Williams to play Matthaus role for Scots

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The Independent Online

Whatever qualities may or may not be manifested when Gareth Williams makes his Scotland debut against Nigeria at Pittodrie tonight, no one could accuse the Nottingham Forest captain of lacking self-belief or an independent spirit.

Four months past his 21st birthday, and with only 45 minutes of Under-21 international football behind him, the 6ft 2in Williams steps into the friendly against one of England's World Cup opponents having passed up the opportunity yesterday to play down suggestions that he is a throwback to the days of Glenn Hoddle and Graeme Souness.

The Glaswegian would have been excused had he protested he was "the first Gareth Williams". Instead, he admitted he enjoyed being compared with Hoddle, praising the Englishman's "elegance, passing and vision". And he identified with the career path pursued by Souness, who disappointed Scottish suitors to learn his trade with Tottenham three decades ago.

"I was on schoolboy forms with Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United," Williams recalled. "I probably shouldn't say this, but my belief is that you get a better education down there. I'd never rule out coming to play in the Scottish Premier League, because this is where my roots are, but my ambition is to play in the Premiership." Williams, who had six acupuncture needles inserted in a hamstring in a successful attempt to be fit for tonight, had been set to turn professional with Leeds before opting to follow the youth coach Paul Hart ("my mentor") to Forest. He also turned down Wales, the land of his father, in the hope of playing for Scotland.

Injuries to established players and Berti Vogts' determination to assess his resources means the chance has come sooner than anyone expected. Williams will fill what the German terms "the Lothar Matthäus role", which should liberate the playmaker in Paul Lambert but is also likely to expose him to the thrusts of Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha.

Vogts, taking his first home fixture since succeeding Craig Brown, will field at least four other newcomers. Middlesbrough's Robbie Stockdale and Preston's Graham Alexander will each play a half at right-back; Kevin McNaughton, 19, of Aberdeen, is earmarked for left midfield; and Celtic's Rab Douglas plays in goal. Alan Hodgkinson, the former England keeper, has been replaced as goalkeeping coach for the match by Jim Stewart as part of Vogts' appraisal of his staff.

The former Germany and Kuwait coach has subjected his players to a video nasty of last month's 5-0 rout in France, as well as studying tapes of Nigeria. To what extent the Africans will resemble the side who qualified for the World Cup is a moot point. The coach, Festus Onigbinde, has inherited a shambolic situation, with ostensibly key men like Taribo West, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh dropped and/or disaffected.

A squad drawn from clubs in 14 nations trained on Cove Rangers' ground at 7.30 yesterday morning. Surprised locals promised a five million-strong boost to Nigeria's support when they face England in June. "Man," mused the 64-year-old Onigbinde, "that would be a beautiful thing."

SCOTLAND (4-4-2; probable): Douglas (Celtic); Stockdale (Middlesbrough), Weir (Everton), Dailly (West Ham), Crainey (Celtic); Williams (Nottingham Forest), Gemmill (Everton), Lambert (Celtic), McNaughton (Aberdeen); Thompson (Dundee United), McCann (Rangers).

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