Scotland v Italy: Christians reunited a reminder of what might have been for Dailly

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The Independent Football

Nine years ago, Dailly was sitting in a five-star hotel in Barcelona rubbing shoulders with other élite peers. Patrick Vieira, Raul, Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri were already star names in their own right, yet Dailly moved among the gathering with the confidence of youth. The luxurious billet shared by Scotland, France, Italy and Spain for the climax of the European Under-21 Championship in 1996 would have been a football agent's dream. So many rising stars locked up under the one roof. "The semi-finals and final were all played in the Olympic Stadium," recalls Dailly. "And it was great fun sharing the hotel with the lads from the other countries."

The Dundonian could have been talking Italian on a daily basis. Cagliari tried to recruit him, but instead he chose to leave Dundee United for the Premiership, where he has spent nine years with Derby County, Blackburn Rovers and now West Ham United.

However, he will renew his acquaintance with Del Piero on Saturday when Italy come to Hampden Park for a match that Scotland must win to retain any ambition of going to the World Cup finals. Marcello Lippi's side are on course to confirm their status as favourites in Group Five, but the Scots are hanging in there in the hope of finishing second and snatching a play-off place.

Barcelona marked the end of Dailly's Under-21 career, which had begun six years earlier. "I don't know if 34 caps is a world record, but I have been told it is," said Dailly, reflecting on his status now as the elder statesman of Walter Smith's squad at the age of 32 and with full 56 caps to his name. "I don't feel like a veteran yet," he smiled. "I probably have more res-ponsibility than I used to, but I am happy to use the experience I have and help some of the younger lads. It honestly does not feel that long since I started out. I've been in some Scotland squad or other for 17 years. It's about 130 appearances altogether. I was only 15 when I was picked for Scotland Schoolboys and we beat England 1-0 at Old Trafford and Ryan Giggs, or Wilson as he was then, was playing."

While plenty of players have used the wrong side of 30 as a reason to focus solely on their clubs, Dailly is not one of them. "Playing for your country is the biggest thing you can do," he said.

Yet when he thinks back to Barcelona nine years ago, it underlines how much he and Scotland have missed. Whereas Vieri and Vieira have gone on to play in two World Cups and two European Championship finals each, Dailly has only one - and the memories of France 98 are fading. That is why Dailly is eager to play in next summer's finals. The perennial youngster - he still goes to Glastonbury - knows he is running out of time.

"Before I went to the World Cup finals in 1998, I thought it would be something special - but it was even better than my dream," said Dailly, whose fondest memory is of his dad, Alistair, and brother driving all the way to Bordeaux from the family home in Dundee to watch him play against Norway, whom the Scots play in Oslo on 7 September as the other part of the qualification double-header.

"These two matches will tell us if we can keep believing," said Dailly. "Beating Italy is possible. Every game is winnable, and when we play at Hampden in qualifying matches, no one gets an easy game. We gave Italy a hard time when we met in Milan and we know that one big win could really set us up. If we could get four points from our two games then we could really start to think we have a chance of reaching the World Cup. All the lads feel like that now."

If there are any Christians to be thrown to the lions, Dailly sincerely hopes that it is Vieri who suffers at the hands of Walter Smith's hungry Scots.