AS THE climate plummeted at Wembley last Wednesday Kevin Keegan appeared to sink ever lower into his tracksuit; I feared that, had Scotland scored an equaliser to send this fascinating tie into extra time, the England coach would become totally invisible.
I cannot agree with those who suggested that Scotland were the better team over two legs. Certainly the Scots did not enjoy much fortune, but, if a team makes its luck, then Scotland squandered theirs with the sloppy defending which gave Paul Scholes his two goals. However, England had a solid phalanx of David Seaman, who made a crucial save in each match, Alan Shearer, Paul Ince and Tony Adams, who boast over 200 caps between them. Their experience was always going to be a telling factor in a tie involving such high stakes.
Adams epitomised all that was best about England v Scotland encounters: he tackled with power and precision, extended a helping hand to fallen opponents, and ran 50 yards to commiserate with Craig Brown at Wembley's final whistle.
An examination of the resources available to the two coaches is revealing. Keegan could afford to leave Andy Cole, a striker in form this season, on the bench for seven eighths of the tie, while Brown was compelled to risk his own Braveheart, Colin Hendry, when he was clearly not match fit.
Yet England have no solution to the left wing problem. The most dangerous cross to defend is, of course, the one pulled back from the goal line, but, though Sol Campbell was happy to reach the line on the right flank, Phil Neville on the left came inside on to his right foot every time bar one at Wembley, Jamie Redknapp is clearly less comfortable on the left flank, and even Michael Owen scooped a right foot cross wastefully wide when moving in on goal from the left.
Trevor Brooking demonstrated that you do not have to go back 50 years to the days of Tom Finney and Stan Matthews to find a player whose preference, left or right foot, observers found difficult to detect.
The final competitive international at Wembley proved a compelling and rousing encounter. Beforehand, I predicted a 1-1 draw; it was never going to be a coast for England, but I could not quite see Scotland winning 2 or 3-nil. In the event, inspired by Don Hutchison, the bad boy with the beautiful feet, they were prevented only by the reflexes of Seaman from wiping out the deficit and, subject always to tired legs, going on to inflict what Keegan had earlier declared would have been the biggest disaster ever to hit English football. I agreed with the coach's assessment, for not even the defeats by the United States in the 1950 World Cup or by the Hungarians in the '50s could have matched the desolation of failing to reach the last 16 of Euro 2000 after holding a two-goal lead.
So, all in all, it was an uplifting five days for British football, if the relentless hype can be overlooked. I have previously come out in favour of re-instating the Auld Enemy clashes in the football calendar. But what the fixture needs is a context, if we are to justify packing an already crowded schedule even further. The European Championship provided that context in 1996 and 1999.
Both legs were excellently policed, albeit by a heavy presence. More than 125,000 fans added colour and passion. In Glasgow on Saturday the city centre was eerily quiet, both before and after the match. The Scots very nearly succeeded in their cunning ploy to lull us into a false sense of security. The handful of English morons who briefly chanted "No surrender to the IRA" in Hampden disgraced themselves, and the radio host who thought the capacity of the Scottish National Stadium was "about 100,000" also showed himself up.
The Italian referee, Pierluigi Collina, policed the second leg superbly. Whereas Senor Diaz had recourse, possibly correctly, to 10 yellow cards at Hampden, a piercing glare or a hint of a smile from Signor Collina was usually sufficient to keep on-field passions in check. For technical ability - judgement of intent and ability to keep the game flowing - 10 out of 10; for personality, 11 out of 10.
Craig Brown, realises that the supply line of top-class players is becoming increasingly thin. The days when a top English team would be packed with Scots - like Manchester United with McCalliog, Buchan, Houston, Albiston, Graham - are long gone. Accrington Stanley - never a top English team, I hasten to add - fielded a complete team of Scots in 1955!
Kevin Keegan now looks forward not only to some hard work in preparation for the Euro 2000 finals next summer but also, in the meantime, to the World Cup 2002 draw on 7 December.
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