Football: Sullivan eclipses the rise of the son

Calum Philip describes the family ties of Scotland's goalkeeping rivals
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The Independent Online
NEIL SULLIVAN has been going to extreme lengths recently to prove he is a real Scot. When his Wimbledon team-mates ditched their matchday suits and turned up in jeans and T-shirts as their riposte in a bonus row with the club, the goalkeeper brought the Selhurst Park dressing-room to its knees when he strode in wearing a kilt.

The tartan extra, Sullivan's souvenir from the World Cup finals when Scotland arrived to face Brazil wearing full Highland dress, cannot cover up the background of someone whose accent betrays his native Purley rather than Paisley. However, the naturalised Scot will have to don the mantle of dependability very quickly if he wants to avoid being labelled a fake.

It is a rich irony that Sullivan and another born and raised in England, Jonathan Gould, are the heirs to the Scottish goalkeeping position following Jim Leighton's sudden departure from international football last Monday.

For years, Anglophile critics, led by Jimmy Greaves, pilloried the standard of Scottish goalkeeping, especially those who represented the national side. The jokes dried up round about the time that Leighton and Andy Goram established their own No 1 dynasty, and while the Saint and Greavsie Show fell victim to the axe, Leighton and Goram, stayed on Scotland's listings throughout the Nineties to have the last laugh.

The pair swapped places in the manner that Shilton and Clemence did for England, with the result that Scotland qualified for two European finals and a World Cup with one of the meanest defences around. No one else got a look-in, as Goram collected 42 caps and Leighton was on the verge of his 92nd when he announced his decision to quit on the eve of the European Championship tie with the Faroe Islands, thus following the lead given by his great friend just before France 98.

Out with the old, in with the new has never been conducted at such breakneck pace. Sullivan and Gould had only five appearances between them, not one of which was a competitive match. The Wimbledon keeper was given the nod by Craig Brown in the scrappy 2-1 win over the Faroes, but the starring role is unexpectedly vacant for two understudies whose backgrounds are uncannily similar.

"I probably wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for Jonathan's dad," revealed Sullivan as he reflected at Pittodrie after being thrown in at the deep end. Bobby Gould may be the manager of Wales now, but his tenure with Wimbledon provided Sullivan's breakthrough. "Bobby took me on at Wimbledon and helped in my development and I will always be grateful to him for that." Gould's successor, Joe Kinnear, pointed Craig Brown in the direction of the Cockney keeper, who qualified to play for Scotland through his Glaswegian grandfather.

It was Kinnear who also promoted Sullivan ahead of Hans Segers after years as a deputy which have mirrored his recent role to Leighton. "I was No 2 to Hans and I had to wait a long time to make my breakthrough. So, although I've had to be patient about playing for Scotland and waiting my turn, I know what the situation is like.

"You have to keep going and believing your chance will come and when it does, you have to be ready. Being a No 2 is hard work, but the real work begins when when you get to No 1. It is nice that Craig Brown has given me my chance and I'm ready for the challenge."

Sullivan's true baptism - after friendlies against France, Wales and Colombia in which he failed to keep a clean sheet - seemed certain to end in ignominy after just seven minutes when only bizarre refereeing by the Cypriot official allowed the keeper to stay on the pitch after felling the Faroes striker Todi Johnsson outside the box.

Being beaten by John Petersen's late penalty shattered Sullivan's hopes of his first Scotland shut-out, and although the 28-year-old Londoner could do nothing about it, the stain in the record books will do nothing to quell the doubts among Scotland supporters who see Gould as the better bet.

Just as the reputations of previous Scots keepers were destroyed down south by fragments of television footage, so the situation works in reverse for Sullivan. Media and fans still have an image of that David Beckham goal in their heads, while they see Gould with their own eyes playing at Celtic week-in, week-out like a man possessed. "I have loved being involved with Scotland," Sullivan insists, with none of the self- consciousness that used to accompany his every utterance. "The boys accepted me from day one and the supporters have also been brilliant." The real dilemma for Brown, however, is which of his two southern recruits should get the shout for the goalkeeping role, given that there are no friendlies before the back-to-back games against Bosnia and the Czech Republic next March.

Craig Burley is a man well positioned to deliver a verdict on the glove partners, having played against Sullivan with Chelsea and with Gould every week at Parkhead. "Jonathan has done really well and come from nowhere, while Neil has had more gradual progress. Whoever gets the nod will do a good job. I was always impressed by Neil when we played Wimbledon, but I didn't realise he was Scottish - although at the time neither did he!"

Whoever manages the most plausible impression of Leighton and Goram should have the passport to a long international future.

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