Scotland show their mean side

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The Independent Online

If football is a religion then Craig Brown is one of its fundamentalists. He cannot drive past a park game without stopping to affirm his faith. And where others perceive only bleakness, he finds satisfaction and solace.

So it was that Brown, while wise enough not to claim that his team's 1-0 defeat of Australia might one day feature on the Match of the Nineties video, was quick to accentuate the positive aspects. Unfortunately for the 21,000 at Hampden Park, chief among these was the negative one of stopping goals.

England's low scorers be warned: Scotland are piling up clean sheets faster than a decent-sized Holiday Inn. After leaking only three goals in 12 games in qualifying for the European Championship finals, they recorded "yet another", as their manager proudly proclaimed it, against Australia. Nor was it a feat to be sniffed at, Brown insisted, citing the Socceroos' improving pedigree.

This exemplary Scottish meanness is due in significant part to Jim Leighton. For the 37-year-old goalkeeper, reborn with Hibernian, Wednesday's shut- out was his 36th in 72 internationals, and he produced what Brown termed "a wonderful save" early in the second half to improve his tally.

Australia's Mark Bosnich, probably among the top 10 on the planet in Leighton's position, said: "That's the hallmark of a quality keeper; staying involved when you don't have much to do. It was like a game of slow chess, but all of a sudden Jim had to make a great save. In almost their next attack Ally McCoist scored, so the game turned on that moment.''

The Aston Villa keeper was intrigued by Scotland's approach, which confounded his image of the game north of the wall. "They seemed to play within themselves and were more patient than I expected. I thought they'd work the flanks and get in more crosses.''

Having said that, Bosnich noted with a rueful smile, the winner stemmed from just such a centre. Brown, asked whether the goal had clinched McCoist's ticket to Euro 96, said he would "reserve judgement", but added: "Getting a header like that past a world-class keeper hasn't done him any harm.''

McCoist's place may be assured anyway. As unofficial entertainments officer, he is good for squad morale, and his knack of conjuring goals in tight contests could yet be invaluable. "We want to know what his Lottery numbers are," Brown said. "The success he has, it can't be long before he wins that too.''

Of the other fringe forwards, Kevin Gallacher did most to enhance his prospects, not only by supplying the crucial cross but because he showed a commodity scarce among Brown's options: scorching pace. John Spencer was less conspicuous, though he was praised for his versatility.

As a dummy run for the tactical battles ahead, however, the game's value was questionable. Australia and the Netherlands may operate similar defensive systems, but the Dutch use theirs as a springboard for attack rather than to stifle the opposition.

Brown expects a "much stiffer test" in next month's Copenhagen friendly against Denmark, the European champions. He may also be heartened to hear that Bosnich believes Scotland will be "dangerous opposition in the finals, especially if anyone underestimates them", and predicts that they could well reach the second phase.