Football: McKinlay ready to step into breach

Blackburn's ebullient midfielder may replace his room-mate in the Scotland team tonight.
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The Independent Online
A FIERCE wind is whipping through the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles and France have just taken the lead against South Africa, to the delight of room-mates Billy McKinlay and Darren Jackson, who had drawn Christophe Dugarry as the first scorer in the sweep organised by the watching Scotland squad.

At half-time they disappear with their winnings, reappearing with trays full of snacks and drinks for their colleagues. Jackson's success has gone to his head, or at least his face, which he has had painted in the red, white and blue of the French tricolour. With McKinlay already conspicuous for his peroxide crop, the duo give a whole new meaning to the term "outstanding".

In Bordeaux today, when Scotland meet Norway in the first six-pointer of the tournament, McKinlay could well be applying the metaphorical warpaint in place of Jackson. Craig Brown will withhold his line-up from the Norwegians until the latest possible moment, but the return of the Blackburn player at the expense of his bosom pal appears the more logical step as the Scots strive for a more combative midfield.

McKinlay, a Glaswegian whose parents run a jewellery stall on the city's Barras Market, is a born ball-winner who could easily be mistaken for a rough diamond. However, both Brown and McKinlay's club manager, Roy Hodgson, also see him as possessing the sharp mind and quick feet necessary to hold his own on the global stage.

In the absence of Gary McAllister the creative onus has fallen on John Collins and Paul Lambert. Spells in France and Germany respectively have made them living advertisements for the virtues of a Continental football education, and especially for the art of retaining possession. Yet the three-man central unit looks better balanced with McKinlay in the holding role.

Like Scotland's first-choice striker, Kevin Gallacher, and the errant Duncan Ferguson, the 29-year-old McKinlay is a product of Dundee United's youth scheme. At Tannadice he acquired the nickname "Badger" (the origins of which remain unclear, though it may have had something to do with another distinctive hair style) and a reputation as an attacking midfielder. McKinlay made his debut in Brown's first match as manager four and a half years ago, scoring as a substitute in the World Cup qualifier in Malta. His brutal shooting soon brought him a further three goals for Scotland and helped to earn a pounds 1.75m move to Ewood Park in 1995, when he opted for Blackburn ahead of his boyhood favourites, Celtic, in order "to sample England".

Gradually, the unhappy reality dawned that Ray Harford had bought him merely as a squad player. McKinlay was determined not "to go home with my tail between my legs", but was close to leaving when Harford beat him to the punch. A caretaker-manager, Tony Parkes, and, later, Hodgson both detected a more controlled, patient player, the ideal foil for Tim Sherwood's forward thrusts.

Brown kept faith with him throughout his time on the Premiership periphery and McKinley's improved understanding of the tactical nuances won him a place in the finals ahead of the likes of David Hopkin and Stuart McCall. He also tends to be preferred at the hub of the side to Craig Burley, despite a media clamour for Scotland's Player of the Year. Even so, his international career has been a staccato affair, many of his 27 caps having come as substitute.

The unlucky defeat by Brazil at St Denis provided the latest instance, McKinlay appearing 11 minutes from the end in place of none other than Jackson. A naturally ebullient character who is regarded as one of the squad's jesters, he later talked with disarming honesty about how difficult it is to room with a friend when one is playing and the other is not. Equally, he considered any show of disappointment as "unprofessional".

The case for a bottle blond bristling with natural ability and aggression to feature in the battle with Norway looks cut and dried. For McKinlay, and for Scotland, it is time to go once more into the bleach.

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