The future is tartan as Bonhof's boys blossom

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Prophesy is not one of football's strongest suits. Just like fashion, it is always in pursuit of the new black. Only to discover that the reality never matched the hype. While bold predictions are out, the short-term future of European football is guaranteed not to be orange. Nor is it white. It could, however, contain more than a splash of tartan.

Holland and England are just two nations who will look on in envy as Scotland embrace the European Under-21 Championships this week. Neither made it into the last 16, while the Scots did. They face Croatia today in Varazdin in the first leg of the play-offs - with the return at Easter Road in Edinburgh on Tuesday - that will determine the eight teams who will contest next summer's finals. Scotland do not just want to be at those finals, they want to stage them. The Scottish FA have submitted a bid to Uefa to host the tournament, which is dependent on Rainer Bonhof's young side defeating Croatia.

While the quest of Berti Vogts' senior side to reach Euro 2004 has seized much of the attention, his German compatriot has performed an even bigger achievement in steering the Scots through their qualifying group.

Bonhof - like Vogts, a member of the West Germany side who won the 1974 World Cup final - inherited a squad with little quality. He promoted players with little on their CV, yet came up with a team good enough to return to his homeland in September and inflict a 1-0 defeat on Germany, one of the favourites for the event. That result ultimately ensured that Scotland would top their group, an honour that became double-edged when Uefa changed the qualification criteria (the winners were originally guaranteed a place in a 16-team finals with the runners-up having to negotiate a play-off).

Even finding his best talents taken away by the cherry- picking Vogts does not perturb Bonhof. For a country which was consistently being told it had no good young players, Scotland is surpassing all the bad publicity that Bonhof was bombarded with when he took the job at Hampden alongside his friend.

"It is fine that Berti wants to take players like James McFadden and Darren Fletcher," said the Scotland Under-21 coach, as he remained philosophical about his own team's preparations being undermined by his boss. "The job of the Under-21 side should always be to provide players for the national team. We have also lost Stephen Pearson to the senior squad, but that is recognition of what we are doing. We still have plenty of good young players. In four of five years, we can have a good, young team. We need luck, but it can be done.

"It is encouraging that every club in Scotland seems more geared now to giving youngsters a chance. I am sure more Scottish players will be given their chance because it appears that the days of Celtic and Rangers paying big transfer fees are gone. Teams like Motherwell already use young stars and soon I hope everyone is like them."

Bonhof is something of an expert in youth development. In his time at the German FA, he ushered through Sebastian Deisler, Dietmar Hamman and Christian Ziege. Now the names that excite him have a more straightforward ring, such as McFadden and Fletcher, Pearson and Shaun Maloney, the Celtic teenager, who is being groomed by Martin O'Neill to fill Henrik Larsson's boots very soon.

It was Maloney's goal that sank Germany, while Stephen Hughes of Rangers came up with a double against Lithuania last month in stoppage time to seal qualification. The young midfielder hopes that Bonhof, whose contract expires in the summer, is given a long-term deal. "What he has done is amazing," said Hughes. "He has transformed the Under-21s and we need him to stay and work with the next batch of youngsters." That batch are already waiting.

The Scotland Under-19s are making progress in their age group with another Motherwell teenager, striker David Clarkson, the most exciting prospect. Indeed, such is the precocious nature of Terry Butcher's side that they had to cancel a recent League game with Dunfermline - because four first-team players were away on duty with Scotland Under-19s.