Football: Scotland finally see the beauty of Brown

Scotland 2 Latvia 0
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The Independent Online
Scotland's quest to qualify for their sixth World Cup finals in seven attempts, which reached its desired denouement at the place the green half of Glasgow calls Paradise, was also a story of a how the nation of Braveheart, Burns and Baxter learned to love Craig Brown, clean sheets and consistency.

To many who hailed him after Saturday's victory over Latvia, Brown was formerly derided as a failed Rangers reserve and, far worse, a former schoolteacher. His promotion from assistant coach near the end of a vain attempt to reach USA 94 sent a wave of apathy rolling down the Clyde. The Scottish supporters, among them a number of fans with laptops, lamented the failure to find a high-profile manager.

Their strange, macho mistrust of academics, which his predecessor, Andy Roxburgh, never quite rose above, has now subsided into history. Brown has emulated Roxburgh in achieving what more obviously charismatic figures like Jock Stein and Ally MacLeod were unable to do - take Scotland to successive European Championship and World Cup finals - and in doing so he has taken the process of re-education to a new level.

There are still some who demand that the Scots press continually. The old battle cries of "Get intae them" and "skin 'im" were initially heard around Celtic Park whenever Gary McAllister and his colleagues worked the ball backwards instead of launching it or trying to dribble past a Latvian. Brown's patient, pragmatic approach is not the way they are used to seeing football in the Premier Division.

However, once Kevin Gallacher and Gordon Durie delivered the requisite goals, each heading in after shots came back off the goalkeeper and crossbar respectively, every pass that found a blue shirt was greeted with an appreciative "Ole!"

Brown realised long ago that in international football, possession is nine-tenths of the war. The self-esteem generated by winning a place in France - ahead of England, if only by hours - can only help the public to catch up with his perception.

Much is made of the camaraderie within the Scotland squad, not least by the players. The theory goes that while they no longer produce "white Brazilians", the jinking Johnstones and flamboyant Laws of the tipsy eye of memory, they more than make up for it with loyalty to the jersey and the professionalism with which Brown's meticulous (dare one say scholarly) plans are translated into performance.

Yet at the risk of blowing his cover, it must now be acknowledged that Brown has considerable ability at his disposal. More, certainly, than one so adept at lowering and then exceeding expectations sometimes admits. A record like Scotland's in Group Four - wherein they took the balance of the points against Austria and broke even with the 1994 semi-finalists Sweden - is simply not achieved on spirit alone.

Sure, they are organised and adhere except on rare occasions to a system that puts the emphasis on stopping the opposition scoring. Indeed, it is a measure of Brown's success in improving on Roxburgh's reinvention of the national team that his keepers, the mention of whom once guaranteed comics a cheap snigger, have kept the ball out of their net in 18 out of the last 24 competitive fixtures.

But amid the industry there is genuine inventiveness in the midfield of McAllister, Paul Lambert and John Collins; the quality of the latter pair was recognised by no less than Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. Technically accomplished individuals all, but also ready to run through the proverbial brick wall for the cause.

No one dislodged more bricks against Latvia than Gallacher and Durie, whose courage in the face of some rugged treatment belied a shared history of injury. Again, though, there was more to it than sheer endeavour, and the Blackburn predator's six goals in five group games hints at a timely flowering as an international forward.

If Colin Hendry, a player with the tenacity and persistence of ground elder, remains the most striking symbol of the Brown era, then Christian Dailly embodies the subtle way in which the team continues to evolve. Winning only his fifth cap, the Derby defender looked so comfortable bringing the ball out that one wondered whether his surname ought to be pronounced as in Desailly.

The fear that the flow of players will dry up is part of the Scottish psyche. The likes of Dailly, Jackie McNamara, Simon Donnelly and Neil Sullivan - all, bar the latter, steeped in Brown's methods - represent a healthy long-term future. The shorter term brings friendlies at home to Denmark and in Finland next spring as France 98 comes into sharp focus.

McAllister, who was part of Roxburgh's squad in Italy seven years ago but never kicked a ball, views the finals as a last opportunity to pit himself against the planet's best; his 33rd birthday comes three weeks after the draw in December. Despite holding a championship medal from England, Brown's captain described qualification as "the biggest thing I've ever achieved" and said that Lambert, a European Cup winner in May, felt the same.

The emotions their manager was feeling were easy to guess, though typically he was less concerned with showing them than with ensuring that his Latvian counterpart did not feel snubbed by the media men with tartan, tinted spectacles. Knowing Brown, his mind was already working on the next project: to take New Scotland, if you will, to the second phase of a major tournament for the first time.

Goals: Gallacher (43) 1-0; Durie (79) 2-0.

SCOTLAND (3-5-2): Leighton (Aberdeen); Calderwood (Tottenham Hotspur), Hendry (Blackburn Rovers), Dailly (Derby County); Burley (Celtic), McAllister (Coventry City), Lambert (Borussia Dortmund), Collins (Monaco), Boyd (Celtic); Gallacher (Blackburn Rovers), Durie (Rangers). Substitutes: T McKinlay (Celtic) for Boyd, 81; Donnelly (Celtic) for Durie, 84; B McKinlay (Blackburn Rovers) for Burley, 89.

LATVIA (3-4-1-2): Karavayev (FSV Zwickau, Ger); Lobanov (Metalurg, Ukr), Stepanov, Shevliakov (both Skonto Riga); Bleidelis, Zemlinski, V Ivanov, Blagonadezhdin (all Skonto Riga); Babichev (Skonto); Yeliseyev (Metalurg, Ukr), Pakhar (Skonto). Substitutes: Shtolcers (Skonto) for Blagonadezhdin, 61; Rimkus (Erzgebirge Aue, Ger) for Yeliseyev, 68.

Referee: S Pillar (Hungary).

Bookings: Scotland: Collins. Latvia: Lobanov, Zemlinski.

Man of the match: Gallacher.

Attendance: 47,613.