Booth grabs second chance

World Cup: Once a sporadic striker, the much-travelled Scot is now Brown's front-runner in the qualification stakes
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The last time Scott Booth was in Tokyo, he was home before he even had time to send a postcard. If Booth books a return trip to Japan next summer, an entire country will be following his lead.

The man whose passport has rarely been far from his side in recent years will be entrusted with securing Scotland's place in the 2002 World Cup finals. As befits a wanderer, the whistlestop intinerary will squeeze in Glasgow and Brussels with flights to and from Amsterdam on either side.

The striker is used to Schipol Airport. His career has seemingly been stuck in transit for several years, yet now at the age of 29 Booth is ready to embark on the voyage for which he always seemed suited. Once he was Scotland's rising son, now pointing them towards Japan and Korea will ensure the sun does not set on his career before he has one last chance to reclaim his stage.

It has taken Booth eight long years to amass his 18 caps, and, at times, the logjam of forwards before him has seemed longer than the queue at immigration. Not now. The national manager, Craig Brown, is starved of front men who are actually playing for their clubs and Booth's renaissance in Holland with FC Twente Enschede has put him clearly in the frame to start on Saturday in the crucial match with Croatia at Hampden Park.

Kevin Gallacher, whose goal in Zagreb last October ensured a creditable 1-1 draw, is on the bench at Preston following his release from Newcastle United. Billy Dodds can only dream of that. The Rangers striker has more chance of being found playing in his golf club's Saturday medal than at Ibrox: in March, just days after netting a World Cup double against Belgium, a bemused Dodds returned to his club to find himself sitting in the stand again.

Booth can empathise with that. Four years ago he was taking a back seat and not even the tangible reward of the game's highest honour could compensate for his inactivity. The Scot was a substitute when Borussia Dortmund won the World Club Championship in Japan by beating Cruzeiro of Brazil. Booth felt like a fraud. "I stayed on the bench for the whole game," he recalls. "I had flown all that way across the world, trained for a few days and grabbed my medal which has ended up in the loft.

"Until Manchester United's victory in 1999, I was the only British player ever to have won a World Club championship medal, but it meant nothing to me. It meant more to my family. But I am honest, and unless I step on the park and merit something, it's not my achievement."

Booth has needed that inner resolve as his career has fluctuated from boy wonder at Aberdeen, where his emergence as a teenager over a decade ago seemed to be fulfilled when he was awarded his first Scotland cap against the-then World Champions, Germany, in 1993. In his next game, a few months later in Estonia, came the first goal. How easy could this international football be?

"Things got off to a flier for Scotland," he smiles. "I was only on the pitch for five minutes in Estonia when I scored." Four more goals followed as Booth contributed to Scotland's qualification for Euro '96, yet little did he realise that he would have to wait four years to find the net again for his country.

Enforced inactivity at Dortmund had taken the edge off his game, and Booth was jettisoned by Brown after the 1998 World Cup finals. Yet when his three-year exile ended with the friendly in Poland in April, the striker made the most of his recall, coolly stroking in the penalty which gave Scotland a 1-1 draw.

"I actually wanted to take the responsibility of the penalty, I wasn't a bag of nerves," Booth reflects. "It was a nice feeling to come back with a goal. The gap between my Scotland goals is not something I think about, but when I look at the dates in black and white it is scary. There have been times over the last few years here in Holland when I have thought I was playing well enough to merit another chance, but the Dutch league is not like playing in England or Scotland where you are constantly in the manager's eye or in the newspapers.

"After France '98, I was in the process of moving from Dortmund to Twente and in a way, not playing for Scotland was not a bad thing. For several years I had been chopping and changing clubs, houses, hotel. It was a difficult period and I needed to settle down and get back into my football. I did not expect to be out of the Scotland set-up for so long but after a year had gone by I stopped looking to see if my name was in the squad and focused on Twente."

Holland has been theraputic for the entire Booth family. He and his wife Margaret now have a 10-month-old son, Joel, and prefer life in Enschede just across the German border. FC Twente are also prospering with the Scot in their ranks: it was Booth's spot-kick which ensured that they won the Dutch Cup final in a penalty shootout in May.

"We took 35,000 fans to the final and they are really crazy about the game here," Booth reflects. "We are not one of the giants, like Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord, we are in the level just behind which the Dutch call 'sub-toppers'."

Booth, it seems, has found his peace of mind. "I'll never regret going to Dortmund," he says. "They had just won the Champions' League and you can't refuse when a club like that and a man like Ottmar Hitzfeld wants you, but it is more satisfying to do something for a team who really need you." That could equally apply to Scotland.