Football: Doubly sweet day for the little big man of England

EURO 2000: SCOTLAND V ENGLAND: Ordinary Scots no match for Club Keegan
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The Independent Online
THERE WILL BE much diplomacy over the next few days, just as there has been since the day the draw for the European Championship play-offs turned a game of international football into a playground spat, but England can realistically start to plan for a summer on the continent after a raucous occasion at Hampden Park.

Fervour and passion aside, this was not much of a contest. Scotland, as even their most ardent supporters had feared, were desperately mediocre, a shadow of some of the sides that have graced Hampden Park down the years, short of imagination and luck when it mattered. England had only to match the Scots in the traditional terrain of heart and soul to allow superior footballing skill to triumph. They managed that with spirit to spare.

It was, said Kevin Keegan, the best team performance England had produced under his guidance. "Not hard, I admit," he added with a nice touch of self-deprecation, but a vindication of the Club England unity Keegan is trying to foster. "We've huffed and puffed a bit, but we've never blown the house down, have we?" If not hurricane force, England kept a steady, chilling, breeze blowing through Hampden. The Scots' most fluent period came just before half-time, but once Paul Scholes had headed the second, England had only to draw up the barricades to protect a precious advantage.

The silence at the final whistle, punctuated by the chanting from the England supporters, spoke volumes for the discipline and efficiency of the England performance. Only rarely did the central pair of Tony Adams and Martin Keown allow the diminutive front runners to dart between them and, when they did, David Seaman belied his recent indifferent form with a vital save with his legs. Had Scotland managed to equalise then, just a minute after Scholes had given England a deserved lead, the game would have been balanced as finely as the last match, in the finals of the 1996 European Championship. Kevin Gallacher's carelessness - "I sent David [Seaman] the wrong way but just didn't lift the ball high enough" - revived memories of Gary McAllister's missed penalty on that sunny Wembley afternoon. Scotland have not scored against England since 1986, which lent some sense of perspective to Craig Brown's desperate optimism. "We tend to score away from home, but we will have to score early at Wembley to open the game up again," the Scotland coach said.

Otherwise, a match of predictably insular virtues, of physical presence and frantic pace, produced a thoroughly predictable roll-call of heroes. Sol Campbell, asked to play out of position at right-back, res-ponded with a near flawless display of defending. Adams and Keown were not far behind and if the combination of Phil Neville and Jamie Redknapp was hardly the ideal long-term solution to the left-sided vacuum, Scotland never managed to profit from their lack of cohesion. "You look at David Seaman through to Jamie Redknapp, from 1 to 11, and say to them all: `Yes, you played your part'," said Keegan.

With space at a premium down the wings, the game was compressed into the narrow corridors of midfield where Alan Shearer won his personal battle on points with Colin Hendry and the anticipation of Michael Owen's pace as much as the reality of it forced Scotland's cumbersome back line to defend deeper than they would have liked.

Owen's nonchalant dance past David Weir in the opening exchanges triggered the hazard warning lights for the Scottish defence, though it was Scholes, first with a neat chest and turn past Hendry and then, just before half- time, with a header who proved the difference between the two sides. We want the hand grenades of Poland (when he scored a hat-trick), not the Exocets of Sweden (when he was sent off), Arthur Cox, Keegan's assistant, had told Scholes the night before the game. This, though, was neither; it was the deadliness of the stiletto.

Whether England showed the sort of teamwork and technical expertise to frighten the Dutch, the Germans or the Italians is a debating issue for a later day. There is a little matter of a return leg at Wembley to negotiate first. The Scots at least know what they have to do: beat England by two goals or more at Wembley for the first time in 50 years, but they had a big enough sniff of success, notably when Billy Dodds struck the crossbar in the first half, to construct some rickety scaffolding of hope by Wednesday night.

England had the game well under control by half-time, thanks largely to Scholes' opportunism, the width of the crossbar and the undeniable fact that Scotland are a desperately ordinary side. It was hard to find a Scotsman who would disagree with that judgement, but as objectivity has never been a notable feature of these cross-border conflicts, the truth had been largely obscured by the hype, which reached absurd heights of nationalism in the Scottish tabloids yesterday morning.

Keegan can take much credit for the victory, not for any tactical insight - it was hardly that sort of game - but for the perfect balance he found between motivation and mayhem. He barely put a foot wrong all week in the interview room. He has been humorous, courteous, cautious and noticeably relaxed. As a player he relished a helter skelter scrap and it seems no different now that he is confined to a tracksuit. His resolute refusal to play up the chances of his own team had deprived the Scots of ammunition in the preliminary propaganda war. The boos and jeers which drowned the national anthem, though depressingly predictable, only steeled English nerve. The vociferous England contingent more than held their own in the battle for the airwaves. With Scholes striking every 20 minutes in the first half, they had two reasons to be cheerful.

"I thought we handled the atmosphere just right," Keegan added. "I like to sing our anthem, but I honestly couldn't hear it and nor could the players. Once we'd heard it later from the fans, I knew everything was OK. But anyone who thought this place wasn't intimidating should have been sitting where we were for 10 minutes." Brown blamed some "slipshod" defending for a Scottish plight which would have tested the resolve of a Rob Roy.