Football: Euro 2000: Wembley's night of passion belongs to Scots

England hold out to book their place at next year's European Championship but Craig Brown's men show great heart to triumph in adversity
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IF EVER a football match could be described as enthralling without being remotely impressive, it was the conclusive meeting between England and Scotland at Wembley last night. This little local dispute produced the expected thud and blunder, but although Don Hutchison's goal just before half-time provided a kick to the narrative at just the right moment, Scotland were never quite good enough to take the next step.

Not that they would have needed to be all that good. As England proceed to the finals of Euro 2000, which will provide an intense sensation of relief to the Football Association and their sponsors, the news will hardly strike fear into the hearts of the team's potential rivals next summer. Kevin Keegan's claim that the side which flirted with elimination is capable of winning the tournament appears to have little factual basis.

At least Scotland, written off after that pallid second-half performance at Hampden Park, did themselves justice with a wholehearted performance. Had Christian Dailly's point-blank header not produced a magnificent instinctive block from David Seaman in the 80th minute, it might even have had the chance to assume historic proportions. But England did the minimum, which all their supporters have a right to expect just now.

There had not been such passion in an English stadium since France and the All Blacks fought it out at Twickenham two and a half weeks ago, and probably not in a match involving an England side since the Euro 96 semi- final against Germany. And, try as they might, almost 70,000 England supporters could not avenge themselves for last Saturday's insult by whistling down the sound of 6,000 Scots singing their strangely dolorous national hymn.

The spirit of the Scottish players was also immediately in evidence when Hutchison tested the referee's indulgence in the second minute by sliding through Paul Scholes and Paul Ince in the space of a few seconds. Although lining up alongside Billy Dodds and Neil McCann in the front line of an aggressive 4-3-3 formation, Hutchison was clearly of a mind not to neglect the destructive instinct which can give a distinctly unappealing aspect to his game.

Initially looking comfortable with their two-goal lead, England reacted to the Scots' frenetic opening with several passages of stylish approach play from which scoring chances soon emerged. Sol Campbell's resourceful dribble down the right deserved a better ending than Alan Shearer's woeful miskick, while Michael Owen tried to be too cute when, having beaten Hutchison and taken the ball to the byline on the left-hand side of the goal, he attempted to find Shearer with the outside of his right foot but scooped the ball over the bar. Scholes might have killed the match stone dead in the ninth minute when he profited from Hendry's failure to clear Shearer's low cross but shot just wide of the right-hand post.

The real feature of the first half-hour, however, was the curious form of Owen. Facing a defence anxious to push forward, Owen was finding both possession and space in abundance. As he showed against Bulgaria last month, the long injury lay-off has not affected his speed off the mark or the sinuosity of his running. His control, however, is not as reliable. At the moment the ball tends to bounce off him, even at the second or third touch, negating the fear that his reputation instils into defenders. Nor is there much sign that he and Shearer are any nearer to tuning themselves in to the same wavelength.

Hutchison's 39th-minute goal provided exactly the twist that a neutral, had there been any in the stadium, would have desired. As England restarted the game, they suddenly seemed unsure of how to proceed, although their coach must have prepared them for just such an eventuality. The questions that the Scotland No 10's header asked of the tall England defenders could only produce a disconcerting answer.

The best plan, of course, would have been for Keegan's side to score a goal of their own, but this is not a side built for the immediate riposte. For years it has been in England's character to take their goals as they come, and to make patience almost too much of a virtue, given the side's tactical and technical limitations.

The poor understanding between Shearer and Owen was not all the younger man's fault, either. And when Shearer accelerated down the right on to another muffed clearance by Hendry early in the second half, his team- mates might have expected something better than the curled shot which whistled past the angle of the near post and crossbar.

Craig Brown must have been pleased with the way his side were living up to the promise that, having failed so dismally on home soil, they would thrive in adversity. As they continued to try to play their way to a second goal, Dodds and McCann were able to stretch the whole England defence with a neat exchange which ended with Dodds shooting into David Seaman's midriff.

Although Keegan's decision to withdraw Owen after 62 minutes constituted no surprise, the identity of the substitute certainly did. Presumably Keegan thought that, by inserting Emile Heskey, he was giving the team someone to hold the ball up in attack and give the defence a measure of relief. It certainly gave Shearer the rare opportunity, in his England career, to play off a target man, although Heskey's first significant contribution was a long cross over the whole defence, aimed at Redknapp, who volleyed over the bar. Once again England had failed to show the killer touch, allowing Scotland to keep the flame of hope flickering as the game entered its final phase.

In the inevitable euphoria that will surround England's qualification, and in what will undoubtedly be an overheated build-up to the finals, it should not be forgotten that last night, on home soil, in the so-called "Venue of Legends", they failed to score a goal against one of Europe's poorer national teams. Keegan's first defeat as England's manager should give him plenty of food for thought in the coming months.