Football: Dynamo ready at the Dinamo

Simon Turnbull finds Gary McAllister full of running for the Scottish cause today
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The Independent Online
In addition to the captain's arm-band, Craig Brown should perhaps offer Gary McAllister a surgical support as the veteran midfielder prepares to lead out Scotland at the Dinamo Stadium in Minsk today. Brown, as manager of the first Scotland team to face Belarus, has called upon his players to summon "one more big effort" for a game they need to win to sustain their World Cup qualification hopes. The trouble is McAllister has been making big efforts for club and for country since 17 August last year.

The Group Four qualifying match will be the 55th of the season for Scotland's captain. He has not missed an international match and he was one of 12 players who registered ever-present for the duration of the Premiership term, the only midfield man or attacker to do so. "I wouldn't have known how many games it was," McAllister said. "I only knew I'd played every League and Cup game for Coventry and every international for Scotland too. Physically, I'm feeling ready for a rest, but mentally I know I've got one massive game left.

"There will be no problem for anyone in the squad to lift themselves for this one. The motivation for a game like this takes care of itself. It's the friendlies that can be difficult at the end of a hard season. It is as much a mental as a physical thing, though some of us have been playing for virtually two years solid now."

Today's game, in fact, will be McAllister's 120th in 22 months. He did have the luxury of sitting out three matches of the 1995-96 season, two for Leeds United and one for his country. But by the time his extended campaign came to an end, with Scotland's exit from Euro 96 on 18 June, he had played 65 games. Cumulative fatigue would be only natural, all the more so given Coventry's fight to the death to avoid the clutches of the Nationwide League. But, though the Scots looked jaded in their 3-2 win in Malta last Sunday, Brown made a point of praising the staying power shown by his team - and by his captain in particular.

"They have given me conscientious support and every last ounce of effort," Brown said. "Take Gary McAllister. His attitude has been magnificent. He has been majestic in training and in matches. I thought he controlled the game in Malta."

Another influential performance by the 32-year-old would be vital to the Scottish cause today. With Colin Hendry and Colin Calderwood both undergoing urgent repairs, Scotland's back three - likely to comprise David Weir, Christian Dailly and Tom Boyd - will look temptingly inexperienced to the Belarussians. John Collins is also among the absentees, so the burden will be on McAllister to ensure the midfield holds sufficient sway to minimise pressure on a makeshift defence, though Paul Lambert will be deployed in an anchoring role for added insurance.

Scotland are still leaders of their group, but having lost 2-1 in Gothenburg in April they can now be overtaken by both Sweden and Austria. "We've simply got to win in Minsk," McAllister said. "If we do, we've got Belarus and Latvia at home and that would give us a great chance of getting second place at least. Austria and Sweden have to play each other and they could also slip up in their other games. The feeling in the squad is that we need to get nine points."

At face value, three points today ought not to prove too difficult. Belarus are bottom of the group with just one win from five games - a 1-0 success at home to Estonia in August last year. But, with all due respect, they have pushed a better team than Brown's Scotland to the brink of despair. The 1-0 defeat the Dutch suffered in Minsk in June 1995 registered on the Richter scale of global football shocks. It would have cost them a place in the Euro 96 had they not beaten Belarus in the return and then disposed of the Republic of Ireland in the play-off match at Anfield.

Considering seven members of the Dutch team in Minsk had helped Ajax beat Milan in Vienna a fortnight earlier, the collective hangover from Holland's first European Cup success for 22 years was blamed for the upset. At least Craig Brown only has Paul Lambert to worry about.

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