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Moments away from an England debut . . . McCall relives stalling tactics that led him to the dark blue of Scotland

S TUART McCALL's Sliding Doors moment came on November 13, 1984.

Stuart McCall played 40 times for Scotland
Stuart McCall played 40 times for Scotland

Born in Leeds to Scottish parents, the midfielder had been courted by the under-21 sides of both Scotland and England who, as it happened, were both in action that same day. McCall chose, or as he now insists, was steered towards England by his club at the time, Bradford City, and other well-intentioned career advisors.

He was named as a substitute for the match against Turkey and, as manager Dave Sexton pondered a last-minute switch, McCall began to panic about the career-altering decision facing him. Take to the field and he would likely be tied to England forever. Stall, or hope that he wasn't asked to go on, and there was still a chance he could represent Scotland. Like in the film Sliding Doors, whatever decision he took, it would have far-reaching consequences.

McCall chose the latter option. He warmed up as far away from the bench as possible and spent forever tying and retying his laces trying to make himself scarce. McCall heard a whistle and thought he was being brought on. Instead it was the referee bringing the game to a close. The 20-year-old's stalling tactics had worked.

That was more than 18 years ago but McCall had cause to reflect upon it yesterday after being named as the new assistant coach of the Scottish national team. Playing for England would not have killed dead his chances of ever being offered a job at Hampden – it didn't do Terry Butcher any harm – but it would have made it all the more unlikely.

McCall's reluctance to play that day had wide-reaching repercussions for him and not just on the international scene. He would go on to play 40 times for Scotland, and score in a World Cup finals, a feat that would draw him to the attention of Rangers. In the era of UEFA's "three foreigner rule", when clubs could only field three non-nationals in European competition, a McCall tied to 'foreign' England would surely have been less appealing to manager Walter Smith.

Without an increased Scottish profile on the back of his seven successful seasons at Ibrox, McCall might not have come up for consideration when the Motherwell managerial vacancy arose two years ago. And without that experience, it is hard to imagine him being asked to join Gordon Strachan's backroom team. McCall will never know how his career would have evolved had he made his debut for England that day but yesterday he was grateful that his life had taken a different path.

"I remember going home on the bus welling up about what I had done. I got hold of my dad and he said, 'listen you have to do what you have been advised to do by the coaching staff'. People were telling me I wouldn't fit in up here with my English accent. So it hit 4pm in our little council house in Leeds and the phone goes and my mum answers it. She told me it was Jock Stein [the then Scotland manager]. I'm saying, 'yeah right mam.' I thought it was [Bradford team-mate] John Hendrie at the wind-up. He says, 'no, it's Jock Stein.' Tears were starting to roll down my face. He had rung me up to wish me all the very best with my future saying he knew it had been a tough decision. And I was thinking, 'all I've wanted all my life was to play for Scotland, why did I say England?'

"So I went away with England and I was on the bench and did everything I could not to get on the park. I was behind the goal and Tony Cottee came round to say, 'you're going on.' I was thinking, 'I'm f*****g not, you know'. I have one picture where Dave Sexton looks like he is forcing me on to the touchline. The ball went out of play and the referee blew as if to bring me on and I'm thinking, 'no, no.' But he wasn't. At full-time it was a huge relief. I'd done everything to avoid going on, losing my shin pads, the lot. I came back the next day and told Trevor [Cherry, Bradford manager], 'I appreciate the call from England, but if I'd been playing against Scotland I'd have scored own goals.' I haven't thought about that stuff of late but you can't help it now.

"Everyone knew how passionate I was about playing for Scotland. But in those days even Welshmen like Terry Yorath were advising me to play for England. But sometimes you look back at the defining moments of your career and that was mine. I know people can't understand my accent sometimes but I don't have to tell you how much of a patriotic Scot I am. I'd put myself up against anybody on that score."

* Scotland face Estonia at Pittodrie on Wednesday, February 6. For tickets, visit www.scottishfa.co.uk or call 01224 631 903.

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