Football: McCann's lengthy Czech wait

Phil Gordon describes the air of frustration in Scotland's camp
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CRAIG BROWN once acknowledged that Kenny Dalglish would have been his choice, as well as the people's, to manage Scotland. However, even Dalglish might have trouble paying the kind of phone bills Brown runs up.

British Telecom's advertising campaign last year may have depicted the taciturn Scots legend as a chatline obsessive who believed it was good to talk, but the reality of Brown's job is that he spends too much time on the line to his players ever to get around to phoning supporters as Dalglish did on the small screen.

Brown's catalogue of call-offs before every game has tested the patience of Europe's longest-serving manager, but the events of the last few days have added a new dimension, even for him. The on-off uncertainty over yesterday's postponed European Championship match with Bosnia-Herzegovina kept the Scotland coach's phone engaged longer than usual, as he tried to prepare at a hotel overlooking the Troon Open golf course.

Within minutes of Uefa's decision, Brown was on the phone to Neil McCann to tell the winger that his first start for Scotland would have to be put on hold; then, it was a call to Billy Dodds to inform the suspended striker that he would have to miss Wednesday's crucial tie with the Czech Republic because his one-game ban would have to be carried over from the postponed match.

Brown's last call was to book a flight so that he could make use of his unexpected free Saturday by watching the Czechs play Lithuania in Prague. In contrast to all of this, the encounter with the Group Nine leaders at Celtic Park will be more straightforward.

Being deprived of Dodds is Scotland's biggest problem. The Dundee United player scored three times in two games, against Estonia and the Faroe Islands last October, and in the absence of the injured Kevin Gallacher and Gordon Durie his presence was vital. That role could now be taken on by McCann, whose form since his pounds 1.9m transfer from Hearts to Rangers at Christmas has been illuminating. So much so, that Brown paraded the player - who has played only seven minutes in a Scotland shirt - last Thursday, revealing that McCann's was the only name pencilled in on the team sheet to face Bosnia.

The subsequent phone call from Brown was treated by McCann with stoicism. "It was out of our hands, but I was completely gutted," said the 24-year- old. "I had already phoned my wife and my parents to tell them I was in the team, then I had to call back and say it was off."

McCann, whose only taste of international action was as a late substitute in Lithuania last September, was doubly irked because the game was at Ibrox, a stage he has made his own since his move. "Earlier in the season, when I was still at Hearts, I was hoping to get my first Scotland start when they played Estonia at Tynecastle, but then I broke my leg against Real Mallorca in the Cup-Winners' Cup."

McCann's five goals since moving to Rangers would normally have been looked upon as a nice bonus from a winger, but in Scotland's present plight it puts a greater onus on him. "Dick Advocaat [Rangers' coach] had been giving me stick for not scoring after my move because he knew I had scored 13 for Hearts last season. But I told him that as soon as I got my first, I would be off and running and that has happened with five in a month."

Strangely, for a player once dubbed "a poor man's Ryan Giggs" by Brown, McCann has relished the bigger stage since moving to Rangers. "There were a few raised eyebrows when Dick Advocaat paid that kind of money for me," McCann reflected. "Maybe people thought I was going to Rangers as a squad player, but I never saw it that way. When you keep players like we have at Rangers on the bench, it is good for your confidence. But I have always had confidence in my own ability."

That has not always been shared by Brown, who left McCann out of the 22-man squad for the World Cup last summer. "Neil was inconsistent," the Scots coach said. "Every time I went to see him play, he didn't do well. Yet, I know what he can do. I once saw him singlehandedly take Greece apart in an Under-21 match and he has great pace, which we need against the Czechs."

"I know I let myself down when Craig came," McCann replied. "Any player can have an off day, but wingers get noticed more if it happens to them." Scotland and McCann will be hoping for no more off days.