Scotland prosper from new pragmatism

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The Independent Online
PHIL SHAW

There was a time when any self-respecting Scot would have cringed to hear the national side characterised as "typically British". Craig Brown, a Scotland manager who begins his programme column with "Dear Fellow Supporter", interpreted the phrase as high praise after Scotland had advanced to the verge of the European Championship finals.

It came from his Finnish counterpart, Jukka Ikalainen, in the wake of Scotland's 1-0 win at Hampden Park. Brown broke into a vindicated smile as Ikalainen added first "well organised" then "stronger than Greece ... better teamwork" to his paean, and was disinclined to dispute the contention that the victors lacked only ''fantasy".

In the bygone age when Brown understudied Jim Baxter at Rangers and Scottish footballers saw themselves as honorary Brazilians, such qualities would have been disdained as England's preserve. When the World Cup rested at Lancaster Gate, the holders were castigated as "Ramsey's robots" north of the wall.

In those days, however, Scotland were invariably on the outside looking in at the finals of major tournaments. An innate aversion to planning deprived them of the opportunity to demonstrate their Sauchiehall samba to the wider world.

The new pragmatism, instigated by Jock Stein but defined by Andy Roxburgh and now Brown, is regarded by tartan romantics as a cynical surrender. The realists, their ranks swelling now that Scotland look certain to be in England next summer, recognise the team's standing in Group Eight as a triumph of marshalling limited resources.

"We can't produce the flair and wonderful skills Scotland had in the past," Brown said, returning to a familiar theme about congested fixture lists and crowded midfields. "What we can create is a good, fighting, cohesive unit who will be very difficult to beat.

"Those who knock Scottish football should realise that our population is under five million. Yet look at our youth and Under-21 sides. And consider our senior team: three goals conceded in nine matches and one defeat in 12 games. You can't argue against that record.

"When we go to England," Brown continued, significantly avoiding the word if, "it will be at a time when there are no club commitments and all our players are available. So we'll see an improvement."

This was a tacit acknowledgement that Scotland had toiled against a mundane Finland, failing to build on Scott Booth's early breakthrough. The successes, with the exception of Booth, were grafters like Tom Boyd and Tosh McKinlay, while the creative department had an off-night.

Gary McAllister, an assertive and inventive captain during Brown's two years in charge, had arguably his worst match for his country. John Collins also fell below his usual standards, though he did cross for Booth to score for the third international in a row at Hampden.

The 23-year-old Aberdeen striker revealed a zest which cried out for the service that Ajax's Jari Litmanen belatedly gave the Finns. But while fantasy may be dormant, or even dead, Scotland's self-esteem is up and about with a vengeance.

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