Football: Road to Euro 2000 - Three-second skipper

John Collins has mixed memories of the Estonians
JOHN COLLINS has enjoyed the luxury of being on his own this week in Scotland's training camp, because of the absence of his room-mate Tom Boyd. The midfielder, however, hopes this is not an omen for Tallin on Wednesday evening. The last time Collins was in the Estonian capital he had more free space than he, or any other player, would ever want: the freedom of Kadrioru Stadium pitch, to be precise.

The infamous game-that-never-was is the blemish on Collins' cv that he is desperate to rectify. When Estonia failed to turn up for that World Cup qualifying match in October 1997, they were not just snubbing the Scotland players who waited patiently on a half-empty field, they also deprived Collins of what should have been the greatest moment of his career. The Everton player was named captain that day. His tenure lasted just three seconds. That was all it took for the referee to blow his whistle and then conclude proceedings because of the Estonians' failure to turn up.

Even now, despite a French championship success with Monaco and scoring against Brazil in the opening match of the World Cup finals, Collins still burns with injustice at being robbed of the one honour that would crown his 53 appearances for Scotland. "It was pathetic," he said, almost spitting out the memory with genuine distaste. "It was just so embarrassing having to walk out on to the pitch with no opposition.

"It was like a comedy sketch really, but what should have been one of the best moments in my career was taken away from me. Everyone wants to captain their country, it is a special honour. But I ended up receiving mine in the shortest game in world soccer history and I have never had the chance since."

Collins' elevation came when Gary McAllister, the then skipper, was suspended, but the blunder by the Estonian hosts in missing a rescheduled earlier kick-off time demanded by the Fifa observer, sparked the now-laughable image of Collins and Co kicking off without an opponent in sight. "We knew they were not coming," Collins recalled, "yet we were told to get changed. The referee even came into the dressing-room and went through with the pretence of checking our studs as if we were going to play. The consolation was we would get the three points, but of course that was later overturned by Fifa."

Now, two years on, deja vu confronts Collins. While Colin Hendry, the regular captain, has returned, such is the defender's fitness (he has played only 17 minutes for Rangers this season) that he is by no means a certainty to start in Tallin. The vice-captain is Boyd, whose run of 38 consecutive games for Scotland was ended by a back injury. "If the chance comes, I'd love it," Collins declared. "Anyway, Estonia is not all bad memories for me. I scored there in 1993 in another World Cup qualifying tie."

The frequency with which Scotland have faced Estonia in recent years (this is the third pairing in four competitions) has not made them any easier opponents: a 3-2 success at Tynecastle last October only underlined that Estonia remain a persistent thorn in the side.

"Over the years they have become harder to beat," Collins acknowledged. "They are better organised now and a couple of their players have moved abroad, which always improves standards. Mart Poom (the Derby goalkeeper) had an incredible night when that abandoned game was replayed in Monaco and we drew 0-0."

Collins, however, on his return to international football after a year because of the foot injury which wrecked his first season at Goodison, does not want to contemplate any mistakes this time round. "We came on this trip to Bosnia and Estonia with the purpose of getting six points, because that would put us in a great position to finish second in the group and get into the play-offs."

Collins' rehabilitation included a sobering role as onlooker as the Czech Republic romped to home and away victories over the Scots to become the first qualifiers for Euro 2000.

"You do see strengths and weaknesses differently from the stand," Collins said. "The Czechs were great in Glasgow and are rightly one of the best sides in Europe right now, but we were not disgraced. Scotland? Well, everyone knows we're not a world-class team, that's not new, but Craig Brown has had a lot of injuries like mine to contend with. Now he's getting a few players like myself and Colin Hendry back for the run-in, and he's also been able to blood a few younger players, such as Neil McCann, Allan Johnston and Callum Davidson, who have all done well.

"It does not matter that we only have the play-offs left now as our only hope. All that matters is being at Euro 2000 - no one will care how we got there."