Dailly's pride in the jersey comes with no prejudice

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The Independent Football

National pride can do odd things to rational men, as Christian Dailly discovered after Scotland's defeat in Germany. Incensed by what he saw as diving by the home side, and unaware his every word was live on television, the normally eloquent West Ham United captain vented his contempt in forthright terms. If Berti Vogts was not best pleased, the Tartan Army's leisurewear corps were delighted.

Two t-shirts are now raising funds for charity. One bears the legend "Cheats, F***** Cheats", Dailly's damning critique of Rudi Völler's dying swans. The other reads, "We'll play our way, the Scottish way, the best way". Beneath each slogan it says, "The Christian Gospel".

The second part of the Dundonian's doctrine is likely to receive the most rigorous examination of Vogts' reign on Saturday when Scotland receive the Netherlands. The first leg of their Euro 2004 play-off is the opening joust of Hampden Park's second century. It will be quite a day for landmarks: Dailly, who has just turned 30, will win his 50th cap.

In fact, he is well into three figures, having played a world-record 34 times in the Under-21s and captained his country at every level from schoolboys to seniors. Since Craig Brown gave him his debut in 1997, only a torn thigh, a broken foot and suspension have kept him out.

Professionalism has contributed to his durability - he takes an ice bath after training as part of his plan to play the game he loves "until I'm 40" - but patriotism even more so. He simply cannot imagine retiring from international football like friends have, even though he would have plenty to occupy the time he currently spends with Scotland. He and his wife, Kirsty, have four children aged from one month to nine years. He is also in a rock group called "South Playground", writing, singing and playing guitar.

Dailly's love of his country is hardly unblinkered; he reviles aspects of Scottish society, like the sectarianism surrounding Glasgow's Old Firm. And some of his best friends, to coin a phrase, are English. However, to hear him describe what it means to don the dark blue is better to understand the oft-cited Scottish passion for "the jersey".

"You get an incredible feeling when you pull it over your chest and look down at the badge," he said. "I love the lion."

If any good came out of his "cheats" outburst in Dortmund, he suggested, it was that people realised what Scotland meant to him, a player who has spent most of his career in England with Derby, Blackburn and West Ham. "Obviously, I was uncomfortable about on swearing on TV. But the incident seemed to make people see how much we care."

He has cared since he was "wee", being entranced when David Narey fired Scotland ahead of Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. "Davie was one of my heroes because he was from Dundee United, who I played for and still support. Jimmy Hill called it a toe-poke. Rasping volley, more like! Trouble was, it just got the Brazilians angry."

Dailly's first experience of playing for Scotland had a happier conclusion. He was a centre-back in the Under-15s at Old Trafford when they beat England, who had Ryan Wilson (now Giggs) up front. Going from school into Dundee United's side at 16, he played for Brown's Under-21s at the same age. At 19, having switched from midfield to striker for his club, he made Andy Roxburgh's squad for a World Cup tie in Estonia.

His Under-21 swansong pitted him against Patrick Vieira and Raul as Scotland contested the Uefa finals with France, Spain and Italy in 1996. Several of that side are now regulars under Vogts, but he was first to graduate to "the big team", his versatility making him invaluable.

In the 1998 World Cup, Brown used the right-footed Dailly at left wing-back. A square peg uneasy in a round hole? "No! I really enjoyed it. I believe a player should never complain about where he is asked to play, or worry about having to put himself out for the team's benefit."

He found it "sad and unsettling" when Brown, whom he viewed as a victim of media pressure, vacated the post. Then, after Vogts' poor early results, he felt the German was unfairly vilified. "They complained that Craig didn't bring young players through. When Berti did experiment, they jumped on him because we weren't winning friendlies."

The nadir came when the Faroe Islands led the Scots 2-0 in the first Euro 2004 group match. It ended a draw, but Dailly concedes that none of the team performed well. "I got terrible stick, maybe rightly so," he said. "So did Berti, but the guy stuck to his guns. Now he has a settled team and has turned it round. Before he came I'd probably have said the coach would ideally be Scottish. But I'll tell you what: he's passionate about Scotland."

Dailly believes they are in "the best shape possible" to defeat the Dutch. The core of the team is of what he deems "a good age" for the international scene, around 30. They now appreciate what Vogts requires of them, and there is a "nice balance" with the youthful bravado of James McFadden, Darren Fletcher and Kenny Miller.

"When I was asked who we didn't want, I said the Netherlands. Now I honestly feel we can get past them over the two games [the return is in Amsterdam a week tonight]. They've got world-class players, but the Republic of Ireland beat them to the World Cup finals, so why shouldn't we?

"The Irish got in their faces. We have to show the same determination, but also stay organised. I don't want to come off at Hampden having lost 2-0 and let them pass the ball about all over the place, or to be saying, 'If only we'd given that wee bit extra'."

The caveat stems from the memory of Scotland's last play-off, against England. A 2-0 win in Glasgow seemed to assure the auld enemy's passage to Euro 2000. But at Wembley, Brown outwitted Kevin Keegan tactically, the Scots scored early and it took a fingertip save by David Seaman to deny Dailly a late aggregate equaliser.

"When I watch that again I always hope I squaff (mis-head) the ball so it goes in the corner! England were on their last legs - we'd dominated from start to finish - so extra time would have been interesting."

That disappointment only half-explains why he is "absolutely desperate" to reach Euro 2004. "I went mad with James McFadden when he didn't take the ball into the corner when we led Lithuania 1-0 in the last qualifier," he said. "I wasn't coming all big-time with a young player - I'd have said it whoever it was."

"I did it because I know what it means to get to the finals. I had all these dreams of what playing in a World Cup would be like. And it was fantastic, even better than I'd hoped."

Rifts are second nature to the Netherlands, but even if they have left their personality clashes behind, Dailly would be "amazed" if they matched his countrymen's sense of unity. Scotland, he guarantees, will be playing the Scottish way. For the jersey. Not to mention the t-shirts.