Football: The tartan trench warrior

European Championship: Scotland continue to rely on the creaking credentials of a stalwart defender; Colin Hendry is finding the call to another campaign irresistible.
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The Independent Online
THE tone in Craig Brown's voice at Hampden last Thursday said it all. Surely, one press conference interrogator pressed, the Scotland manager was tempted to make a clean break with his ageing squad from France 98 and plan a fresh start for Euro 2000.

Brown gave a look as frosty as the Baltic, and insisted that was not an option. "It is easy to say 'bring in young players' but it is harder to do," replied the affable coach. "International football is a game for the experienced. I need a team that will get us to the European Championship finals."

Age concern is not on Brown's agenda, and neither is charity. That is why when Scotland launch their Group Nine qualifying campaign on Saturday against Lithuania, the first name on his list will be a thirtysomething who, by his own admission, has plenty of creaking bones: Colin Hendry.

Rangers' recent pounds 4.5m acquisition from Blackburn Rovers smiled when he considers how the years have treated him. "The physio at Ewood, Colin Lane, said that if I ever need to take a medical for a transfer I would have to take my ankles off because there was so much metal inside them. He said they would make perfect fireguards to keep the kids away," he said.

Keeping Lithuania's strikers away from Jim Leighton's goal will be Hendry's main preoccupation on Saturday. The Scotland goalkeeper is now, remarkably, in his 40th year and his captain is 33 in December. It is no wonder that the Scots were the second oldest team at the World Cup finals, behind Germany.

The painful denouement in St Etienne, when the Scots' previously solid defence was taken apart by the younger, fresher legs of Morocco, still sits uneasily in Hendry's mind. The three goals conceded in 90 minutes were more than Hendry's defence had given away on the entire qualifying road to France. Hendry was caught out for the first one, Leighton was culpable for another. Time for changing the old guard was the post-trauma verdict.

Hendry though, is unwilling to call time just yet. As befits someone who did not win the first of his 35 caps until he was 28 - against Estonia in 1993 - the rugged Highlander does not want to give up early.

"A lot has been made of the fact I am 32," said Hendry, "but I would never give up international football of my own choice." Brian Laudrup, who passed Hendry on the road south after exiting Ibrox during the summer, is one who has opted out at 29, while his Rangers predecessor Richard Gough quit playing for Scotland long before he quit playing. And then there is Duncan Ferguson. Scotland no more, at the age of just 26.

"I will have to be physically pushed away," said Hendry. "If Craig Brown told me he had someone better, then I would accept that, but until then I want to make the most of it."

The driving force behind the longevity is the unfulfilled ambition of ridding Scotland of their tag as final failures. "I want to be part of the Scotland team that qualifies for the second stage of a major tournament. I thought we could do it in Euro 96, but we lost out on goal difference, and then France was a bitter disappointment too," he said.

Hendry can't help but feel the Scots' luck is bound to change some time. The last European Championship finals were decided for Brown's team by a 10-minute spell at Wembley when his predecessor as captain, Gary McAllister, missed that penalty, and then Hendry was the victim of Paul Gascoigne's trickery for the clinching goal.

"We did well to draw with Holland and we beat Switzerland, but it was the England game which cost us," he reflected. "It was the same in the World Cup. Sure, we came back empty-handed again, in terms of going into the next stage, but I think people respected our effort and realised how close we came in a section that had Brazil in it.

"It has not got any easier to live with. Defeat is never easy, but if we are honest we left ourselves with too much to do against Morocco and we had to chase the game, which is why we got caught on the break. I'm just glad that the let-down that happened to them didn't happen to us. That would have been too much to bear."

The sun of Provence, which was Scotland's base camp for three weeks during the World Cup, will be a long way from everyone's mind when Craig Brown's team land in Vilnius on Thursday. With six teams in the group, including the Faroes, Bosnia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, losers to Germany in the dramatic final at Euro 96, it is important to get down to work right away and achieve a good start.

"That was how we built our qualification for the last European finals. We tried to be solid, rather than flashy, and make sure of the victory by not giving anything away at the back."

Brown seems to back his captain's view. "We will play a counter- attacking game," he stated last Thursday. "Which is what everyone aspires to now." To that end, the Scotland manager has called up the Hearts pair of Neil McCann and Steve Fulton.

Both uncapped players have been in irresistible form for a year, enhancing Hearts' claim to be among the top teams in Scotland. Fulton may have to be content with a place on the bench, but the 24-year-old McCann, whom Brown once described as "the poor man's Ryan Giggs" could be given his baptism. "Neil has great skill and pace and that could be a benefit to us in Lithuania," Brown said.

So, too, could the rather less explosive Hendry at the back.