Football Euro 2000: Brown keeps faith with cool calculation

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The Independent Online
NO SOONER had Craig Brown launched into his final press conference at Troon before sending Scotland into battle against England this afternoon than the strains of "Ode to Joy" could be heard coming, magically it seemed, from within the very sofa on which he sat. Was it, perhaps, an omen from on high for Hampden Park?

The strains of disembodied Beethoven proved to be nothing more ethereal than a mobile phone which one of the media pack had forgotten to turn off. Yet when the laughter subsided, Brown exuded a quiet confidence that his players, whom even the Scottish supporters apparently expect to face the music over the two legs, are capable of calling the tune.

The Scotland manager, true to himself to the last, resisted an invitation to issue "a call to arms". To the disappointment of many amid the frenzied atmosphere surrounding the tie, Brown has confirmed himself as the polar opposite of Ally MacLeod, and is placing his hopes of upsetting England in superior teamwork, meticulous preparation and tactical acumen.

However, Brown offered some encouragement for those Scots who regard the calculating approach as a betrayal of the romantic tradition personified by Baxter, Bremner and Law. After admitting he would settle for a 0- 0 draw today - because of the pressure that would heap on England - he acknowledged that "we owe our fans a performance based on aggression".

There is no more aggressive, passionate and patriotic Scottish player than Colin Hendry, but Brown again refused to reveal whether his captain would play. "He has passed the fitness test but we have got to establish his match fitness. Everything being normal, I'd want him to play, but we have excellent cover and we've worked on defending set-pieces using different personnel."

In the event of Hendry missing out - which could jeopardise his move from Rangers to Derby - Colin Calderwood would be an experienced replacement. David Weir would switch to the centre of defence, where he effectively shackled Alan Shearer for Everton at Newcastle last Sunday.

In midfield, arguably Scotland's strongest unit, Brown is likely to depute Barry Ferguson, a 21-year-old from Rangers with just three caps, to fill Paul Lambert's anchor role. He must also decide whether Don Hutchison, for all his technical ability, has the discipline to operate in that minefield. If not, the Tynesider could be asked to partner Billy Dodds up front at the expense of Kevin Gallacher.

The latter possibility may have been in the mind of the questioner who asked whether the Scots hoped to surprise Kevin Keegan. "I don't think so," replied Brown, "and I don't expect him to surprise us either. We've watched all their matches and we also have good knowledge of players like [Steve] Guppy and [Steve] Froggatt, having watched them on tape playing for their clubs."

Whoever dons the dark blue, few neutrals would claim that any of their number was better than his counterpart in Keegan's side. But the same was probably true of the Swedish players who topped England's qualifying group, so the outcome may turn on whether Brown can once again coax his team into performing above their capabilities while England continue to play below theirs.

Brown certainly has the edge over Keegan in international experience - 37 competitive fixtures against the England coach's total of seven games. He has also displayed a sharper sense of strategy than the former Newcastle manager, who tends to favour an off-the-cuff approach which one senses is unlikely to prosper in the rarified atmosphere of a major tournament.

Nor will Scotland be fazed by the clamour at Hampden or Wembley. There may be no one in Brown's squad from Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool, but as he is fond of pointing out, even the players with less glamourous Scottish clubs like Hearts and Dundee United regularly perform before hostile full houses at Celtic and Rangers.

Even so, Brown's record since he succeeded Andy Roxburgh - he reaches his sixth anniversary next Wednesday, of all days - suggests that Scotland will have to scale fresh heights to reach next summer's European Championship finals. Although they beat the European champions, Germany, away earlier this year, their best competitive victories during his reign have been over Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Greece, with honourable draws against Russia and the Netherlands for good measure.

Logic and form may not apply to this tie any more than they do in the FA Cup, but what Brown has worked on all week is to try to ensure that Scotland sustain their organisation and cohesion over 90 minutes. Against Brazil and France they matched the world champions and their successors for long periods only to lose narrowly on each occasion. Away to the Czech Republic, the Continent's best side according to Brown, they led 2-0 before succumbing late on.

In fact, in the European Championship and World Cup, Brown's Scotland have lost by more than a single goal only twice. One was to Morocco; the other occasion, at Euro 96, means there is a score to settle.