Scots find a perfect front man

Simon O'Hagan meets Scott Booth, a clean-cut striker in the Lineker mould
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SCOTT BOOTH was honest enough to admit that he had his eyes shut when he headed the goal that gave Scotland their priceless victory over Finland last Wednesday, but in other respects the 23-year-old Aberdeen striker is notable for the clarity of his vision and purpose.

Not even the most fanatical Scottish supporter would pretend that the team played very well in securing the result that left them all but certain of qualifying for next year's European Championship finals. But Booth's performance, comprising much more than just his goal, was something to feel unequivocal about. Here was a forward of skill, awareness and mobility, less interested in glory-seeking than in how best he could apply these qualities to the wider cause of the team.

Since Craig Brown took over as Scotland manager two years ago, the question of who should play up front has never been resolved. Ally McCoist has missed almost all of the last two seasons with injury, while Duncan Ferguson has remained a problematic choice for reasons not wholly connected with football. John McGinlay, Duncan Shearer, Andy Walker, John Spencer, Eoin Jess and Darren Jackson have all had chances to lay permanent claim to a striking role, but as England beckons it is Booth, with four goals in eight internationals and one in each of his last three at Hampden Park, who has done most to move the debate on. Rather than "Who could Scott Booth play with?" the question now seems to be, "Who could play with Scott Booth?"

You will not hear this from the man himself. "I don't like to talk in terms of ideal partners," he said. "You can't allow yourself to think you're an automatic choice. Even at Aberdeen I fight for my place. The point about Scotland is there are no megastars, and that's all part of the togetherness. All I would say is that all the players I've played alongside have been fantastic."

The level-headedness that is a desirable component in any striker's make- up is something Booth has in abundance. And with his easy manner and air of a bright young careerist making his way in the world, it looks as if Scotland might have their own Gary Lineker in the making.

Asked which strikers he particularly admires, Booth offers Lineker's name first (ahead of McCoist and Dean Saunders). "I think what I liked about him was the inevitability that he would get on the end of a cross," Booth said. While that may not yet be true of Booth, he possesses a game which might have been modelled on Lineker's.

At 5ft 9in, Booth is a couple of inches shorter than Lineker, but shares his ability to lose his marker or pull defenders out of position to create space for team-mates. Both have an acute sense of where the opposition is vulnerable, relying on anticipation as much as aggression to get themselves goal-side. And both represent that rare combination of talent and diligence.

Alex Smith was the manager of Aberdeen when the club took on Booth as a 16-year-old. "He was always going to be special," said Smith, now the manager of Clyde. "He worked very hard as a boy. Always seemed to know what he was about. He was quick, brave and strong, in the traditional way we've reared front players in Scotland. He was a natural in that position. He had split-second timing. There was nothing mechanical about him."

It was no surprise, then, that other clubs took an interest. A scout from Nottingham Forest spotted him and the next thing Booth knew he was sitting in Brian Clough's office. "The main thing I remember was being absolutely petrified," he said. "What he wanted to know was whether I had ambition. But I was still very young. I'd grown up in Aberdeen and I wasn't ready to leave."

A couple of years later Smith phoned Craig Brown, then assistant manager of Scotland and in charge of the under-21 team. Aberdeen under-18s were playing at Queen's Park, and there were two players, Smith told Brown, that he should watch - Stephen Wright, now a full-back at Rangers, and Booth.

That was when Booth took his first step towards international success. Now Brown talks of his speed, strength and eye for goal and says his ring- craft has improved. But against Finland, Brown says, he would have liked to see him take on defenders more in one-on-one situations.

Brown appreciates that Booth's reluctance to do that can be partly explained by the fact that he is still feeling his way back into the game after a groin injury sustained during the European Championship qualifier against Russia forced him to miss two-thirds of last season.

Booth had an operation in the summer - similar to a hernia, he says - and uncertainty about his fitness was not the least of the reasons why a move from Aberdeen did not materialise. Instead he signed a contract which will keep him at Pittodrie for another two years. Now, Brown says, he needs a couple of months of regular football to get back into perfect shape. After that, Booth may still be able to afford not to look when the crosses come over, but nobody else will.