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Spiers on Saturday: will Scotland ever again qualify for World Cup finals?

Okay, this painful weekend of the 2014 World Cup draw, let us talk to the man who has been to five major tournaments with Scotland: three World Cups and two European Championships.

Craig Brown led Scotland to three World Cups and the country's last, France 98
Craig Brown led Scotland to three World Cups and the country's last, France 98

Craig Brown, a near-relic in this context, has a cv which other Scottish international managers might only dream of.

Like the rest of us, Brown last night cast a baleful eye as the draw for next summer's jamboree in Brazil was being made. For a generation of us, it was a staple that Scotland would be among the finalists. Dear me, we went five times in succession between 1974 and 1990, when England twice missed out. And to think how we took it for granted.

"It is hard to believe we have not been at a World Cup since 1998, when I took the team to France," says Brown. "If you'd told me at that World Cup draw in Paris back in the late winter of 1997 that Scotland would not be back at a World Cup at the next four attempts, I wouldn't have believed it. It has been painful for us. We have sorely missed out."

The question on every Scotland fan's lips can be put in capital letters - WHY? - though it cannot be answered here. For years we have navel-gazed and picked away at the subject. Various policies, managers, and spurts of bad luck have been held to blame. Brown, however, can point to some specifics he believes should be viewed as sign-posts.

"The French experience is very interesting," he says. "Anyone who is a student of football knows what great teams France had in the 1980s. But, then, look at what happened to France just after that period. They failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994 - Scotland got there ahead of them in our qualifying group in 1990- but then they won the World Cup in 1998.

"How did France do that? It is pretty well known in football circles. Gerard Houllier became the French technical director and he persuaded the federation to revolutionise their youth programme. Houllier persuaded the French clubs to be limited to just 20 players aged 21 or over - if a club wanted a bigger squad, fine, but the rest would all have to be under 21.

"It worked for France. A whole new generation, including guys like Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, enjoyed a career fast-track to first-team football which they might not otherwise have enjoyed. The whole country bought into it. Just ask John Collins, who was at Monaco at the time. He saw Henry and Trezeguet flourish at the club."

Brown was so taken by the French success in 1998 that he returned to Scotland and tried to introduce the Houllier system back home. And hit a brick wall. "It was blocked by Rangers and Celtic, who said they would be playing on an uneven playing field in Europe with such a squad limitation," he says. "In the case of Rangers, this made me laugh a bit . . . they had just been humped by Auxerre in the Champions League, a wee French club adhering precisely to the sort of system Houllier had introduced. Anyway, in Scotland they said 'naw, no way.'"

Brown says he has been asked a hundred times why Scotland has failed to make it back to the big stage over the past 15 years. He has no one specific answer, except to cite bits of geography and arithmetic.

"Look at the size of us as a nation - we are 4.5 million people," he says. I've just been to Turkey - population 75 million. Look at Holland - population 16 million. People think of Belgium, who are going great guns right now, as a small country - their population is nearly 12 million. So we will always be up against it.

"One of my worst results as a manager was losing 3-0 to Morocco in our final group game at France 98. I was embarrassed by that, and rightly. It was only later that I saw their population - 34 million. As a country, Scotland just doesn't have these vast resources to call upon."

Having said that, are there yet more tantalising green shoots to be seen? Brown believes that maybe, just maybe, Scotland's Victory Shield triumph over England last week might be significant. It was our Under-16s' first win over the Auld Enemy since 1998 and, equally pertinent to that date, the young Scots were coached by Scott Booth, a member of the France 98 squad.

"That was a fine win," says Brown. "Okay, these guys have a long way to go but it's no mean feat beating England at any level. I'm hoping that result was quite significant. We've also got guys like Ryan Gauld and John Souttar coming through.

"I just hope these new young kids can take us back to that place. A World Cup without Scotland has never seemed right to me."

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