Ferguson winning fitness fight to lead Scotland in decisive games

A hamstring strain had put a question mark over Ferguson's participation in Scotland's penultimate Group Five fixture, at Hampden Park on Saturday, and perhaps the closing game in Slovenia next Wednesday. The Scots lie fourth, two points behind second-placed Norway, so the loss of the Rangers midfielder would have been a blow to their chances of qualifying for a play-off place.

However, Smith's assistant, the former Celtic manager Tommy Burns, declared himself "optimistic" that Ferguson - outstanding alongside Darren Fletcher, Paul Hartley and Nigel Quashie since Smith succeeded Berti Vogts as manager - would be fit to lead the side.

Burns said another possible absentee, Heart of Midlothian's Steven Pressley, was likely to shrug off a "dead leg" in time to play in central defence. But a decision on whether Lee McCulloch follows Aberdeen's Russell Anderson and Rangers' Steve Thompson in withdrawing has been left to the Wigan Athletic striker, who has been taking pain-killing injections for a knee injury.

The jabs have enabled McCulloch to play in the Premiership and he scored the decisive goal in the victory over Bolton Wanderers on Sunday. The Wigan manager, Paul Jewell, said: "Our concern is making sure Lee can play against Newcastle a week on Saturday. But we would never stand in the way of his playing because we're delighted he is representing his country. I'm not telling him what to do. It's in his hands once he sees Scotland's physios and medics."

Callum Davidson, the Preston North End full-back who has been recalled by Smith, warned McCulloch that he lost three years of his career by playing through an injury. Davidson claimed that Leicester City, the club he was playing for when he injured the pubic bone in December 2002, "pushed" him to play on. "Having gone through what I did, it has made my mind up," he said. "I wouldn't agree with him [McCulloch]."

Although Scotland's fortunes have taken an upturn since Smith took charge early this year, the search for new blood continues. The discovery that Jay McEveley, a left-back currently on loan to Ipswich Town, is eligible to play for the Scots may not set pulses racing. But the 20-year-old has considerable Premiership experience, much of it in the same Blackburn Rovers team as Ferguson.

McEveley, who has played for England Under-21s in a friendly, qualifies for Scotland through a grandfather. "Graeme Souness was on to me about playing for Scotland when I was 17 and told me Berti Vogts had asked about me," he said. "I had just broken into the Blackburn side and thought I could carry on progressing with England, but that seems a very long way off now."

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