Football: Dodds points way forward to play-offs

Bosnia 1 Scotland 2

APART FROM a Faroese fly in the ointment in the form of two late Estonian goals, the opening half of Scotland's two-game tour of the Balkans and Baltics saw ticks inscribed against virtually every item on Craig Brown's wish list.

The pluses kept piling up. Most obviously there were three points against Bosnia, previously Scotland's closest rivals for the Group Nine runners- up spot that could lead to Euro 2000. Then came the goal for each member of a promising new attacking partnership, if such adjectives still apply to Don Hutchison and Billy Dodds at the ages of 28 and 30 respectively.

To add to the positive picture, Scotland incurred no injuries or suspensions for what now becomes a crucial encounter with Estonia on Wednesday, a luxury probably unique during Brown's six years in charge of the national side. And finally, as newscasters are wont to say, the Czech Republic's victory in Vilnius left Lithuania needing to win at Hampden Park and hope that Bosnia also take three points at Ibrox in order to finish second.

Scotland will therefore step out in Tallinn with their objective in sharp focus. "We know that if we win, and Bosnia lose or draw away to the Czechs, we're in the play-off," said Brown, evidently counting Lithuania out of the equation. "But if this is our cup final, it's Estonia's World Cup final - their first chance to qualify for a major tournament - and they'll be fired up."

The Scotland manager recalled how he gathered his players together after their first competitive away win in 25 months. He told them he had been to three World Cups and two European Championships with the team, but this was "one of the best fighting performances" he had witnessed. The key word, in a country where one is loath to use the vocabulary of violence in relation to sporting achievement, was "fighting".

For all the litany of credit points, the truth was that Scotland battled through; they will play better and lose. Brown, taken by surprise when the Bosnian coach, Faruk Hadzibegic, broke with custom and practice by deploying a third striker, was forced to switch from his usual three-man defence to a four. The ploy left David Hopkin, an attacking midfielder, to face 90 gruelling minutes as an emergency right-back.

Moreover, Hadzibegic's strategy ensured that little was seen of Scotland's other nominal wing-back, Neil McCann, in an attacking context. Brown praised his rival's tactical ingenuity, not to mention his boldness. However, he was adamant that Estonia will not seek to "bust our system" by supplementing their usual attacking duo.

In the event it was Scotland's unusual attacking duo who made the difference in the Olympic Stadium. Throughout the Brown years, parsimonious defence has been their defining trait. His predecessor, Andy Roxburgh, had an embarrassment of midfield riches. In Hutchison and Dodds, playing together for only the second time, the Scots at last seem to have stumbled on a front-line combination of genuine potential.

Hutchison, born on Tyneside of a Scottish father, is the target man of the two, if only in the sense that his distributive skills enable him to act as a nerve centre for moves. He is a tall, powerful player who excels in the air, but his touch is that of a playmaker. He also has the temperament of a pit-bull terrier, which may explain why he did not flourish at Liverpool or West Ham.

Dodds, too, has known rejection, by Chelsea as a teenager and by Aberdeen (then under Brown's assistant, Alex Miller) only last year. When he kicked off the infamous three-second "match" in Estonia in 1996, he feared it might be the beginning and end of his Scotland career. Since being recalled last autumn, his impact has been so great that Brown now regards him as "my first-choice striker".

In October Dodds came on for the last 20 minutes against Estonia and scored twice to turn a deficit into a win. He promptly added what proved the decisive goal against the Faroe Islands before making one and scoring the other against Bosnia on Saturday.

In the 13th minute the diminutive Dodds put in a header from a corner which Mirsad Dedic could only parry. Hutchison pounced for his second goal in as many internationals.

After Bosnia had equalised with a brilliantly executed breakaway by Elvir Bolic - after Barry Ferguson's misplaced pass had taken Scotland from a position of pressing at a corner to conceding a goal in a matter of seconds - Neil Sullivan capped his best display for Scotland by touching Sergei Barbarez's shot on to a post.

The experience of players like Colin Hendry and John Collins was carrying Scotland at that point. Then Dodds took over. After dispossessing Mirsad Hibic, the Dundee United man set off towards goal. With the ball on the left foot he normally uses only for standing on, he contemplated rolling it wide to McCann. Brown confessed he was imploring him to "pass it, don't shoot", upon which Dodds let fly from 20 yards.

The result was "a goal fit to win any game", according to his manager; not only Scotland's 100th in this competition but also Dodds' fourth in 10 caps, half of which came as a substitute. Yet among the players at least there was to be none of the wild partying which has followed, and on occasion preceded, past Scottish successes abroad.

The squad flew north yesterday having heeded a management request to retire to their beds at an hour some of their predecessors would have found insultingly sensible. Brown said: "I put it to them: `Why waste the chance to kill off the group'?" Even if his plea fails to elicit the desired response on Wednesday, two games in Glasgow next month should set the seal on a play-off place for Scotland.

Goals: Hutchison (13) 0-1; Bolic (23) 1-1; Dodds (45) 1-2.

BOSNIA (4-3-3): Dedic (Derzelez Zenica); Joldic (Sloboda Tuzla), Konjic (Coventry), Hibic (Sevilla), Mujdza (Hajduk Split), Halilovic (Altay), Barbarez (Borussia Dortmund), Besirevic (Osijek); Topic (Monza), Kodro (Alaves), Bolic (Fenerbahce). Substitutes: Mujcin (Croatia Zagreb) for Halilovic, (61); Repuh (Bursaspor) for Joldic (77), Demirovic (Istanbulspor) for Mujdza (80).

SCOTLAND (3-5-2): Sullivan (Wimbledon); Hendry (Rangers), Calderwood (Aston Villa), Weir (Everton); Hopkin (Leeds), Burley (Celtic), Ferguson (Rangers), Collins (Everton), McCann (Rangers); Hutchison (Everton), Dodds (Dundee United). Substitutes: Dailly (Blackburn) for Calderwood, h-t; Gallacher (Blackburn) for McCann, 74; Durrant (Kilmarnock) for Ferguson, 76.

Referee: N Levnikov (Russia). Bookings: Bosnia: Halilovic, Mujcin. Scotland: Sullivan, Hutchison.

Man of the match: Hutchison.

Attendance: 26,000.

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