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October 2003
Scotland to meet Holland

Under-21s face Croatia











Well, it could hardly have been any tougher. Scotland will face Holland in the play-offs for a place in the 2004 European Championships. Along with Turkey the Dutch have the best qualifying record of the ten countries in the play-offs. They drew at home with group winners the Czech Republic and were beaten in Prague. Those games aside they won every other match in their group both home and away. In what was supposedly their toughest test outside the Czechs they thrashed Austria 3-0 in Vienna.

And we know all about the quality of their players. The goalscoring capabilities of Patrick Kluivert and Ruud Van Nistelrooy won't need to be explained to Scots fans. Nor will former Old Firm favourites Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst be strangers either. The mercurial Marc Overmars is still capable of winning a game on his own and in defence Edwin Van Der Sar, Michael Reiziger and Jaap Stam are all thoroughbreds. The midfield oozes class in the shape of Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Philip Cocu. And if for some reason their strikers are misfiring they can always call on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Roy Makaay as reinforcements.

That is an indication of the task facing Scotland. Men like Hasselbaink and Makaay - last transfers coming to over £28 million - aren't guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.

So should we just give up? Settle for the delights of watching some of the world's best players on show at Hampden and an enjoyable few days in Amsterdam for the Tartan Army?

Not at all. While accepting that the Dutch will be heavy favourites to win the tie they are not supermen. They do have weaknesses as their failure to defeat the Czechs shows. And squad unity has never been a strong point. Their tendency to split into cliques based on club, country and ethnicity has been their undoing in the past. Nor is their coach - Dick Advocaat - exactly renowned for his man management.

It is possible that the Dutch may treat us lightly. We know Advocaat is scarcely the biggest fan of Scottish football. But there is one way he could repay the generous hospitality extended to him during his time in charge of Rangers. If he ever felt that he owed Scotland anything at all now would be a good time for him to do us a favour.

Of course the fact that we are in the play-offs in the first place is good news. For a long time in the match against Lithuania it looked like we would miss out. Darren Fletcher's peach of a goal less than five minutes after coming on as a substitute ensured runners-up spot in the group. And before Hampden's biggest crowd since 1990 as well. Proof, if it were needed, that the revival of Scottish international football is under way irrespective of the result against the Dutch.

We appear to have bottomed out. If we fail to make it all the way to Portugal then we will have done no worse than in 2000 and better than in the World Cup qualifying campaign of 2002. Yes, it was a weak group. Yes, we would have secured second place with ease had we taken all three points in the Faeroes. But can anyone be in any doubt anymore that we are beginning to claw our way back to respectability? That Vogts demonstrates a flair in selection hitherto unseen? Would Craig Brown or Andy Roxburgh have played three up front in Germany? Would either of these coaches thrown on Fletcher as a sub or given James McFadden a place in the starting eleven? Doubtful to say the least.

Berti Vogts is undertaking a root and branch clearout of old ideas and attitudes. It will take time for his plans to come to fruition. At least two decades of ossification can't be changed inside a couple of years. That is why it was wrong for elements of the press to demand Vogts' head after a series of poor results in friendlies. The purpose of friendlies is to look at players, assess newcomers, try out tactics. The only results that matter are in competition. Something that the previous regime - with its emphasis on good results in games the opposition didn't give a damn about - failed to recognise.

One of Berti's best decisions was to put Rainer Bonhof in charge of the under-21s. They won their section, though they did so in 'traditional' heart-stopping Scottish style. Two down at home to Lithuania with eleven minutes to play they somehow contrived a 3-2 victory. And again it was a double substitution that did the trick. Tam McManus supplied the ammunition and Stephen Hughes fired home the goals that meant the young Scots finished ahead of Germany.

They too face a play-off - against Croatia - if they are to reach the eight-team Finals. But the incentive to do so is great as the SFA have decided to bid for the tournament. That would be a massive shot in the arm for the game in Scotland if the cream of European youth performed in front of Scottish crowds prior to the main tournament in Portugal.

Whatever the outcome for both seniors and under-21s there is a new optimism in our game. For the first time in a long while we can make this proclamation without fear of being laughed at:


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