Craig Brown talks to Jonathan Northcroft about his expectations for Euro 2000 and how is job as Scotland manager is affected by changing trends in international football
Which countries do you expect to do well at Euro 2000?
If I had to pick a winner, I’d choose France. My top four favourites are France, the Czech Republic, England and Holland – in that order. People might be surprised I’m putting England that high, but I feel that when Kevin Keegan gets his squad away from club distractions, their performances will improve. There’s so much at stake at English club level these days, it’s bound to have an effect. If you’re a Manchester United player, for example, you naturally concentrate on the Champions League and winning the Premiership during the season. Get the players away at the training camp, where Keegan will be very good, where he can get the motivation bubbling up, and it’ll be different. The French have obvious qualities – they won the World Cup with a great team and none of those players has since gone over the hill. Indeed they’ve strengthened their squad by bringing in quality young players like Johan Micoud. Laurent Blanc’s still in great form, aged 34, and Didier Deschamps still battles in midfield. Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet are great striking options. And Zidane is still the man, for me. They’re the closest the world’s got to a complete team: as well as their skills, they’ve got great athleticism and just look at the size of them. The fact they struggled a little in qualifying was just a natural reaction to coming back to earth after winning the World Cup.
Some people will be surprised you’ve picked out the Czechs.
Their strength is that middle to front they can all score. To create things, they’ve got Patrik Berger and Pavel Nedved, an outstanding player for Lazio. They’ve got two big strikers, Lokvenc and Koller, to give them presence in the box. Smicer’s a clever player and Poborsky’s capable. At the back, Thomas Repka and Jan Suchoparek are great defenders. Perhaps in goal they could be more solid but, like Scotland, they’re a team who achieves more than the sum of their parts.
Do you expect any dark horses to do well, like the Czechs in 1996 and Denmark in 1992?
Not really. Slovenia aren’t strong enough. Sweden could be the closest to a surprise package. They’ve kept the same side together for a couple of years, although their best player, Pår Zetterberg, has fallen out with their manager. If they had him, and Henrik Larsson, they’d be among my four favourites.
Will there be anything in the tournament to surprise people tactically?
The only tactical innovation we might see is managers copying the striking shape Real Madrid and AC Milan have recently used. Both play one up front with two support strikers behind, in an arrow shape. It’s difficult to defend against and worked well for Real against Manchester United, with Morientes as the centre forward and Raúl and Savio as his supports. The only way to stop it is to bring the defenders up to squeeze the space for the two support players, but then you risk a quick striker being able to beat the offside trap. France use something a little similar, with a lone striker and three attackers tucked in behind him. I’m considering giving it a try with Scotland, using Don Hutchison as my target man and Kevin Gallacher and Billy Dodds withdrawn.
Anything else to watch out for?
There might be a wee change in the refereeing. One thing that really bugs me is when a defender ushers the ball behind for a goal kick. In the Spanish leg of the Manchester United v Real tie, the French referee actually booked a Real player for doing that, and I was doing the co-commentary on Five Live. I praised the referee, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of letters of support, and managers who said I’d made a good point. The other idea I have, which will not come in for this tournament, regards sendings off. I believe that when a player is red carded, the manager should be allowed to send on a substitute, but the punishment is that the opposing team gain a penalty. Conceding a goal is a far worse deterrent than a red card. And the point is that too many games are spoiled by one team being down to ten men. Supporters pay to see 11 versus 11.
This will be the first major championship to be hosted by two nations. How do you feel about the idea?
I know it’s been criticised, but I think it could have one positive effect. Tournaments tend to suffer in terms of excitement when the host nation goes out, like at Euro 96 when England were eliminated. With two host countries there’s an increased chance of one reaching the final, and it should at least mean there will be one host in the later stages.
Do you favour the idea of smaller nations having to pre-qualify for major tournaments?
Definitely. I’m not being derogatory to any small countries here, because if you made it that the top eight seeds would be excused pre-qualifying, then we’d be among the nations having to pre-qualify. I hear Colin Hutchinson of Chelsea saying there are too many meaningless internationals, and I think he’s quite representative of opinion at the major clubs. No club wants to release their players to play Andorra or San Marino. We have to be sensitive to the clubs’ wishes, and this would be one way to keep them happy.
There are concerns in both England and Scotland about the lack of quality young players coming through. Which countries should we take our lead from in terms of youth development?
