Football: Scholes the ace in the hole

Scotland 0 England 2 Scholes 21, 42 Half-time: 0- 2 Attendance: 52,000: Harrowing experience for Scots as Keegan's men strike at the double to set up Wembley party

IT HAD NOT seriously troubled Alan Shearer whose goals would be responsible in assisting England's progress through to Euro 2000. "The man in the moon could come down and score for all I care," the England captain had said.

In the event, it was a player inclined less towards the lunar than the occasionally loony who reduced the Hampden Roar to a whimper by half-time. The infuriatingly mercurial Paul Scholes displayed both sides of his character here.

His two goals, which left Scotland's otherwise stubborn rearguard looking thoroughly embarrassed, have made England's position virtually unassailable. Yet, there is invariably a subtext to his game, and the Manchester United man whose hat-trick defeated Poland, but who was then sent off against Sweden two games later, managed to incur the wrath of the Spanish referee, Manuel Diaz Vega. He overdid the celebrations and received a yellow card, one of 10 on the afternoon.

Kevin Keegan has learned to accept all sides of his player's varied personality. This, remember, was the man who Keegan once told, perhaps injudiciously, "to drop hand-grenades". The England coach admitted wryly last night: "Against Sweden [when Scholes was sent off] he fired Exocets; now he's back to hand-grenades again."

Not the most tasteful of analogies, perhaps, but what Scholes definitely caused to drop were Scottish jaws with his intuitive reading of his team-mates' promptings. The pugnacious little midfielder's forays from deep can leave the most organised rearguard devastated.

So Scotland, and their supporters, travel to Wembley on Wednesday with grave hearts; Keegan and his men with an extra exhilarating beat in theirs as the restoration of their European Championship place appears unassailable. "Aye, but it's only half-time," warned the England captain, Alan Shearer, in that so sensible Geordie tone of his. He was kidding no one. Certainly not his opposite number, Colin Hendry, who, in reply to the question as to whether Scotland can find a suitable response to this setback, said: "It's going to have to be a ridiculously impressive performance."

After all that Scottish fury about ticketing arrangements, those absent can at least feel satisfied that they missed an occasion which will not linger long in the Scottish psyche. The qualifying tie might have two legs, but it died on them both as a contest the moment Scholes scored his second just before the break. Not only did Scotland contrive to lose, they could hardly have been more obliging for their reviled opponents.

Frankly, it takes a poor team these days to cast England as prospective world-beaters as Scotland did. Those distinguished Scots, the Jim Baxters and the late Hughie Gallachers, who have trod this sacred turf (or at least that of its predecessor, the old Hampden) would have been mortified as their successors capitulated, if not through a dearth of passion - that was always in evidence - then through an absence of both power and panache.

"Let the lion be rampant," a Scottish newspaper's headline had declared defiantly. To the home supporters, this was "arguably the biggest match in Scotland's history", while for the English followers it was a minor domestic spat, an inconvenience on the way to a competitive summer in the low countries. Keegan's insistence on paying every respect to England's rivals and refusal to become embroiled in the tribal hostilities, both pre-match and during the game, paid dividends.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the PA announcer had said brightly as the teams lined up, "will you show the greatest respect for our visitors' anthem." He was drowned in a cacophany of catcalls and whistles which did not relent until the first of Scholes' goals arrived. "I thought we handled the atmosphere well," said Keegan, for whom Jamie Redknapp and Paul Ince conspired constantly to frustrate their counterparts. In truth, though, these days the stadium, and its all-seated occupants, present few of the terrors they used to.

Since they first played in 1872 at Hamilton Crescent cricket ground, England have won 45 times, Scotland 40 and there have been 20 draws. Over the years, any similarity with the gentility of the bat and ball game has been coincidental. This was no different, so it was inevitable that Scotland would give England what might be termed an unhealthy respect. Keegan's men responded with a turn of the other cheek that did them credit.

The tone was set in the fourth minute when Hendry, his repaired knee the most talked about joint since France started banning Britain's beef, grounded Shearer from behind. It was the first of several Scottish calling cards delivered to their guests, and the referee responded with a yellow one. By half-time the Scottish card count had risen to four, which included that of Kevin Gallacher, who now misses Wednesday's game. Somehow, a chilling assault by Don Hutchison on Scholes, a high tackle which caught his opponent on the shin, was remarkably ignored by Mr Vega.

Early on Michael Owen, scampering intelligently in a triangle with the industrious Shearer and Scholes, had given the Scottish rearguard a foretaste of what was to follow, one moment by-passing David Weir as though he was a village of historic interest, then reading Sol Campbell's lofted pass cleverly, only to be thwarted by Neil Sullivan.

It was another astute hoik forward into space by the Tottenham defender, making a rare appearance at right-back in an England back four combining for the most part with studied harmony, which allowed Scholes to open the scoring after 21 minutes. Hendry and Ferguson were caught transfixed as he skipped round them before scoring with customary precision. The highly vocal England travellers had only 21 more minutes to wait before Scholes, 25 on Tuesday, was on target again with a facile header from David Beckham's free-kick.

Yet, immediately after both goals, there were inviting opportunities for Scotland to wrest themselves back into contention. David Seaman stuck out a foot to deny Gallacher and immediately after Scholes' second, Billy Dodds had the home fans on their feet with a shot which eluded Seaman, but rebounded, heartbreakingly, off the bar.

The second half was a story of Scottish possession, punctuated by England sorties, one of which saw Owen's replacement, Andy Cole, spurn a decent chance. Yet, for all the Scotland pressure, which resulted in cards brandished liberally at the visiting players, the England rearguard kept Gallacher and Dodds at bay. Seaman's right to selection before Nigel Martyn was seldom tested. One suspects that he will be equally untroubled on Wednesday.

Scotland: Sullivan (Wimbledon), Weir (Everton), Ritchie (Hearts), Dailly (Blackburn), Hendry (Rangers), Ferguson (Rangers), Dodds (Dundee Utd), Burley (Celtic), Gallacher (Newcastle), Hutchison (Everton), Collins (Everton). Substitute: Burchill (Celtic) for Gallacher, 82. Subs not used: Calderwood (Aston Villa), Cameron (Hearts), Davidson (Blackburn), Durrant (Kilmarnock), McCann (Rangers), Gould (Celtic).

England: Seaman (Arsenal), Campbell (Spurs), Adams (Arsenal), Keown (Arsenal), P Neville (Man U), Beckham (Man U), Redknapp (Liverpool), Scholes (Man U), Ince (Middlesbrough), Owen (Liverpool), Shearer (Newcastle). Substitute: Cole (Man Utd) for Owen, 67. Subs not used: Southgate (Aston Villa), Froggatt (Coventry), Wise (Chelsea), Sinclair (West Ham), Phillips (Sunderland), Martyn (Leeds).

Referee: Manuel Diaz Vega (Spain).

Irish are held, page 5

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