Football: McCann the rebound man

Phil Gordon says a green and white turncoat is a Provan talent

Phil Gordon
Saturday 01 May 1999 23:02

IT HAS BEEN dubbed the "nightmare scenario", but if Celtic do surrender their Scottish Premier League title to Rangers in their own backyard tonight, it would only take Neil McCann to turn it into a full- blown horror story.

Losing is not part of the Old Firm vocabulary, and the prospect of Dick Advocaat's team actually wrapping up the championship at Celtic Park simply leaves the home supporters lost for words. If McCann delivers the crucial blow, the effect could be catatonic.

The 24-year-old winger has been instrumental in Rangers' progress since his pounds 1.9m transfer from Hearts, just before Christmas. It has been the stuff of dreams, except that when McCann dreamt, blue was not the colour: it was green-and-white. The boyhood Celtic fan could come back to haunt the club which ignored him, until Advocaat gave him the platform to go with the winger's undoubted talent. He has silenced the critics who said he did not possess the quality to play for Scotland, and kept quiet the less enlightened of the Rangers support who still view any Catholic with suspicion.

Rangers' notorious ban on Catholics ended a decade ago. Indeed, if the club's recruitment policy continues, it might have to follow Barcelona in establishing a chapel under the main stand. However, while foreigners such as Lorenzo Amoruso, Gabriel Amato and Jorg Albertz have gained acceptance at Ibrox, it remains harder for locals to cross the divide. "McCann is only the second Scot, after Mo Johnston, to be brave enough to be Catholic and play for Rangers," said former Celtic and Scotland winger, Davie Provan, whose running these days is restricted to cornering players for after- match interviews for Sky. "Neil is not the type to be intimidated."

Provan knows from personal experience how difficult McCann's choice has been. He comes from same town as McCann, near Greenock, and switched allegiances, too, when he joined Celtic in 1978. "Neil is a mirror image of me," Provan says. "His whole family supported Celtic, while my dad was a Rangers fan. But I think it was easier for me, because religion was less of an issue at Celtic than it has been at Rangers."

McCann's slight shoulders have been able to carry the excess baggage that comes with Glasgow's feuding rivals, but he has also been able to carry the burden confronting any player who moves up in the world.

"Football is littered with players who did well at smaller clubs, but who could not handle it when it came to playing for bigger teams, such as the Old Firm," says Provan. "The expectations at Celtic and Rangers are incomparable and Neil's performances since going to Ibrox show that he can be a great player." What shocks Provan is that his old club passed up the chance to have McCann all to themselves. "I've heard that Celtic were notified by Hearts of Rangers' offer and given a chance to compete and chose not to," he said.

Such scant regard of the most exciting player in the Scottish Premier League outside of Henrik Larsson does little credit to Celtic's coach, Jozef Venglos. Another former Celtic idol, Charlie Nicholas, declared: "McCann should not have slipped through Celtic's net."

Nicholas will be confined to Sky's commentary box tonight, but that distance only lends greater appreciation of the Rangers winger. "McCann has always had talent in abundance," he said, "and he also has pace, which is essential in the modern game. He has the kind of quality that Celtic should have been looking for.

"Celtic traditionally used wide players, such as Jimmy Johnstone, but they have not had one since Davie Provan, whom I played with before leaving for Arsenal in 1983. Celtic don't play with width now. They prefer to play through the middle, which is breathtaking when it works, but it doesn't all the time. Rangers have not been playing well recently, but McCann has been the one man capable of making things happen for them."

It was Nicholas's close friend, Jim Duffy, now youth coach at Chelsea, who discovered McCann while he was manager at Dundee. Yet, even then, Celtic resisted McCann's charms.

"Jim needed the cash and offered McCann to Celtic," claimed Nicholas. "Tommy Burns, who was the manager then, was keen but was not allowed by Fergus McCann to spend the money required. Jim Duffy always described McCann as someone who was willing to listen and learn, and then graft in training, rather than just rely on his skill."

Hearts walked in where Celtic feared to tread, and were rewarded handsomely with Advocaat's cheque five months ago. "Advocaat didn't really use wingers when he came to Rangers," reflected Nicholas, "but suddenly he believes in them now and that is because of McCann. McCann actually looks superior to the man on the other wing who cost pounds 5.5m [Andrei Kanchelskis]. Being a Catholic, put him under more scrutiny at Ibrox but he's made the fans accept him." If McCann succeeds tonight, then fame and infamy, in reverse order, will be his forever in Glasgow.

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