Realistic focus for national ambition

Few give Scotland much chance in Euro 96 but, as their captain Gary McAllister tells Phil Shaw, it is time for them to lose the tag of 'gallant losers'
Click to follow

T here is a hint of regret in the Scotland captain's voice as he assures me that William Wallace reached Watford before ordering his invading army to retreat. Gary McAllister may not be one for kilts, let alone claymores and woad, but he is proud to be leading his troops the extra few miles to Wembley in order to finish the job Braveheart started.

That is the patriot in him talking, the side of his personality which makes the hairs on his neck stand up when the band strikes up "Flower of Scotland". When the pragmatist takes over, McAllister admits he would settle for losing to England as long as Scotland beat the Netherlands and Switzerland in the other two Group A games to reach the second round of Euro 96.

To some Scots, from the Highlands or the east, such sentiments may be tantamount to treason. Yet there are many strands of Scottishness, and McAllister's is rooted in the mining and steel-making communities of Lanarkshire. They are the villages which produced Keir Hardie and Matt Busby, places where the rational holds sway over the romantic.

Moreover, his experience of the last European Championship finals, at which Andy Roxburgh's team lost their opening two fixtures and trounced the CIS when it was too late, has fostered in him a distaste for Scotland's traditional role at such events.

"That 'gallant failures' tag is always disappointing to me," he says. "I've never liked going over to the fans waving after we've gone out, like we did in Sweden. I'd rather celebrate with them after we've actually achieved something."

Few people, perhaps even in Scotland, expect the side now under Craig Brown's managership to give their followers much to sing about this month. If they are to spring a surprise, it is clear that the Leeds United playmaker will have to be at his best.

After a season of desperate anticlimax at club level, there were fears that McAllister and his ally at the creative hub, the Monaco-bound John Collins, might suffer the kind of burn-out which hit Don Masson and Bruce Rioch before the 1978 World Cup. Ten days' training with the sun on their backs in New England and Florida seems to have renewed their appetite for the fray.

Not that it needed much reviving. McAllister will be 32 on Christmas Day and, while confident that his fitness regime will give him every chance of playing in the 1998 World Cup in France, he realises that Euro 96 could be his last opportunity to compete at the highest level.

There is a sense, too, that he finally has the chance to perform in his best position, directing operations from centre stage. Although selected for Italia 90 he did not kick a ball in earnest. Despite playing well in Euro 92, the role he coveted was occupied by Paul McStay.

"The closest I got to playing in Italy was against Brazil. Murdo MacLeod got hit on the head by an Exocet of a shot by Branco and didn't know which way we were kicking. Andy [Roxburgh] told me I was on, but while I was doing my stretches I looked up to see Gary Gillespie going on instead. Next day, a headline in one of the papers said: 'Roxy custard-pies Gary'.

"But it was a good apprenticeship and taste of the big tournament atmosphere. Then in Sweden I played wide on the right, which I'd done when I was younger. It's hard to be a tricky winger if you're 6ft 1in and skinny so I created a wee role of my own."

McStay's absence, while ostensibly removing the possibility of two schemers duplicating each other, will not necessarily suit McAllister. He argues that you can never have too many people who can pass a ball well, and suggests that the days of the midfield terrier are numbered.

"I never agreed with having someone there simply as a tackler anyway, and in the past two or three years I've detected a shift back towards what I'd call proper football.

"It's still a running game, where you have to work hard, but the Newcastles and Liverpools have shown it's not about going around bumping into people. Manchester United are different because their so-called ball-winners, Butt and Keane, can play as well."

Leeds, to his chagrin, have been somewhat left behind. McAllister, who has put down roots in the area with his English wife Denise and son Jake ("he's no' English, he's a Yorkshireman"), admits he is not absolutely settled at Elland Road. He is anxious to see signs of a willingness and capacity to go for the championship again.

"I'm at a stage now where I've got to be playing for a team who are challenging. It's obvious we need players. There's talk of a three-year rebuilding job but I want the club to convince people we can challenge again. It's all about credibility."

The nadir of his season was the Coca-Cola Cup final defeat by Aston Villa. The memory of his last visit to Wembley still makes him squirm. "It was brilliant walking out and seeing so many Leeds fans. But I could sense after 10 minutes that things weren't right, and it was very tough once Villa scored. Looking back, it'd all gone before the final."

After a "sombre" return to Leeds on a Pullman from King's Cross, McAllister drove up to join the national squad in Glasgow to play Australia. The 1-0 win would be their last before the finals but while Scotland lost to both the United States and Colombia last week, he maintains that the squad are better prepared than they were four years ago.

The draw, especially the chance to play the auld enemy, delighted McAllister. "Wembley's a very special place for a Scot, and I've got fond memories of watching the England match at home on TV. It was a real family occasion. My parents got the beers in and us kids would be in the corner with a bottle of Irn-Bru and bag of crisps.

"The one I remember best was 1977, when Gordon McQueen scored in a 2- 1 win and the Tartan Army took most of the place home with them. People say it'll be different [on 15 June] because we'll only have 9,000 fans. But our supporters have got ways and means!"

McAllister, who would like to emulate Gordon Strachan's gradual ascent to management, takes issue with Brown's statement a year ago that England would beat Scotland. "I have to disagree. It's a one-off game against people I play against every week. They're not superhuman and they've proved not to be an outstanding team."

He is relishing the prospect of pitting his wits against Paul Gascoigne, whose moves to Lazio and Rangers meant their paths have seldom crossed. The thought of tangling with Paul Ince also excites him after some "right battles" down the years.

Before that, there is the small matter of the Dutch. McAllister watched them defeat the Republic of Ireland at Liverpool in December and recalls that they move the ball around beautifully. "We can't go into the game and be surprised by that," he asserts, "because that's what they do."

Another match involving the Irish gives him encouragement, however. In 1994, he went to the US to support his club colleague Gary Kelly, He remembers melting in the searing heat at Orlando, where he took off his deck shoes and soon found his feet literally paddling in his own sweat, but also how the Republic caught Italy cold in New York.

"They played at a 'British' tempo and got through to the next stage on the strength of winning that first game. Scotland have never made the second round of anything and if we're going to change that, we mustn't lose the opening match."

Easier said than done, as the 1-0 defeats by Costa Rica and the Netherlands respectively dem-onstrated at the outset of the last two finals. McAllister is at a loss to explain why the Scots invariably start slowly but is convinced that if they have to beat the Swiss in their last match to advance, they will do so.

Fighting talk, as you would expect from William Wallace's successor, but informed by an awareness that brave hearts are rarely sufficient unless allied to strategy and skill.