Freedman a symbol of Scotland's lost boys

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The Independent Football

Domestic chores prevented Dougie Freedman spending a week in the Barcelona sunshine five years ago and rubbing shoulders with some of the most precocious young footballers on the planet. Instead of being closeted in a five-star hotel with the rest of Scotland's Under-21 side, along with those from France, Spain and Italy in the European Under-21 Championship finals, Freedman was helping Barnet – on loan from QPR – in the play-offs. His contemporaries savoured the Olympic Stadium, he was stuck with Underhill.

Freedman may finally win his long-awaited first full cap on Saturday, but for Scotland the occasion is simply another chore while the rest of the world is away enjoying itself. Craig Brown's side need a near-miracle to reach next summer's finals – Belgium to win in Croatia and the Scots to beat Latvia 5-0 – and the few who will gather at Hampden Park are not holding their breath.

Freedman's elevation at 26 is not so much recognition of his fine early-season scoring form for Crystal Palace, but that Brown has so few to turn to. Top scorer Billy Dodds retired from international football after the gloomy defeat in Brussels, as did Paul Lambert and Tom Boyd, while patient understudies Mark Burchill and Kenny Miller both suffered long-term injuries last week.

If Freedman appears out of his depth, it has not always been so. His tale is a micro-cosm of Scotland's failure to build on potential. In 1996, only the cognoscenti would have recognised fresh-faced teenagers Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry as they roomed down the hallway from Scotland's youngsters, who had reached the last four – in a mini tournament in Barcelona – for the second time in four years.

Italy had Alessandro Nesta and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon while Spain boasted Fernando Morientes and Raul. Those six will all be at the World Cup finals, while Scotland's lost generation will simply be on holiday.

Half a dozen of the Scots' squad – Christian Dailly, Steven Pressley, Neil McCann, Jackie McNamara, Steve Crawford and now Freedman – have managed to swim against the tide and make it into the full national set-up. But they have been on the margins of Brown's picture. Unlike their continental counterparts, they have failed to develop or suffered from Brown's preference to play older "rookies" such as Matt Elliott, capped at 30. Exped-ience has forced Brown to relent for the encounter with Latvia, promoting three of his Under-21s – midfielder Scott Severin of Hearts and goalkeepers Paul Gallacher and Jamie Langfield, of Dundee United and Dundee respectively – for what could be his last selection after eight years in the job.

"I have been trying to coach through a transition period while still qualifying for tournaments," argued Brown. "We could have said, 'Forget about reaching the World Cup and just make sure of the next European Championships', but I don't think that is fair to the fans."

The arrival of Severin – being monitored by Spurs – is uplifting. Five years ago, he was on the groundstaff at Tynecastle, cleaning the boots of McCann and David Weir. "It's a big step for me," said Severin, "but I am ready because you have to have confidence in your ability."

Scotland's problem has been that Brown has never been keen to share in that faith – until now. "If we pick up any injuries, I will be promoting boys from the Under-21s rather than looking outside, because they are a talented bunch."

Ironically, one of those counsels against a clear-out of the old guard is Gary Naysmith. The Everton full- back, 22, was the only Scot under 27 to start against Belgium and Croatia. "The problem is a lot of the boys are not getting into the first team early enough at their clubs," he said. "I was lucky to get into the Hearts team at 17 but some boys have to wait until they are 21, which puts them four years behind."