Football: Ferguson not in red-headed league

EURO 2000: SCOTLAND V ENGLAND; Phil Gordon sees Scotland's young midfielder lose the battle of the prodigies
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ONLY THREE years separate Paul Scholes and Barry Ferguson, but yesterday England's golden boy and the great white hope of Scotland seemed a generation apart. Scholes' unruly red hair may make him look like little boy lost, yet he proved to Ferguson out on the wide green spaces of Hampden Park that he was king of the playground.

The Manchester United midfielder underlined to Kevin Keegan, if the point really needed emphasising, that he has finally grown up and, at 24, stands on the threshold of being his country's most influential player. Not only did Scholes provide the two goals which have almost certainly confirmed England's ticket to Euro 2000, but he also found time to impose himself on Ferguson when the Rangers player was supposed to be doing that job on him.

Ferguson, at 21, is a young man Craig Brown hopes to build a team around in the future, but the flower of Scotland has yet to truly blossom. Yesterday, he simply wilted under the fierce scrutiny.

Both owe their emergence to Paul Gascoigne's demise: Scholes has staked his claim for England's central midfield role since Gazza's rapid decline after the countries last met at Euro 96, while Ferguson's promise prompted Dick Advocaat - three months before his arrival - to order Rangers to sell the errant England star to Middlesbrough to give the young Scot room to come through.

The adaptability of each is sometimes a burden. Both have been bestowed with a good touch and clever pass, yet each has had to suborn those natural attacking instincts for defensive chores. Scholes performed the holding role so well during Roy Keane's year out at Old Trafford that Sir Alex Ferguson never missed his talisman.

Much of the credit for Scholes' emergence is down to Ferguson senior, but Glasgow's own football knight, as patriotic a Scot as any, would have winced at the way his namesake was brushed aside by his protege. Ferguson, the player, crucially allowed Scholes to slip the leash in the 20th minute to collect Sol Campbell's wonderful ball and chest it out of Colin Hendry's reach before slipping his shot past Neil Sullivan. If Advocaat, who led Holland to the World Cup finals in 1994, was watching, he would have torn his famed hairweave out by the roots.

Ferguson was caught sleeping. As Hendry admitted later: "Barry thought I was taking Scholes and I thought he was coming with him, and we got caught flat-footed."

It is doubtful if Paul Lambert, whose discipline shone through two years ago in snuffing out Ryan Giggs in the Champions' League semi-final when playing for Dortmund, would have afforded Scholes as much latitude. However, his injury handed Ferguson the task and the Rangers player was caught between the two roles that have divided his season - attack and defence.

No such problem for Scholes. The little red devil marred his CV against Sweden five months ago with a red card, but here he simply married his sense of attacking adventure - which brought the impressive hat-trick against Poland - with a vigilance that never allowed Ferguson the same room to create anything for Scotland.

While Scholes is invested with a wonderful burst of pace and impressive grasp of how a midfielder must time his runs - as both goals illustrated - Ferguson lacks the sudden burst that carries him past markers. He prefers to craft a pass.

There was a flicker, though, in the 35th minute that the Scotland player relished the challenge - a wonderful reverse pass by John Collins allowed Ferguson to reach the goal-line and deliver a cutback for Kevin Gallacher. Yet the striker lacked, in the words of the Scotland captain, Hendry, the "rub of the green" and his shot was deflected by Tony Adams for a corner instead of an equaliser.

Six minutes later, the game and Scotland were dead as Scholes escaped once more and guided in a powerful header.

Scotland visibly sagged, as did Ferguson. In the second half, the Manchester United player, fuelled by adrenaline, was perpetual motion, whereas his counterpart was simply pedestrian. After one poor pass that Craig Burley could never reach, Ferguson plaintively stretched out his arms in a gesture of defeat that summed up the mood of a Hampden Park that had been becalmed.

The final insult was provided by Scholes in injury-time as he stamped on the prostrate Ferguson's right hand in his eagerness to pursue his hat-trick. The stinging pain felt by the Scot was probably secondary to being metaphorically ground into the turf.

Scholes celebrates his 25th birthday on Tuesday, but he has already blown out Scotland's Euro 2000 hopes. All that Wembley offers Ferguson is a chance to spoil the party.