Football Euro 2000: Muscle and mettle needed to make history

PLAY-OFF SHOWDOWN Reputations at stake as Scotland and England collide at Hampden in the first stage of the final battle to qualify for Euro 2000
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THE OLD Hampden Park saw some memorable occasions. The 1970 European Cup semi-final between Celtic and Leeds; the 1937 Scotland-England match when a European record 149,547 packed into the ground; Scotland's victory over Czechoslovakia that sent them to the 1974 World Cup finals; the bizarre send-off for Ally McLeod's men before Argentina 78; Kenny Dalglish's back- heeled nutmeg of Ray Clemence in 1976; and the incomparable Real Madrid- Eintracht Frankfurt European Cup final of 1960.

Famous days and nights, but the teeming stands where generations of Scots watched those matches are gone, reduced to landfill. In their place is a gleaming modern edifice, a brick, steel and glass temple to Scotland's national game. It is, said the England coach, Kevin Keegan, after his team trained there yesterday, "a stadium built for football". It has everything a football ground could want, except a history. Leg room, but no legends.

This afternoon that will all change as Scotland and England revive the oldest fixture in the international football calender. It would be a big occasion if it was only pride that was at stake, but victory in the two- legged tie - the second match is at Wembley on Wednesday night - will send the winners to next summer's European Championships. Defeat will cast the losers into an abyss of shame and self-criticism.

The competing teams may be moderate by the standards of both the international game and their own histories, but the atmosphere will not. The new Hampden Park only holds 52,000 but the stadium's low roof will magnify the noise, and the presence of 6,000 English supporters will further intensify the passion.

Once the respective anthems are out of the way ("Flower of Scotland" for the home side, "God Save the Queen" for the visitors) it will be as much about temperament as talent. Each side will have to earn, by dint of muscle and mettle, the right to play while being careful not to overdo the physical element of the game and thus leave their team a man short.

"I'm not worried about the fact that none of our team have experienced a Scotland-England match here, because neither have theirs," Keegan said, adding: "We will have to get the balance right between being motivated and being over the top. Keeping 11 players on [the pitch] will be very important."

Manuel Diaz Vega, of Spain, is the referee. A good official, he is also noted for his strictness, especially on dissent.

When the hurly-burly of the early skirmishes dies down - if it ever does - the side who have won control of midfield is likely to emerge the winner. Even without the injured Paul Lambert, this is probably the strongest area of Scotland's team with Don Hutchison, John Collins and Barry Ferguson expected to line up against Paul Ince, Jamie Redknapp and Paul Scholes.

"I think they'll miss Lambert," said Keegan, "it is like us losing Ince, but they have other quality players like Hutchison, Collins and [Craig] Burley. Collins is a very under-rated player, he's played very well at Everton this year and he's got a sweet left foot."

If Hutchison wins the physical battle, Collins and Ferguson might be able to open up England in the wide areas. The question then is whether Billy Dodds and Kevin Gallacher can take advantage. Should Ince dominate and enable Redknapp to bring David Beckham into play on the right, Alan Shearer and his strike partner, probably Michael Owen, will take advantage.

This is where England appear superior; as in Euro 96 they have the match- winners, the players with that little bit extra. But can Keegan create the platform for them to prove it? Asked if he was "nervous, tense, excited or worried" Keegan said "all those things" but added: "I look at my players training and it would be much more worrying for me if I genuinely thought I did not have good players. It is now up to myself and my staff to make sure the quality I have there comes out on a football pitch.

"If it doesn't it is my fault, the buck always stops at the manager, but that doesn't mean the players can't take responsibility. The players don't owe me anything, they have always given their best, but I think they would say they are due a performance with the ability they have got.

"We have some of the most valuable players in the world but they still have something to prove on the international stage. It is another notch. A lot of people feel the Champions' League has taken over from international football but it hasn't and it never will. The likes of Shearer, Beckham and Scholes may have won championships, some have won European Cup medals, but there is still a void there. I played for England for 10 years and never won anything and I felt that void."

This match is not about winning a trophy, it is about winning the right to try and win a trophy. But it is more than just a play-off game - CNN did not dedicate 15 minutes to any of the other play-offs yesterday.

So far under Keegan, England have been less than the sum of their parts. Scotland, under Craig Brown, have generally been more than the sum of their parts.

This afternoon, in the 1999 City of Architecture and Design, we will discover whether Keegan can construct a team as well as his Scottish counterpart. If he can, England should win, but it is a big "if".