Football: Six points fail to disguise faults

Two home wins keep Scotland on course but some veterans may not survive the winter.
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The Independent Online
THE SLENDEREST of wins over the Faroe Islands and Estonia scarcely merited the cavorting kilts seen at Pittodrie and Tynecastle, but they bought Scotland breathing space as well as six points to ensure that the Czech Republic do not run away with Group Nine in the European Championship.

By the time the Czechs arrive in March, as the second half of another home double-header which also involves Bosnia, Scotland should be a more formidable proposition. Craig Brown went so far yesterday as to suggest that, provided he can combine the past week's absentees with the more impressive of their young understudies, he would have "potentially the strongest squad" of his five-year reign.

The Scotland manager, while admitting his makeshift team had not played well in beating the Faroes 2-1 on Wednesday, justifiably singled out Sunderland's Allan Johnston, and Callum Davidson, of Blackburn, as hugely encouraging gains from five days of enforced transition. "In the past we were worried about not having a winger or a left-back," he said. "Now we've got both."

Johnston sprang to prominence by scoring a hat-trick for Heart of Midlothian at Rangers three seasons ago, before slipping away to France with Rennes. A nicely balanced throwback to the days when Scottish football was famous for touchline trickery, the 24-year-old has the precious ability to go past a defender and deliver pin-point centres.

There was, Brown mused, something reminiscent of John Robertson - a wide man with Nottingham Forest and Scotland in more ways than one - about the way Johnston crossed from tight positions.

Davidson, whose attacking instincts and robust tackling make him a natural at left wing-back, once gave up football for three months because he felt his efforts to break into St Johnstone's team were affecting his engineering studies at university. Now 22, he was persuaded to reconsider, fetched pounds 1.5m and survived the ignominy of losing 4-0 at home to Arsenal on his debut last Easter.

Billy Dodds, who headed his third goal in two games from a Johnston cross, had particular cause to appreciate the width they provided. By coincidence, Scotland's opener had come from Craig Burley, Dodds' boyhood friend in Ayrshire and one-time colleague in Chelsea's youth and reserve sides.

Dodds, however, could be forgiven for suspecting someone up there has it in for him. Having waited two years to start a match since kicking off the phantom fixture in Estonia, he was cautioned when the referee mistakenly thought he had kicked the ball away before a Faroese free-kick and will be suspended against Bosnia.

Scotland should not complain too forcibly, for Neil Sullivan's own competitive debut could have been embarrassingly short-lived. As Brown conceded, the Wimbledon goalkeeper "got away with" taking out Todi Jonsson in his first act as Jim Leighton's successor, yet was not reprimanded, let alone sent off.

Sullivan thus remains free to undergo a more searching examination of talent and temperament next spring. But the messy retirement of Leighton leaves a vacancy which the manager suggested might be filled by Alan Main, of St Johnstone, or Dundee's Robert Douglas, who has the Goramesque qualification of having his private life featured in a tabloid sleaze sheet.

Intriguingly, Rangers' 20-year-old playmaker Barry Ferguson was cited as being a member of what Brown termed "our strongest team", despite a senior international career amounting to a substitute's cameo in Lithuania. He warned that Ally McCoist and Darren Jackson were among those in danger of making way for the new generation.

Many in the crowd on Wednesday and Saturday might have been tempted to add the names of thirtysomething defenders like Colin Hendry, Tom Boyd and Colin Calderwood. Previously Scotland's strongest unit, they have kept only two clean sheets in 11 games. Estonia's brace represented the first time since 1983 that they had conceded two goals in a home qualifier.

The statistically-minded Brown is doubtless aware of the Scots' other remarkable run, of 11 years unbeaten in competitive home games. The Czech Republic - who were "flying", he argued, partly because they sat out a draining World Cup - threaten to put that record to a test which may decide which nation proceeds automatically to Euro 2000.