Football: Sullivan starts new era for Scots

European Championship: Brown warns against complacency as Wimbledon goalkeeper steps in to face Faroe Islands
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The Independent Online
LAUNCHING THINGS is becoming a Neil Sullivan speciality. After years of initiating Wimbledon attacks with his long clearances, he kickstarts a new era for Scotland's goalkeepers against the Faroe Islands in Aberdeen tonight.

In the wake of Jim Leighton's curiously timed retirement from international football on Monday, Sullivan is preferred to Jonathan Gould for the visit of the Group Nine makeweights to Pittodrie.

Sullivan and Gould were both born in Greater London and have the accents to prove it. It is perhaps as well that a certain Greavsie no longer has a television platform from which to regale Saint with his humorous views on the virtues or otherwise of "Jocko goalies".

Craig Brown opted for the 28-year-old Sullivan ahead of his uncapped Celtic counterpart, 30, on the grounds that he has been in the squad 18- months longer and already has three caps. However, as the Scotland manager conceded, the Faroes' failure to score in four European Championship qualifiers so far meant it was "a good game to come in for".

Sullivan's promotion to being the Scots' first choice is testament to his patience and resilience as well as his agility and handling skills. After being signed as a full-timer at Wimbledon - ironically, by Bobby Gould, father of his principal rival - he had to understudy Hans Segers for several seasons.

Two years ago, against Manchester United, he was beaten from more than 60 yards by David Beckham. But his embarrassment proved to be his good fortune, for in the aftermath he mentioned having a Scottish grandparent.

This correspondent alerted Brown, who was sufficiently impressed to include him in the squad for Scotland's "replay" with Estonia in Monaco in February last year.

Since making a losing debut against Wales, Sullivan has appeared in difficult away fixtures against France and Colombia. On the latter occasion, a 2-2 draw in New Jersey on Scotland's pre-World Cup trip, Brown considered he had an "excellent" game and did not fault him for either goal. Crucially, the defence were "very comfortable" with him behind them.

"Neil has done it at the highest level with an unfashionable club," Brown said. "Look at Wimbledon's goals-against record - it's exceptional. Alan Hodgkinson, our specialist coach, is based in England, so he knows the goalkeeping provision at every club. He feels Neil is ready to come in.

"Thereafter, he and Jonathan Gould will compete for the starting slot. I've seen Gould at close quarters over the past 18 months and he's been virtually faultless."

Brown was unable to shed fresh light on Leighton's sudden exit after 15 years, 91 caps and 45 clean sheets. The Aberdeen goalkeeper's reasons were, he suggested, "private, personal and domestic" and had more to do with family than form.

"The situation took everyone completely by surprise. Jim is very friendly with Tom Boyd, but he didn't even say anything to Tom. People are looking for hidden agendas when there isn't one."

If it is understandable that Leighton might want to step down at the age of 40, it remains baffling that he should have done so in the days between the two halves of Scotland's double-header with Estonia and the Faroes.

Brown insisted he had not gone "because he was going to get dropped" and claimed that reaching a century of caps "didn't interest" Leighton . Yet on the day before the 3-2 defeat of Estonia - in which his performance provoked scathing media criticism - the former Manchester United man had talked cheerfully of adding Euro 2000 to his CV.

Scotland are set to make four other changes from Saturday's starting line-up. Billy Dodds, who redeemed arguably their worst display under Brown with two late goals as a substitute, replaces Ally McCoist on what was his home ground until last month's move to Dundee United.

Craig Burley is free of the two-match suspension he incurred for being sent off against Morocco at France 98, and his scoring potential seems certain to earn him Ian Durrant's midfield berth. Colin Calderwood's place at the back is likely to go to Matt Elliott, while Simon Donnelly will deputise for the injured Kevin Gallacher.

Brown's disinclination to confirm his side may be interpreted as over- cautious given that the Faroese pick from a population a quarter the size of Aberdeen, not to mention the fact that their last victims of note were Austria in 1990.

But the manager pointed out that his scout's report from Lithuania - where the islanders emulated Scotland's recent 0-0 draw on Saturday - highlighted the defensive improvement brought about by their coach, the former European Footballer of the Year, Allan Simonsen.

"Cyprus beating Spain and Latvia defeating Norway were warnings to avoid complacency," Brown added. "We've lost only two of my 23 qualifying fixtures, in Greece and Sweden, and we intend to keep it that way."

SCOTLAND (3-4-1-2; probably): Sullivan (Wimbledon); Elliott (Leicester City), Hendry (Rangers), Boyd (Celtic); Weir (Hearts), Burley (Celtic), McKinlay, Davidson (both Blackburn); Johnston (Sunderland); Dodds (Dundee United), Donnelly (Celtic).

GROUP NINE

Remaining fixtures: Today: Lithuania v Bosnia; Scotland v Faroe Islands; Czech Republic v Estonia. 1999: March 27: Czech Republic v Lithuania; Scotland v Bosnia. March 31: Lithuania v Estonia; Scotland v Czech Republic. June 5: Bosnia v Lithuania; Estonia v Czech Republic; Faroe Islands v Scotland. June 9: Estonia v Lithuania; Faroe Islands v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Scotland. Sept 4: Bosnia v Scotland; Faroe Islands v Estonia; Lithuania v Czech Republic. Sept 8: Czech Republic v Bosnia; Faroe Islands v Lithuania; Estonia v Scotland. Oct 9: Estonia v Bosnia; Czech Republic v Faroe Islands; Scotland v Lithuania.

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