Livingston's likely lads now in different worlds

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David McNamee and Burton O'Brien have lived in each other's pockets for most of their lives. But as of next month, they will be a world apart.

The Livingston players are poised to carve out international careers for themselves. However, the young Glaswegian pair will not be extending their remarkable partnership on Scotland's behalf.

True, McNamee, a stylish full-back, could well receive his third cap for Scotland when they face Hungary on Wednesday at Hampden Park, a game that augments the preparations for the World Cup qualifying campaign that begins on 6 September against Slovenia.

However, O'Brien's route to Germany 2006 is going to be much longer. The 23-year-old midfielder is about to make his debut for South Africa, even though he has not set foot in the country since he was a small boy.

O'Brien has been courted by South Africa's national coach, Stuart Baxter - ironically, a Scot himself - and although his clearance from Fifa did not come through in time to make his debut this week against Tunisia, he will be ready when the World Cup qualifying ties start in September against the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The switch is a scathing indictment of Berti Vogts, who has overlooked O'Brien in his two years in charge of Scotland even though no less a figure than Carlos Quieroz thought that the youngster, who earned six Scotland Under-21 caps before Vogts' reign, was good enough to tempt away.

"Quieroz approached me three years ago when I was still at Blackburn Rovers and he was South Africa's coach," O'Brien explained of the man who moved on to bigger things at Manchester United and Real Madrid. "He wanted me but because I had played in a competitive game for Scotland Under-21s, the idea was scrapped.

"However, Fifa changed the rules last January. Freddie Kanouté played for Mali in the African Nations Cup, even though he had played for France at Under-21 level. That clinched it for me. In my heart, this is what I have wanted to do."

O'Brien was born in Johannesburg to Scottish parents but moved to Glasgow at the age of five. He grew up in the same boys club that produced James McFadden, the Scotland and Everton striker and regularly came up against McNamee in local youth games before the pair joined St Mirren together. McNamee and O'Brien then earned a joint move to Blackburn Rovers, who paid £700,000 for them in 2000.

The pair failed to break into the first team at Ewood Park and were sold, ironically by another Scot, Graeme Souness, to Livingston in 2002, where they have flourished thanks to regular first-team football. McNamee became the first Livingston player to be capped by Scotland, but there is no sense of regret from O'Brien that they will not be sharing a future in dark blue.

"I am happy with my decision and so is Allan Preston, the Livingston manager," said O'Brien. "I thought he might be against it because of all the travelling back and forwards to internationals but he thinks it will be a great experience that no other Scottish player could find.

"South Africa are also the World Cup hosts in 2010 and I will be 29 and at my peak by then, so that is something else I have thought about. I was a bit frustrated when Berti Vogts never called me into any squads when I played well last year, but I have genuinely had this dream of playing for South Africa for the last three years. My uncle Jim still lives in Johannesburg and I have family there."

McNamee's progress is being followed by Rangers and West Ham United, following his international debut against Estonia last May and then a role in the 4-1 rout of Trinidad and Tobago.

"I read the papers like everyone else," he declared on Thursday as he modelled Scotland's new gold second-choice strip, to be unveiled against Hungary. "I am trying not to let the speculation get to me. I am now doing what I have wanted to do for years, fulfil the potential people said I had at St Mirren. So is Burton. It is just a pity that Scotland will miss out on him, but I understand his decision."

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