Freedman eyeing his main chance

When Dougie Freedman takes the field at Hampden today - whether it be at 5pm, with the crowd tentatively anticipating a goal feast, or 6.35pm, with Scotland leading Latvia 1-0 thanks to an own goal - it will bring to an end years of tireless campaigning by a hardy bunch of devotees.

During the World Cup in France in 1998, and no doubt on numerous Tartan Army expeditions since, a cluster of Scotland fans have proudly sported some very distinct replica shirts, each emblazoned on the back, above the number nine, with the name Freedman.

Many in the crowd would politely mock these single-minded protesters, giggling at the notion of the distant journeyman with the rock’n’roll name being the nation’s No1 goalscorer. But most of the laughter was caused by the simple fact they had never seen Freedman in action. Many of them would chuckle again if they were told that his combined transfer fee now amounts to 3.15million, and that he has scored 107 goals, 80 of them in the English First Division.

It has been a story of quiet progress out of the reaches of spotlight, one of considerable potential not quite being realised; a tale that has repeatedly stalled to the point where many reading this will wonder "Dougie who?"

His is not a unique situation, though, and nor is it one that should by rights have come to a dead end. Craig Burley was little-known in Scotland until he moved from Chelsea to Celtic at the age of 27, at which point he became one of Scotland’s most influential midfielders.

As with doomed rock stars, the age of 27 seems to have a spiritual link to a certain vintage of Scottish footballers. It was the also the stage at which Billy Dodds began his international career, an odyssey that simply became more and more fruitful as the player aged.

The reason this Glaswegian spent so long in the wilderness is that he began his senior career far out of earshot of the Hampen Roar, as a trialist with Queen’s Park Rangers. He never broke into the first team at Loftus Road, but a move to Barnet got him going in fine style - 27 goals in 47 games earned Freedman a move back to the upper reaches of English football, with an 800,000 switch to Crystal Palace.

A first season’s tally of a goal every two games paled into a less illustrious record of a goal every four in his second term, and he was loaned out to fellow Scot Mark McGhee, then in charge at Wolves. "It’s not a surprise to me; in fact it is a surprise that he hasn’t had the opportunity sooner," said McGhee of his eventual selection by Craig Brown yesterday. "Dougie does have quality."

To the uninitiated Scotland fans, this will come as a far more credible endorsement than the kind from the Netherlands which propelled Scott Booth back into the front line during this fated World Cup qualifying campaign, coming as it does from a man who led the Scottish attack four times during his own playing days.

In fact, his has by no means been a lone voice this week. Dean Austin, Freedman’s team-mate during a second spell at Palace, could be heard proclaiming that the 27-year-old is the third best finisher he has ever played alongside, inferior only to Jurgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham from his Tottenham Hotspur days.

Freedman has thrived on his second chance at Selhurst Park, scoring ten goals in ten games after returning from Wolves, via a disappointing two years at Nottingham Forest. He only lasted a year under McGhee, who signed the striker for 800,000, but made enough of an impression to have the former Aberdeen stalwart believing he can do the job that is required of him today.

"Many times he has been his own worst enemy, because he has not been consistent, but this season he seems to have found that consistency at Palace," said McGhee. "I have no doubt he has the sort of quality to carry him through at international level. The best part of his game is that he is a good finisher, but he also has a good touch, which you need at this level.

"But he is not the kind of finisher who needs six or seven or eight chances before he scores. Dougie can get a goal in a tight game because he takes the few chances he gets. He can also score from anywhere; he tends to surprise a lot of people with the goals he gets.

"He certainly exudes self-confidence. If he was going into a World Cup game against Brazil, then he might find he was a bit caught out, but I think Latvia will be a good level for him to be introduced at."

However, doubts remain in McGhee’s mind that Freedman can emulate Dodds, and frequently poach the kind of crucial goals that epitomised the little man’s admirable contribution.

"It is impossible to say whether he will do as well as Billy has; Billy had scored goals at Dundee United, at Aberdeen and Rangers," said McGhee. "Dougie has threatened to be as consistent as that throughout his career, and now he is beginning to fulfil it, so you never know."

Well, maybe not, but Freedman’s family will say that they always knew.