Mackail-Smith set to be word-perfect for national anthem ahead of Czech clash

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Like most of his Scotland team-mates Craig Mackail-Smith will spend his time away from the training ground locked in his room in their plush hotel on the banks of the River Clyde glued to his i-Pad.

But as the others indulge in popular games such as Football Manager or Call of Duty to while away the hours before Saturday’s Euro showdown with the Czech Republic, the Brighton striker can be found quietly singing Flower of Scotland.

The 27-year-old star is the first to admit he isn’t yet word perfect, but as the teams line up for the national anthems at Hampden, he’s determined he won’t find himself embarrassed as the television cameras pan down the line.

Although from Watford, Mackail-Smith qualifies to pull on a dark blue jersey thanks to his Edinburgh-born grandmother Margaret, hence his need to quickly learn the Corries’ song off by heart.

He said: “I’m not word perfect, but I’m getting there. I won’t be miming, I want to learn it and once I do I’ll be belting it out.

“I’ve got the words on my i-Pad so I am going over it every chance I get.”

While a newcomer to the international set-up, earning his first caps as a substitute in the friendlies against Brazil and Denmark, Mackail-Smith revealed he could have become a Scotland player years ago thanks to his ties to the Capital.

Aware of his player’s eligibility through his grandmother, Darren Ferguson, his then manager of English League One side Peterborough, alerted the Hampden authorities to the fact but he was overlooked.

He said: “George Burley would have been Scotland manager at the time. Darren and our director of football Barry Fry tried to push it. Nothing came of it at the time but they came back, watched me and said they wanted me involved.”

It was Mackail-Smith’s 35 goals last season, including the second in a 3-0 win over Huddersfield in the play-off at Old Trafford, which took Peterborough to the Championship, which not only caught Craig Levein’s eye but earned him a £2.5 million move to Brighton over the summer, the fee involved likely to increase in time to £3.5m.

And he’s continued scoring there, netting three times in six matches, his first the winner in a south-coast derby against Portsmouth, while he also claimed an extra-time winner against Sunderland in the second round of the Carling Cup little more than a week ago.

It has, however, been far from a meteoric rise for a player who began his career with St Albans, progressing via Arlesey Town and on to Dagenham and Redbridge before his move to Peterborough where he credits Ferguson, son of Manchester United legend Sir Alex, as having the greatest influence on his career.

He said: “Darren inspired me to have belief in my own ability. He also had good coaches around him and they would stay on at the training ground with me, doing extra work and shooting so I could improve.

“The fact the play-off took place at Old Trafford had extra significance because of the Ferguson link but I think everyone had wanted it to take place at Wembley so they could say they had played there. We couldn’t because Wembley was being used for the Champions League final and the fact we won meant it didn’t really matter.”

However, Mackail-Smith rates Saturday’s clash with the Czech Republic the biggest of his career so far. He said: “The play-off with Peterborough was big, but this is a European qualifying match, win it and we will be in a good position, hopefully good enough to take second place behind Spain.

“I played as a substitute in the win over Denmark last month at Hampden but this will be my first competitive match for Scotland so hopefully I will be involved at some stage. I’m told the atmosphere will make the hairs at the back of my neck stand on end.

“Unlike the play-off final where the two sets of fans were pretty even numbers-wise, there will be 50,000 all willing us on to the same result so that will make it really special.”

Mackail-Smith would be the first to agree he could well find it difficult to match last season’s goal-scoring feats given he has stepped up a level, but he revealed he’s already been given a master-class in finishing by boyhood hero Kevin Philips, still playing in the Championship for Blackpool at the age of 37.

He said: “I’m from Watford and Kevin played for them so, along with Alan Shearer, he was my hero. Kevin was fantastic at Watford and he has been wherever he has gone. We played Blackpool at the Amex Stadium and were 2-0 up, only for Kevin to score twice for them.

“He had two chances and scored both, the lesson being that you can’t leave someone of that quality alone inside your box. The difference I have found in the Championship is that the players are a bit stronger and quicker but it is up to me to learn and to improve if I’m to be a success in that league.

“There are fewer chances, perhaps one opportunity which decides the game. But that’s quite exciting, you know if a chance comes your way then you have to bury it. That little bit more pressure helps you focus.

“At the moment I feel I have done well at Brighton, I have got three in six games, we are top of Championship so it has been a good month.”

While much has been made of the demise of Scottish clubs in Europe, Mackail-Smith believes the early European doubleheader against the Czech Republic and Lithuania – which takes place in Glasgow on Tuesday – comes at an ideal time for Levein’s players.

He said: “I think at the moment everyone is still just enjoying playing football again. You are still finding your feet again, but everyone feels sharp. The games aren’t yet coming thick and fast, we are not playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday so everyone should be feeling fresh.”

Although he recognises that Kenny Miller remains Levein’s No 1 choice up-front, Mackail-Smith insisted he’s ready for the call should it come. He said: “I’m feeling more and more comfortable in the Scotland set-up. When I first came in it was a bit of a whirlwind, I met everyone one day and then played the next.

“It was all very quick but it’s nice to have a few days together, getting to know everyone that bit better. I feel more relaxed. It’s also exciting, coming in with players who have played at the highest level, who have so many international caps to their name but hopefully I will learn from them.

“I’m looking to keep improving, to make the most of my career and hopefully one day play in the Premier League myself. You always have to believe in your own ability. I believe I can score in any game and if I am put in on Saturday at some stage then hopefully I can do that.”