Football: McClair the intelligence agent in United's attack: Derek Hodgson on Old Trafford's forward-thinking Scotland international who can be expected to give Aston Villa a searching examination this Sunday

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WHEN a magazine asked 10 Manchester United players about their favourite films only two were man enough to own up to having a cry while watching one. Clayton Blackmore named Terminator, presumably shedding tears of laughter at Arnie's acting. The other was Brian McClair and he was serious: It's a Wonderful Life.

That choice says a lot about McClair. It's a Wonderful Life was directed by Frank Capra in 1946, starred James Stewart and although the New Yorker called it 'icky, bittersweet', it was nominated for an Oscar and has since become recognised as the epitome of small-town life in America as seen by Hollywood. Its central theme is human kindness.

A glance down the choices of his nine fellow professionals confirms McClair as a different kind of footballer, a rare romantic, yet seen by the Old Trafford terraces as a dour, taciturn Scot. He wins nothing like the adulation given Mark Hughes yet in most matches he is twice as effective. He is as good a midfielder, in a different style, as Paul McStay and Gary McAllister, yet is booed when he plays for Scotland at Ibrox.

He attended Glasgow University, but did not finish his course, and has raised funds for Nicaraguan refugees with Pat Nevin. He is, say his colleagues at Old Trafford, 'a thinker'.

McClair is also the United player most admired by his midfield partner, Paul Ince, whose performances this season may make Ince the Footballer of the Year. Ince is a bubbly, cockney extrovert, almost a direct opposite in temperament.

'Choccy is the most unselfish runner in the side,' Ince said. 'He turns out high-class performances in so many different positions.' That prompts the crucial question of McClair's career: does his versatility make him the accepted Jock-of-all-trades rather than the charismatic master of one?

Managers and coaches have been in two or three minds about his best position. It is said that he does not have the weight of tackle of a midfielder and that he has not got the pace of a striker.

Yet McClair scored 99 goals in 145 League matches for Celtic (one good reason for his unpopularity with Rangers fans), who classed him as an attacking midfielder before his pounds 850,000 transfer to Manchester United in 1987.

For United, McClair has scored 70 goals in 223 League matches, a decrease partly explained by his different roles. His consistency remains remarkable: he has missed only 16 League matches in six seasons.

McClair's game can be misleading: 'He's a slow starter,' the United manager, Alex Ferguson, said. 'I remember telling the team at Aberdeen when we were playing Celtic not to worry about McClair. 'He never scores against us,' I told them. He scored two cracking goals and left such an impression that the moment I knew his contract at Parkhead was up for renewal I was there. He's a thinking player with the ball and clever with his running off it - a players' player.'

Should McClair win a Premier League championship medal, it will follow a season mixed even by his previous experience. Who remembers that after two matches United were bottom of the table? Who remembers the Torpedo defeat, the Cup-Winners' Cup campaign swept away in a penalty shoot-out on a rainy Moscow night? McClair does. His penalty was the wildest of all, the ball flying high over the bar into an intoxicated, sodden but deliriously happy band of Muscovites.

'It was a mess,' he said. 'I tried to blast it but I must have been leaning back a fraction too far and away it went. What has been forgotten is that when Neil Webb hit a post in normal time I moved in to slam the rebound and a defender, on the ground, scooped the ball away with his hand. The referee must have been unsighted or we would surely have had a penalty, and they are always easier to score during play.'

When the striker Dion Dublin arrived, McClair moved to right midfield, being restored to what Ferguson described as his best position when Dublin broke his leg. Last November, McClair was left on the bench by United and dropped from Scotland's World Cup squad. 'The manager (Ferguson) did say that he had been unfair in playing me out of position. My attitude is that I play where I'm told and I do my best.

'At Ibrox (against Portugal) the fans gave me a rough ride when I came on for Kevin Gallacher. I don't enjoy it, but there's nothing I can do about it and I would never allow it to make me quit. If Scotland want me I'm happy and proud to pull on the jersey.'

Scotland's coach Andy Roxburgh is more appreciative of the intelligent play McClair gives a team than the mostly Rangers fans who frequent Ibrox: 'How many strikers do you know who can be seen defending behind their own back four?' he said. Roxburgh, however, has concluded that to be fair to McClair he will have to leave him out till Scotland's matches return to Hampden Park.

When Eric Cantona was signed by United many expected McClair to be the man to be dropped. He met that head-on, too. 'There is always someone pushing you whether it's a new signing or one of the young players starting to knock on the door,' he said. 'We are all going to be replaced eventually. It's a matter of staying on as long as you can.'

Cantona's arrival strengthened McClair's position. For the first time in his career with United, McClair found another player who could respond and improve upon his own promptings.

Aston Villa's visit on Sunday, with Cantona restored after suspension, gives McClair and his colleagues the opportunity to get over Tuesday's derby defeat at Oldham and avenge two narrow defeats in Birmingham this season. The Coca-Cola Cup exit still rankles: 'We matched them everywhere except for the one goal by Dean Saunders.'

This is McClair's second spell in English football. As a 17-year- old from Lanarkshire he spent one season in England before being released from his apprenticeship to join Motherwell. The club who let him go? . . . Aston Villa.

(Photograph omitted)