Scots show McLeish era was no flash in the pan

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When George Burley took the Scotland manager's job, he hoped the laudable near miss in qualifying for Euro 2008 under his predecessor Alex McLeish had not been a flash in the pan. Yesterday morning, he knew it had not. And therein lies the value of such "meaningless" friendlies as Wednesday's 1-1 draw with Croatia at Hampden Park.

The circumstances were inauspicious. Seven players, four of them from Rangers and one from Celtic, withdrew with injuries unlikely to prevent them playing in tomorrow lunchtime's Old Firm derby. Scotland had a terrible friendly record at Hampden: no win in 12 years. The crowd, at 28,821 in an arena that sold out its 51,000-plus capacity for every competitive home match of the last campaign, suggested an irrelevance to the wider public. And Croatia arrived, Eduardo aside, with the same full-strength team who put England and others to the sword on the road to Austria and Switzerland.

So would a weakened Scotland roll over? Or would each of the 17 Scots who played some part on the night fight for the cause as if there was really something at stake, something like a coherent team-building process ahead of 2010 World Cup qualifying?

The "roll over" theory was rolled over. While Scotland were inferior in technical ability and man-for-man class in most areas – a fact not disputed by anyone in their camp, Burley included – they were competitive, committed and showed character to recover from 1-0 down. Six bookings, three for each side, were indicative of both teams' seriousness.

The star turns included the goalkeeper Craig Gordon and right-back Alan Hutton, who demonstrated why Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur wanted them in the Premier League, and Kenny Miller, who seemed to thrive more in his national jersey than he has at Derby of late.

Gordon made good saves at important times from Croatia's Nico Kranjcar (twice) and Igor Budan, while Hutton's marauding instincts threatened throughout and almost led to a late Kris Boyd winner.

"This was a good start," Gordon, the Sunderland goalkeeper, said. "The new manager has only had a few days to work with the lads, but he is already trying to get his points across. We had a young side out there and it worked well for us as we came away with a very credible result against a good team."

Hibernian's Steven Fletcher, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Wednesday with a first cap in a three-man attack, played a supply role in Miller's goal and represents a new generation knocking at the door of what is a young team anyway.

If Real Madrid turn transfer speculation into hard cash and buy him soon, as rumour says they will, Burley will have players maturing in the top leagues of Spain and England as well as in the SPL.

The most salient issue is whether Scotland can qualify for South Africa in 2010. In their Euro 2008 section, their fate was sealed only in their last match and, in a section including the 2006 World Cup finalists plus one last-eight team, there was no shame in losing out to Italy and France, and finishing ahead of Ukraine.

On the evidence of that campaign, and a spirited show against Croatia, they should go into the 2010 campaign – where the Netherlands, Norway, Macedonia and Iceland are the opposition – hopeful of the top-two finish that would guarantee a play-off place at least.

"It was a very competitive friendly; feisty, no holds barred, both teams wanted to win," Burley said of Wednesday night's game. "Overall it was a good draw, with chances either end and, thankfully, we showed a lot of encouraging signs.

"There was a number of changes, one or two new players for us, while Croatia had the settled side that got them qualified for the Euro finals. But we didn't drop our heads when we conceded that early goal and we kept at it and eventually created three or four good opportunities, and took one. You can see that Croatia individually have got some world-class players. Maybe we don't quite have that, but what we've got is a lot of commitment and we gave as good as we got. It was a team performance, starting with Craig Gordon, all the way through."

Slaven Bilic, whose Croatian team will play Austria, Germany and Poland in the group stages at the European Championship, said Scotland presented "a great test for us, it was exactly the one we wanted. We did not just want to play an easy game and that is the reason I chose Scotland. It was a really competitive game, like a game for points."

Scotland's next game is a friendly in the Czech Republic in May. "Another difficult one," Burley said. "But you want tests against competition like that."

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