Sullivan aiming for full marks against Croatia

Scotland's goalkeeper is hoping to reap reward for hard work tomorrow
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The Independent Online

Neil Sullivan is more fluent in Cockney than Croatian, as befits a player who has spent his career with two London clubs. Yet no interpreter was needed to tell him what the reporter from Zagreb's Sportske Novosti newspaper made of his performance in Scotland's 2-0 success in San Marino last weekend.

Neil Sullivan is more fluent in Cockney than Croatian, as befits a player who has spent his career with two London clubs. Yet no interpreter was needed to tell him what the reporter from Zagreb's Sportske Novosti newspaper made of his performance in Scotland's 2-0 success in San Marino last weekend.

The Tottenham and former Wimbledon goalkeeper's eyes went straight to the ratings given to each Scot. Next to his own name there was simply a dash. Sullivan had not made a single save, taken only one goal-kick and fielded just two back-passes. The Croatian scribe felt unable to award him a mark.

Sullivan, 30, is acutely aware that Scotland's next step towards the 2002 World Cup finals, tomorrow's Group Six encounter with Croatia, will be a different matter. San Marino's world ranking is 167th, the lowest of any European country; in contrast, the former Yugoslav republic will call on many of the players who helped them to finish third at France 98.

Comparisons between San Marino's stubbornly defensive part-timers and the attacking riches represented by Alen Boksic and Davor Suker may be meaningless. Yet in terms of the concentration required, Sullivan views the two fixtures as essentially similar. Until Scotland's two late goals on Saturday there was always a chance that a slippery surface or a deflected shot might embarrass him.

"You've got to prepare for games as contrasting as these two in the same way," said Sullivan, a south Londoner who qualifies for Scotland on his mother's side. "No matter where or who you play, you must pay attention, especially when it's 0-0 as it was for a long time in San Marino."

Tongue tickling cheek, he added: "I think it might be a bit different against Croatia. Boksic didn't play for Middlesbrough against Spurs but I've watched him on video and he's an excellent striker. Suker has been injured so he hasn't played for West Ham lately, but if he plays against us he'll have to be watched closely... one of the many you can say that of."

"Craig [Brown] has gone through their likely line-up highlighting the strengths and weaknesses. We know they move the ball around well and take free-kicks very quickly. I'll have to be alive to that from start to finish."

Another vivid contrast between Scotland's two assignments will lie in the atmosphere. The Maksimir Stadium, home of Dinamo Zagreb, holds 57,000 as against the 4,400, mostly Scots, who filled to bursting point the glorified municipal park that is San Marino's Stadio Olimpico.

"We've trained in the ground here and it's massive. When it's full I can imagine that the crowd will make a hell of a noise. But if we approach the game confidently, I'm sure we will be fine."

This is no mere Braveheart bluster. Scotland's last seven away games, with Sullivan ever-present, have delivered wins over Bosnia, England, the Republic of Ireland, Latvia and San Marino, plus draws in Estonia and the Netherlands. He attributes the sequence to hard work, sound temperament and, significantly in view of Kevin Keegan's demise, to Brown's tactical awareness and planning.

Sullivan, who joined Spurs during the summer on a Bosman free transfer, has been coached by Alan Hodgkinson since his Scotland debut in 1997. The Yorkshireman's preference for him prompted Jim Leighton to quit the international scene in high dudgeon, making Leighton's short-lived presence on this mini-tour all the more ill-advised.

"We haven't been affected by the situation," Sullivan insisted. "Hodgy gave us keepers a hard time today but he hasn't seemed downbeat. Mind you, we don't know what's supposed to have been said because you can't really get a paper out here." Croatian sports journals excepted, of course.

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