France have got the model system. Norway are also very good. Both these countries have invested heavily in facilities – almost every town there now has a beautiful playing field. But France have the edge because they’ve also got the coaching expertise and the structure. When Scotland knocked them out in qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, they went through a crisis and the result was Gérard Houllier became technical director. He decided that no club should have more than 19 players over the age of 24 and it forced everyone to bring youngsters in. Positive things have been happening in Scotland – we recently became one of the very few countries to receive a UEFA coaching award, which means we are accredited to train coaches for the UEFA Pro-Licence, which allows the holder to coach anywhere in Europe. But facilities are holding us back, France’s national training complex at Clairefontaine is second to none and Norway have even got a warm weather national training complex in La Manga in Spain. I was in Canada recently doing a coaching clinic and even they have some facilities superior to ours. I did a session with children on a beautiful full-sized indoor pitch, with perfect grass. Though it was winter – and their winters are far more severe than Britain’s – there was somewhere for a coach to work. In Scotland we’ve not got a single indoor facility like that, despite the fact that so many more people watch and play football. English Premier clubs are moving in the right direction with youth academies and Scottish clubs are now going ahead with similar plans, and the lottery is helping to build some facilities. But we’re still way behind.
Is there a psychological problem afflicting England and Scotland? Are they underachieving given their playing means?
I don’t think Scotland are. Euro 2000 is the first “major” we’ve missed qualifying for since I took over in 1993 and before me Andy Roxburgh qualified for consecutive World Cups and Euro Championships. That’s not bad for a country of our size. In England expectations are higher, but I think they were unfortunate in both Euro 96 and the last World Cup. As I said earlier, I expect them to do a lot better at the tournament than in qualifying.
Britain has become a net importer of foreign coaches. Do our coaches have anything to offer clubs in other countries?
I think we sometimes over-rate all things foreign in this country. Foreign coaches are often seen as the panacea and good British coaches are overlooked. It’s a strange question to ask a Scot, because we do export coaches who do very well – to England. For me, Alex Ferguson is the best in the business and you could have put him at any big club in Europe and he’d have achieved what he has at Man Utd. And don’t forget that when he needed to replace Brian Kidd, he instructed his people to find the best young coach around and chose an Englishman, Steve McLaren. There were two others on his shortlist, so I’m told, and one of them was a Scot, Preston’s Davie Moyes.
Are you worried about declining attendances for international football?
In Britain, it’s not a problem. England regularly fill Wembley and we had big crowds for our major group games. Even for games against the Faroe Islands and Estonia, we filled two smaller stadiums, Pittodrie and Tynecastle. It might be more of a concern on the continent – Italy played in front of 8,000 recently. But if you look at Champions League games abroad, they’re not sell-outs either, with Real Madrid and Juventus not even half filling their grounds for some games.
So you don’t think that competitions like the Champions League are in danger of replacing internationals?
No, there’ll always be a place for international football. The World Cup’s still the number one competition in the game.
Is the identity of national teams in danger of being eroded because of assimilated players? Scotland have got “Englishmen” like Neil Sullivan and Matt Elliott. Surely football must guard against the kind of controversies affecting rugby?
It’s very different in football. Elliott and Sullivan both have Scottish bloodlines. I’m careful to act properly in these matters and when we found out recently that David Johnson, though he qualifies to play for us under FIFA rules [Johnson was born outside the UK but holds a British passport] does not under the terms of our gentleman’s agreement with the other home nations [Johnson’s natural mother was English, making him English under the agreement] we dropped our interest swiftly. If I had my way, only those born in Scotland, or with Scottish parents, would represent us, but as long as there are rules allowing me to cap the likes of Sullivan, I’d be remiss not to pick those players. My duty as an international manager is to pick the best team available to me.
How much does national feeling matter these days when creating team spirit?
It’s never played a big part in my team talks. I prefer more to have a happy group of players, who play for each other. My aim has always been to bring a Club Scotland atmosphere to the squad. If someone’s personality is not right, I won’t select them, no matter how good they are.
Why has Scottish talent dried up? Or has it?
We still produce good youngsters and have done well at youth and Under-21 level recently. Not so long ago, we reached the final of the Under-16 World Cup and more recently the semis of the European Under-21 championships. The current Scotland squad is actually quite young, and there are players like Kenny Miller (Hibs) and Mark Burchill (Celtic) pushing for recognition. But if we really want to equal other countries, we’ve got to look at our facilities and structure, as I said. The beauty of that French system is that because the number of senior players in squads is limited, talent identification becomes highly important. A coach can’t just pick up a Bosman player to add a bit of extra cover – and deny a young player the chance – because he’s limited for places.
What makes Alex Ferguson great, above everything else?
Talent identification. He’s made very few signings at Man Utd, compared to his major rivals, and was the same at Aberdeen. When he buys someone, it’s the right player, and he spots young talent and knows how to use it. Look at what he did when he brought in Beckham, the Nevilles and Scholes.
Can Scotland bounce back having failed to make Euro 2000?
I’m very optimistic about the future. The Euro qualifying campaign was one of transition, in which I brought a lot of new and young players into the squad. Our team which played England only contained four players which had started for me in the World Cup two years previously. Because of injuries, I was seldom able to play all the new players together and the next step is to do that as much as possible. My ideal team is the one which beat England at Wembley, with Paul Lambert in for John Collins, who has retired. That’s a pretty strong line-up, I reckon.
From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month