The swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune might have been purpose-built for Lee Wilkie. In Amsterdam tomorrow, Scotland's shaven-headed 23-year-old will attempt to keep Ruud van Nistelrooy off the scoresheet for the second time in four days, but he could easily have been watching on television after a hard day's grouting and tiling.
Two years ago, after loan moves to Notts County, Plymouth Argyle and Falkirk had failed to attract an offer approaching the £50,000 that Dundee sought for his transfer, Wilkie was ready to forsake football for house renovation. Then Berti Vogts, watching a humdrum game in the rain in his new role as Scotland's manager, spotted something in the 6ft 4in defender.
Before the stirring 1-0 defeat of the Netherlands last Saturday, when Wilkie took literally Vogts' exhortation for the Scots to play "the game of their lives" in the first leg of the Euro 2004 play-off, few among the Tartan Army shared the German's faith. Collective cringing swept Hampden Park as his name was announced, the legacy of three weeks last spring when the roof again seemed about to cave in on his career.
Wilkie's calamitous run began when he incurred the suspension that meant he missed Dundee's first Scottish Cup final in 39 years. It continued when he scored a first-minute own goal and conceded two penalties in a draw with Rangers. Impartial to a fault in Old Firm affairs, he soon gifted Celtic two goals before being substituted in a 6-2 trouncing.
"People were coming up to me in the street and the mistakes against Rangers and Celtic were all they wanted to talk about," he said yesterday. "Away fans still sing: 'Wilkie, Wilkie, give us a goal'."
They may change their tune after he helped subdue Van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert et al in a match he expected to watch from the bench. "I was a bit surprised when I heard I was playing, and you do think to yourself that there will be people out there who doubt whether you can do it. I got stick after the Faroe Islands home match and wasn't happy with my display, so it was about trying to have a solid game."
Wilkie modestly neglected to mention that he had headed the winner against Iceland early this year, a contribution that would prove crucial in the qualifying group. Even that goal, however, followed a lapse which, with a less lenient referee, might have resulted in a penalty against Scotland and an early bath for himself.
On Saturday, Wilkie's failure to stay focused did not resurface. "It's not about losing concentration for a minute. It can be a split second. I felt mentally tired afterwards, but it helped having Steven Pressley constantly shouting me at me to stay tight. It keeps you switched on.
"Maybe the fact that I was up against better players helped, too. You're more aware of the threat they carry so your focus is sharper. You're playing the Netherlands, not the Faroes, though I admit that's not a great way to approach football. I've got to concentrate week in, week out, and give the same level of performance whether it's for club or country."
It will be all over bar the grouting unless the Dutch win by two goals, so Scotland need Wilkie to resist their slings and arrows again tomorrow. "The past few years have been full of highs and lows for me; it's either an own goal, a red card, a broken nose or my occasionally scoring," he said. "But it has come together. There's a belief in the squad that we can do it."Reuse content