Football: McGinlay's desire fuelled by double ambition

WORLD CUP: Nottingham's finest takes a break from high-pressure management as Bolton plunderer ponders war on two fronts; Phil Shaw meets the striker who is making up for lost time after turning professional at 25
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When he is not playing for Scotland, John McGinlay tends to be found among the Tartan Army pledging to walk a million miles for one of their goals. If the Bolton plunderer gains his 11th cap against Estonia in Monaco on Tuesday, he will have travelled even further in football terms.

The compact Louis II stadium, built by Prince Rainier a leisurely stroll away from the yachts and casinos of Monte Carlo, is light years removed from the rust, weeds and double-figure gatherings of the Highland League. At some of the grounds where McGinlay honed his scoring touch, there might be a cold shower after the match. If you were lucky.

He worked on building sites while playing for Elgin City, and did not turn professional with Shrewsbury until he was nearly 25. Eight years on, he harbours hopes of a return to the Premiership with his club and - "my ultimate aim" - a place in his country's squad for next year's World Cup finals in France.

Such dual desires are not always compatible, as McGinlay discovered after Bolton last went up two years ago. "By the time we came to terms with the higher level it was too late really," he recalled. "We tried to make ourselves hard to beat and ended up playing just one up front, which the manager decided would be Nathan Blake.

"I played wide on the right in a midfield five and was happy to do so because I thought it might keep us up. I'd played in six of the 10 qualifiers for Euro 96, but I wasn't playing as a striker or scoring for my club. So you could say promotion cost me my Scotland place, and that hurt.''

Bolton, fired by 23 goals from McGinlay, go into today's game at Reading as runaway leaders of the First Division. Aware that another winter of Premiership discontent could frustrate his global ambition, he is confident they will adjust quicker next time. "I believe good comes from bad. If we go up, the attitude will be different. We won't make the same mistakes.''

McGinlay acknowledges this as his "last realistic chance" of playing in a major tournament. He is the first to admit he is no Denis Law, with the ability to make lightning look lazy. Nor does he possess Kenny Dalglish's genius for bringing others into play. Yet a record of four goals from 10 caps compares favourably with his rivals. Even Alan Shearer, with 13 from 30, boasts only a slightly better ratio.

"I'm a right-place-at-the-right-time type of forward, like Ally McCoist in so far as I get quite a few of my goals by anticipating balls that break off the keeper or a post. But we're a bit of a dying breed. A lot of strikers now are runners, breaking into wide positions and perhaps doing too much work outside the box.''

Dalglish was the Celtic-mad youngster's role model when he used to take the bus from Fort William to Hampden for internationals; McCoist the contemporary he admires most. "Look at the joy on Ally's face when he scores, whether it's a 25-yard screamer or one that goes in off his backside," he says. "I love his attitude. After all, that's our job. If we win and I don't score, there's a wee bit missing.''

Single-mindedness should not, however, be mistaken for selfishness. McGinlay watched all the Scots' matches in England last summer, "shouting and singing with my mates" rather than from the VIP seats. The only difference was that the Scotland shirt he wore was no mere replica.

Just when he feared that might be as close as he came to donning the dark blue in earnest again, he received a late call-up for the autumn trip to the Baltics. After being on the bench against Latvia in Riga, McGinlay was delighted when he was named in the side for Tallinn.

The infamous feud over floodlights which led to the Estonian no-show meant he did not kick a ball in anger, which was his main emotion afterwards. "I was cheesed off - I missed my daughter's birth for that. It might have been worth it if we'd played, but not for three seconds.''

Some of the Scottish party saw the funny side, suggesting that Craig Brown, the manager, ought to have awarded himself a first cap. McGinlay still seethes at the memory: "I thought Estonia behaved disgustingly. It was a World Cup game, not a pub match.

"Right up to kick-off time I thought they'd be coming. We'd had the team talk, gone over the set-pieces and warmed up. Even when we were lining up and their half of the pitch was empty, I was still looking over my shoulder, expecting to see them coming through the gates and running straight on.

"They've messed us about and Fifa let them get away with it, but there's no way we'll be treating it as a grudge match. Winning is the only thing that matters.''

To that end, Brown may stick with the Bolton striker ahead of bigger names. In spite of a rare barren night in this week's FA Cup blip against Chesterfield, McGinlay is the man in form and in possession. It was his clinical finish that saw off Sweden in Scotland's last Group Four match. Right place, right time: a talent not to be sniffed at.