Football: Lucky break at last for Gallacher

Phil Shaw reports from Gothenburg on the striker who has overcome two serious injuries to prosper for Scotland
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Footballers are a relentlessly ribald breed. Kevin Gallacher had no sooner donned his glasses after scoring twice to help Scotland overcome Austria than Ally McCoist was promising to describe the goals to him. As the squad jester explained, Gallacher would never have seen the ball hit the net.

The Blackburn Rovers striker, who plays in contact lenses, saw the funny side of it all. Following nine years on the international fringes, disrupted by two career-threatening injuries, he has never been more firmly established with Scotland.

If the Scots could replicate Gallacher's resilience in their vital qualifier against Sweden in the Ullevi Stadium here tomorrow, they would not need tartan-tinted spectacles to see the World Cup finals looming into view.

Visions of France became tantalisingly vivid last month when Scotland beat Estonia and Austria. A feature of both displays was Gallacher's understanding with Hibernian's Darren Jackson. The manager, Craig Brown, likened their union of quick minds and feet to the productive link between McCoist and Mo Johnston.

"I was back-up to that duo so I know what a compliment it was," Gallacher said. "It's been hard for Craig because he's never had a settled partnership up front, but it would be good to develop this one.

"Darren and myself are both mobile players with an instinct for reading the other's intentions. It shows you don't necessarily need a big target man, though it's good to have that option. Scotland are playing a more European build-up and that suits me."

If Gallacher's time has finally come, it certainly took some tortuous detours. As a teenaged flying winger at Dundee United, it was his pedigree as much as his pace that attracted attention.

His grandfather, Patsy Gallagher (the spelling has evolved), won seven championship medals and amassed some 200 goals for Celtic. A waif of a forward at 8st, he compensated with legendary courage and skill.

Patsy, from Donegal, represented the Irish Free State. Kevin, scarcely one of nature's heavyweights himself, was Clydebank born and bred and set his heart on playing for Scotland. He made a real impact on his United debut, if not quite how he intended.

"We played the Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax and I was sub. All I remember is that when Ian Redford scored, I leapt up inside the dug-out and banged my head on the roof. Next thing I knew I was on the pitch and everything was flashing by in a blur."

Gallacher also hit a rich vein of form, leading in 1988 to the first of 27 caps against Colombia. "Another blur," he laughed, "and so long ago that team-mates like Willie Miller, Alex McLeish, Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns retired ages ago to be managers."

After Coventry bought him for pounds 900,000 he began using his speed and eye for a goal in central positions. Versatility helped him make the squad for the finals of successive European Championships; it may also have precluded a regular starting place.

In the goalless game with Estonia in Monte Carlo, for example, Gallacher began wide on the right with the aim of providing crosses for Duncan Ferguson. After being switched to attack through the middle and then to the left flank, he ended the match back in his original role.

When he talks, however, about being happy just to be playing, it is no mere cliche. In 1994, a year after Kenny Dalglish took him to Lancashire for pounds 1.5m, Gallacher suffered a triple fracture of the right leg at Arsenal. Thirteen months on, with Blackburn closing in on the title, it snapped again against Crystal Palace.

"I lost nearly two years. I don't know where 27 and 28 went, but I regard myself as being stuck on 26 rather than as a 30-year-old. This is my second football career. I was so close to losing everything, football-wise, but I've come back a lot stronger and sharper and determined to make up for lost time."

He used the enforced lay-off to study Alan Shearer's knack of being in the right position to score. "In a way it was a wasted six months. However much I watched him, I could never quite work out how the hell he did it! But to have played with someone like Alan was fantastic for me."

Gallacher's selflessness meant the admiration was mutual. Now there is the promise of his double act with Jackson, who made his first goal against Austria. If the second - his fourth for Scotland - was a blur it was because it was volleyed at high velocity.

"The fact that it was at Celtic Park made it even more special, remembering my grandfather's connection. I hadn't been back since I was with Dundee United, but this time the crowd were all on my side. I'll always keep a memory of that night."

Gallacher's build-up to Gothenburg has been equally heartening. He came through his return to Highbury ("the hairs were up on the back of my neck") before helping Blackburn trounce Sheffield Wednesday to edge towards Premiership safety.

Seeing is believing, they say, yet even if McCoist's teasing had any basis in fact, Gallacher does not lack conviction. "It's a massive game for us and I was very impressed by how the Swedes kept coming forward when we beat them 1-0 at Ibrox," he said.

"But the way our defence played, it seemed they were destined not to score. As long as we don't lose, we're still on course."