Football: Hamstrung Brown calls for continental cutback

THE TWO outrageously dressed members of the Tartan Army who cavorted outside Celtic Park on stilts last Wednesday as supporters squeezed the last drop of sunshine out of a blissful Glasgow spring day before the match with the Czech Republic, provided the inescapable omen for Craig Brown: no one can stay up there forever, and eventually it is better to take the fall.

Two hours later, Gary McAllister trudged up the tunnel with only jeers for company as he was substituted in his 57th, and possibly last, appearance for his country. To be defeated 2-1 by the runners-up in Euro 96 is hardly the end of the world, but it does appear to be the end of the party. The callous way Scotland's captain was made a scapegoat underlined that even the Tartan Army have embraced the philosophy that winning is all that matters.

McAllister's was not the only era to end. The Czechs ripped apart honourable records that both Scotland and their coach held dearly. It was the first competitive defeat on home soil in Brown's six-year reign, and the first for the Scots since the Republic of Ireland won a European Championship tie in Glasgow in 1987. Time to take stock.

Scotland have reached four of the last five major finals (European Championship and World Cup), with USA 94 being the only omission on their cv. Yet, like those fans on stilts, they have been stumbling from one campaign to the next, concerned more about the next step than the right direction.

The Scots have become victims of their own success and even if they defy gravity by reaching Euro 2000 through the back door of the play-offs, age and injury can no longer be resisted. Brown, however, insists that taking a time-out to rebuild resources is not an option. "People say build for the World Cup and forget Euro 2000," reflects Brown, "but that is not possible. My job is to win international matches.

"We came out of France 98, straight into this one and we've not exactly set the heather on fire, but we are consistently handicapped by injuries - especially to Barry Ferguson, the logical successor to McAllister - and I can't exactly sign Dwight Yorke to solve matters up front."

Just how Alex Ferguson would have felt about facing Fifa's seventh-ranked team without even one recognised striker is not difficult to imagine. It was the most damaging deficiency in Brown's patchwork side, and while the exhilarating Neil McCann fuelled optimism, there are few other young players ready to accompany the Rangers winger.

Brown knows the importance of pushing the next generation through. He coached Scotland's Under-21s to a European Championship semi-final with a side which contained Craig Burley, Paul Lambert and Eoin Jess, but the economic reality of the Scottish Premier League means that it is rare for today's young bloods to get a sniff of a game.

"Few of our Under-21s are getting a regular game," he sighs. "Mark Burchill doesn't get enough playing time at Celtic, while Paul Dalglish has left Newcastle to go on loan to Norwich. Compare this with the Czechs, to whom we lost 1-0 in the Under-21 game. They have 60 with Under-21 caps spread throughout the Czech first division. Their economics mean that they export their best players, which allows space for the others to come through.

"Our top clubs will simply buy in players from abroad. I understand why they do it, but we need to restrict the amount of foreign players in an agreement with Premier clubs. In the meantime, we desperately need someone to grow up very quickly."

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