Football: Scots keen to confound history
Saturday 20 June 1998
In the game against Norway, there was an assuredness that was almost unrecognisable from a Caledonian World Cup group. With only Morocco in the way, Scotland can actually be looked upon as favourites to emerge from the group, along with Brazil. This is very concerning.
History warns us that if there is a complex and tortuous way of falling at the last hurdle Scotland will invariably find it. Whether it's beating the eventual finalists as we did in Argentina 1978, but still managing to lose to Peru, or going out without losing a game in Germany in 1974, or the goal difference sadness of 1982 in Spain, the pain remains the same. Scottish journalists sat up late the other night working out that, if Brazil beat Norway 2-1 and Scotland draw with Morocco 2-2, or if Brazil win 1-0 and Scotland finish 0-0, then our fate will be decided by the drawing of lots. If this does happen we will lose that draw, it is the way of things for us. Most Scots wouldn't even bother to turn up for the sight of us choosing the short straw.
At Bordeaux airport after the 1-1 draw with Norway I witnessed some incredible sights. Not only were the fans dancing Highland flings to the beat of a Norwegian band, but the odd hardened hack was actually joining in. For the second day in a row the city of Bordeaux resembled one big ceilidh, attracting more cheery tcheuchters (happy Highlanders) than a free bar in Aberdeen on a Saturday night. It struck me that many were concentrating hard on the revelries in an attempt to forget that it could all end in tears, no matter how well the team plays.
But it looks so good. Brazil, already certain of finishing first in the group, should beat Norway - if only to restore some pride after a 4-2 defeat the last time they met in May 1997. Scotland on the other hand looked so positive, so well balanced at the end of the draw in Bordeaux that anything like a repeat performance should be enough to overcome the Moroccans. Part of the reason for Scotland's excellent form in the last quarter of that game was the introduction of Jackie MacNamara. Craig Brown had steadfastly refused to play the specialist Celtic wing-back, even though many back home felt the Scottish players' player of the year was being unfairly overlooked.
There is an accepted wisdom that he is not that good a defender, that those raking forward runs suffused with skill and vision, conceal a basic weakness in defence. Nonsense. Playing against him last season in the Scottish Premier League he was the most difficult player to beat and among the most adroit at positioning himself in a back five.
There is also a widely held belief that he is not physically imposing enough, again this is unfounded. He is tall enough to challenge any forward, he leaps well for his height and his timing more than makes up for any deficiency in bulk. When he came on against the Norwegians, he managed to get forward and attack a high ball at the back post, he beat a taller defender in the air and should have earned a corner, but the referee mistakenly gave a goal-kick. There is also enough devil about him to make it very unpleasant to tackle or be tackled by him. Aggressive to the very limit of the law, without being a dirty player, he is - to use the footballing parlance - "willing to put himself about a bit."
His real talent, however, is to run at the opposition with as much pace and skill as most good wingers. Like one of the few real world-class players Scotland and Celtic have produced over the last 20 years, he shares Danny McGrain's footballing brain and vision. On top of that he scores more goals than his illustrious predecessor.
For a long time last season the then Celtic manager, Wim Jansen, shared the doubts of many others, but he came to realise the error of his ways, allowing Jackie to become one of the linchpins of Celtic's title success. The players in the Scottish Premier League, however, showed that they never doubted his ability by voting for him as their player of the year.
Craig Brown will start him against Morocco and I believe the team will look more balanced as a result, right from the first minute. This is important as the Scotland team have lost vital early goals already in this tournament due to lack of concentration and defensive confusion; first against Brazil after four minutes and then in the first minute of the second half against Norway.
I hope that I am not just losing the power of detached realism, that so many other Scottish fans have lost so famously before me. After all, one point from six so far isn't, on the face of it, wonderful and we have only ever won four games in the World Cup finals to date. However, it looks probable that a win against Morocco will be enough for qualification to the next phase, I believe it can and will be done, despite everything that history and statistics tell us.
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