Football: Predator with an enduring talent: James Traynor analyses the striking qualities of Mark Hateley, whose goals have kept Rangers on course for the title

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DEFENDERS can surround him and close down his space until he barely has room to breathe, but at some point Mark Hateley will break free. The former English international was being shadowed by a posse of Kilmarnock defenders yesterday, but he grew weary of their company and, as he has done repeatedly this season, escaped and caused havoc, scoring not once, but twice.

Asked to carry the burden for Rangers this season without his usual frontline partner, Ally McCoist, who is recovering from a leg break and hernia trouble, Hateley's response has been remarkable. Yesterday's goals took his tally to 23 from 29 matches and if Rangers, who are top of the league, should win their sixth successive Premier Division championship, they ought to hand the trophy to Hateley, whose name is revered in certain parts of Glasgow and feared in others.

It is also inevitable that having arrived at Ibrox with the nickname 'Attila' given to him by AC Milan's supporters, who had had difficulty pronouncing his surname, he should be christened 'Attila the Hun'. Celtic's fans often refer to Rangers and their followers as the Huns, and even if Hateley, who had come from the sedate and cultured comfort of Monaco, had no idea of the added significance of his stage name, he still proceeded to terrorise the Scottish Premier Division.

'He has become the opposition's nightmare,' McCoist says. 'Hateley has this ability to intimidate by his very presence, but there is much more to him than raw power and aggression. I have played with many strikers at Ibrox and with Scotland and they all have their qualities, but Hateley is the best. He has strength, pace, control and is dangerous in the air and on the ground. Defenders simply don't like playing against him because he never lets up.' There are few more wondrous sights than to see him, his long black hair billowing behind, in full flow. Seasoned campaigners - the most recent victims being Celtic's Gary Gillespie and Dariusz Wdowczyk in the Old Firm match on New Year's Day - have withered in his shadow, and as they shrink he grows ever more menacing. Rangers' inconsistency this season could have proved costly, but the Hateley factor holds them on course. His overall scoring count stands at 87 goals in 160 matches for Rangers.

Last season, he scored 29 times as Rangers won the domestic treble while moving to within a game of the European Cup final. It was anticipated he would be recalled by England, but he was ignored and Graham Taylor may have paid a heavy price for that particular folly. 'I take in games all over Britain and I haven't seen anyone of a similar style who can stand comparison,' said the Rangers manager, Walter Smith, who rarely dispenses praise freely.

Hateley, whose career has taken him from Coventry (1978- 82), Portsmouth (1983-84), Milan (1984-88) and Monaco (1988-90) to Rangers, suffered two bad injuries to the same ankle in his second season in Monaco and was idle for almost 18 months, but the Ibrox side never had any doubts.

'Often, when a player is recommended, you go and watch and never see the qualities you have been told about, but with Hateley what you see is exactly what you will get,' Smith said. 'He can't hold back and many times he has turned out for us when less than fit, yet still gave everything.'

Although shunned initially by the Ibrox support, who suspected an arrogant English mercenary had arrived in their midst, Hateley won them over. The fans came to applaud the professionalism of a player who has accumulated the benefits of having been with two of Europe's richest clubs yet who is still prepared to sacrifice and sweat for his money. 'I have always looked on myself as a working man's footballer,' he says, 'someone who will give everything to please the fans, the people who pay my wages. I have never felt it more than I do in Glasgow with Rangers. I want to do well for them.'

Hateley, now 32, possesses all the trappings of success. Only recently he moved to Helensburgh, one of Scotland's most well-heeled towns. He has more than one man's fair share of the game's prizes, including 32 England caps, yet all he desires is to play on. 'That's it, that is all he wants,' said Smith, who, when pushed, will admit that Hateley is one of the few players with whom he would never part, even though pounds 4m was spent bringing Duncan Ferguson, a player whose style is similar to Hateley's, to Ibrox.

Little has been seen of the 21-year-old Ferguson, who is still recovering from a serious hamstring injury, which is probably convenient because Hateley remains in exceptional form, letting the young pretender know that he will have to work hard to claim the jersey.

James Traynor is football correspondent of the Herald, Glasgow

(Photograph omitted)