to settle in; if called upon to mark Emile Heskey today he will be "up for it".

The five-fold increase in his worth since coming south two years ago has not affected Dailly's easy-going demeanour. Likewise the label of "costliest Scot", which leaves him feeling neither proud nor pressured. "The fee doesn't bother me in the slightest because it's something I had no control over. Jim Smith called it a king's ransom but whether it's realistic or not is not something I think about. It just means that's what I'm worth to Blackburn.

"It's a reflection of the way the market has gone. If Kenny Dalglish was playing today he'd probably cost pounds 30m. Duncan Ferguson could take that tag off me at any time and I woudn't give it a second thought."

The warmth of Blackburn's welcome has encouraged him. He met Jack Walker, the club's owner, at Elland Road and was touched that he remembered the names of his wife and children. McKinlay invited him round for tea and TV on Wednesday evening. Typically, when asked whether he has any regrets, apart from uprooting his family, Dailly replies that he had been hoping to be at a different gathering in Leeds on Monday, the V98 Festival.

Music is a consuming passion, but Hodgson need not worry about any rock 'n' roll lifestyle. The World Cup brought home to Dailly the importance of remaining dedicated and made him all the more anxious to be involved when the qualifying for Euro 2000 starts in Lithuania a week today.

"It was an incredible experience, the sort of thing you just want more of. The highlight for me for was when we were on our way to the Brazil game. There were thousands of Scotland fans in the streets around the Stade de France, all shouting `Cum-arrrn!' as we drove past. We were in kilts and we had the Del Amitri song `Don't Come Home Too Soon' playing on the bus. Real lump-in-the-throat stuff."

When it was all over, he took his family to EuroDisney in Paris and enjoyed the sense of "being in the French capital but a million miles from the World Cup". Until Scotland's demise he had watched every game he could. After it, he did not see a single one, even sitting with his back to the screen in the La Manga restaurant where Derby's players caught the final.

"Most of the lads were into it, but I just wanted to put it behind me and concentrate on doing my best for the club," he says. Provided he can find the ground, Blackburn can be assured that Dailly's determination applies equally to them.