Football: Return of the wizard for Scotland

Allan Johnston is set to help his country back to the good old days against the Czechs tonight.
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The Independent Online
SMALL, WELL balanced, with a low centre of gravity, quick feet and an innate impudence which meant he delighted in turning defenders dizzy before flighting his cross, the winger was once as integral to Scottish football culture as the tartan tammie, the half-time pie and the Old Firm being kept apart in semi-final draws.

From Charlie Cooke and Jimmy Johnstone through John Robertson and Davie Cooper to Gordon Strachan and Pat Nevin, touchline trickery was a major weapon in the national team's armoury. Then the era of wing-backs and wide midfielders kicked in. The specialist winger first became a luxury, then an endangered species.

Just when the triumph of functionalism over flair on Scotland's flanks appeared complete, Allan Johnston jinked into view at Sunderland. The 25-year-old with the classic winger's frame - he stands 5ft 7in and 9st 7lb - added a "new" dimension to the attack when introduced against Estonia and the Faroe Islands last autumn.

Johnston's impact was such that he looks certain to be asked to insinuate himself round the back of the Czech Republic's defence when the quest to qualify for Euro 2000 resumes tonight. Since Craig Brown's squad contains another winger in Rangers' Neil McCann, there is the nostalgic prospect of the Scots using the full width of Celtic Park as they strive to enhance a modest scoring record against the Group Nine favourites and Euro 96 finalists.

A Glaswegian, Johnston might have felt more at home at Ibrox had Saturday's match with Bosnia not been postponed. He grew up following Rangers (when he was not watching his brother, Sammy, who played for St Johnstone and is now assistant manager of Partick Thistle). On his last appearance there, with Heart of Midlothian early in 1996, he achieved the considerable feat of putting a hat-trick past Andy Goram.

Peter Reid was present that day and kept tabs on him the following season, which Johnston spent with Rennes in France following one of the first "Bosman" transfers involving a Scot. When, after a year of fluctuating fortunes, he decided to return to Britain, the Sunderland manager landed him for a bargain pounds 500,000.

At Hearts, Johnston was nicknamed "Sticky"; some say it was because there was nothing of him, like a stick insect, others that it came from his adhesive touch on the ball. At Sunderland, where he has forged a strong link with the left-back Michael Gray, the fans have dubbed him "Magic". The moniker may lack originality but seems appropriate given his capacity to conjure a cross when apparently boxed in by opponents.

Reid felt it was a quality of which Scotland should avail themselves and phoned Brown, urging him not to forget his player. The Scotland manager was aware of his capabilities, Johnston having been one of several Hearts players who made the Under-21 side, though he was sufficiently impressed by a first-hand appraisal to pick him for the senior pool.

"Allan did very well for us in his first two games," said Brown. "He plays on the left for his club, but we're well served there with the likes of Neil McCann, Callum Davidson and Stephen Glass, so we used him on the right. The pleasing thing is that he's good with both feet and happy to play either side.

"He doesn't go past people with pace - he's not going to embarrass a full-back for speed like Willie Henderson used to - but he uses his skill to create space in front of defenders and makes a very good angle to cross the ball. It's no coincidence that Niall Quinn is getting so many goals for Sunderland this season. We haven't got any big strikers like that, but we do have guys who support well from midfield and get goals, such as Craig Burley.

"Allan's ability to cross from tight positions reminds me of players like Charlie Cooke and Eddie Gray. He's something of a throwback in that respect. He has terrific skill and can beat a man with clever footwork, and he's also got a nice step-over trick, excellent delivery and a good game-awareness, which is vital at international level."

Scotland have grown accustomed to visiting sides, from the makeweights like the Faroese to teams from the other end of Fifa's world rankings, massing behind the ball and then countering quickly. "They defy you to break them down," Brown explained. "So you need somebody like Johnston or McCann, or possibly both, to get in behind them."

Brown cites the Netherlands as an example of a country who favour out- and-out wingers. Yet he fears they are a dying breed, despite the emergence of Johnston, McCann and Glass (absent injured at Newcastle). "With 4-4- 2, the wide men tend to cancel one another out and stop each other going forward. Players just don't get to the byline like they used to.

"Club managers can buy wingers, like Rangers did with McCann and Andrei Kanchelskis and Celtic did with Jackie McNamara and Regi Blinker, but I can't do that. Even in England, there are very few on the go now."

He speaks from experience, having made regular cross-border incursions to check on players (his most recent visit, for his sins, Brown was to Queen's Park Rangers versus Swindon). A recent trip to Sunderland, whom he saw close in on the Premiership by beating Norwich, satisfied him that Johnston's magic is in good working order. "He played very well, and I gather he scored two cracking goals against Bolton the other week.

"I see players like Johnston, McCann, Glass, Davidson, Barry Ferguson, Mark Burchill, Christian Dailly and maybe Paul Ritchie as the nucleus of our future team. If we can just get past this transitional period without failing to qualify, I'm sure there's a really good side in the making, with wingers to boot."