Sproule's Best efforts can harm McLeish

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The Independent Online

So, reports of Alex McLeish's demise were exaggerated. Or perhaps, just premature. The Rangers manager had reason to be grateful to one youngster who came off the bench in Portugal in midweek to save his managerial skin, but it is the possibility of another doing the same at Easter Road whick makes the shorter trip to Edinburgh even more perilous.

Ross McCormack's late equaliser against Porto kept Rangers in the Champions' League and McLeish in a job. Today, though, the prospect of Ivan Sproule reprising his own super-sub role must fill McLeish with apprehension. The Hibernian youngster shredded Rangers when the sides last met.

Sproule only played for the final 27 minutes, but the elfin Northern Irishman struck a hat-trick to silence Ibrox. Easter Road will also be hushed today for another more famous compatriot. George Best spent a year at Hibernian in 1980, in the twighlight of his career, and is still revered by the fans.

Like Best, Sproule almost succumbed to homesickness. While the Belfast Boy famously fled Manchester United as a teenager before returning, Sproule found that even the advanced age of 22 was no help from feeling uprooted. Hibernian were ready to sell Sproule to Linfield for just £10,000 the week before his Ibrox one-man show until Tony Mowbray persuaded him to stay - a week ago, they turned down a £1m bid from Ukrainian side Dnipro for the explosive forward.

"I come from Castlederg [outside Derry] and I found it hard enough to settle in Edinburgh," said Sproule. "A move to the Ukraine was never on the cards and neither is it ever likely to be. I did play well twice against Dnipro when we met them in the Uefa Cup, so perhaps that had something to do with it. I only joined Hibernian from Institute in the Irish League 11 months ago for £5,000. From that to £1m in such a short space of time is some leap."

Sproule's Ibrox demolition earned him a call-up from Lawrie Sanchez, the Northern Ireland manager, for the trip to Azerbaijan. He did not play but made his debut, as a substitute of course, in that famous win a month later against England in Belfast. Not even Best had that achievement on his CV.

For Mowbray, the patient coaxing of Sproule's finishing to match his searing pace has been worth it. "After one or two chats, he made the decision that he wanted to stick it out," said the Hibs manager. "It was a brave decision but being capped in such a historic match was Ivan's reward. Now the challenge is to force himself on to the international scene on a regular basis and not become a one-cap wonder, that has to be his motivation. We brought Ivan in because we felt he had potential and I think the progress he has made is evident for everyone to see. Ivan and his partner came over here to make a new life for themselves and, like anything, it is sometimes difficult."

Mowbray, though, is unlikely to extend that caring attitude to McLeish, who has never lost at Easter Road since leaving four years ago to manage Rangers. "I have sympathy for Alex but why would Alex want sympathy from me? He didn't become manager of Rangers by accident. He got the job because he's a really good manager."

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