Football: United pair tackle midfield minefield

The performances of Paul Scholes (left) and Philip Neville at Hampden Park tomorrow could be crucial to England's prospects.
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ON THE morning of the draw for the European Championship play- offs, Sir Alex Ferguson strode on to Manchester United's training pitch, eyes as bright as the club's bank balance, and told his squad: "I've got an announcement to make: Scotland have been given a bye."

It was a jibe straight from the vainglorious Old Ally MacLeod school of management, rather than the humbler era of Craig Brown, and United's England contingent of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville and Andy Cole know there will be plenty more to come if results go the wrong way for them over the next five days. "I think if Scotland win, he'll definitely have his kilt on," Neville says, the thought of which must be as good an incentive as any to ensure against such an outcome.

Ferguson's other contribution to the pre-match joshing was to suggest to Scholes that now would be an excellent time to have his delayed hernia operation. The midfielder felt able to resist and will be an important part of England's armoury tomorrow, hoping to have the same impact as in Kevin Keegan's first match last March. Instructed to go out and "drop hand grenades" he detonated three of them amid a startled Polish defence.

In the next European Championship game, at home to Sweden, the explosion was of a different, equally unexpected variety. Hyped up to a degree Scholes still cannot account for, the ginger nut became a hard nut, lunging hideously into one opponent as early as the fourth minute, then sliding late into another to become the first England player sent off at Wembley. "It was two silly tackles, and at the end of the day I deserved to be sent off," he says. "I know I've got a lot of stick but there's no point dwelling on it."

His interrogators at the England hotel yesterday were keen to, however, and pressed for some sort of explanation. "I think I was running around like a headless chicken most of the time, so I knew I had to calm down a bit. Maybe I was too hyped up. I surprised myself in some ways, because I know that's not the type of player that I am, but unfortunately I mistimed a couple of tackles and I paid for it."

The art of tackling, bemoaned by many as a lost one, was something Scholes had to re-learn as part of his conversion at Old Trafford from striker to attacking midfielder. Having missed the European Cup final last May after receiving a second yellow card against Juventus, he might have read the warning signs at Wembley rather better, but the headless chicken won out against the composed young man sitting talking yesterday.

Against Scotland, however severe the physical or verbal provocation, he promises it will be different: "I think I've learnt my lesson. I'll still be going in hoping to win, but I don't think I'll be like last time. I won't stop myself, I'll still be tackling. If I mistime one, and get booked, then I'll have to be more careful."

Neville regards his team-mate as United's best tackler. And is delighted to be on the same side when England play the Rest of the World in United's six-a-sides (unlike many Premiership clubs, they can still field an England six). There is every likelihood, too, of both men lining up at Hampden, all the more so since Steve McManaman's withdrawal. Thus, unlike the World Cup last year, when he was one of the six players dropped from Glenn Hoddle's squad in the final, unkindest cut, Phil Neville will be on the inside looking out while big brother Gary can only curse his groin injury and look at the television.

Neville the younger would have had a better chance of appearing in France had Keegan been manager at that time, having impressed him a year earlier in the summer Tournoi. "He's trying to get that out of me again and he's played me in every game, giving me a lot of confidence," Neville said. "So that breeds confidence and it's the same for United. I'm in a really good side and I think I've done well.

Neville even has a winning goal to his name against Scotland, from a schoolboy international at Ibrox some eight years ago. Breaking his duck after 20 senior appearances and inviting Sir Alex to stick that up his kilt would be proof that the boy has become a man.