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Tue, Sep

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AS he prepares to complete his first season in Scottish football by running out at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 fans later today, Jason Scotland will spare a moment to think about how it all began back in August after he had swapped Trinidad for Tayside.


"Hopeless - we were totally hopeless," he admitted, the width of his smile indicating what the final SPL table will also show - that things have dramatically improved since then for Dundee United as they have climbed from the wrong end of the league into a top-six berth.

Since beating Rangers back in February, Ian McCall's side have lost just two of their last 12 games and along the way their Caribbean striker has finally found his feet in the Scottish game, claiming five goals in his last nine matches.

The player's rising confidence encapsulates the story of the season for the Tannadice club. Unsure, unimpressive and shipping goals at the outset, it's only started to come together since the turn of the year.

"I wasn't playing much at the start of the season and I just couldn't adapt to the pace of the game. I wasn't familiar with the style of football or with the guys I was playing with. It was hard," the 25-year-old said.

"I had a very slow start because I didn't know what I was coming into and the team got off to a slow start because we had a tough run of games and we were struggling with our form."

There was talk of him going on loan to Northampton Town just before Christmas and he heard rumours McCall might be about to loan him out to Falkirk to ensure he got some first-team football.

"But then a couple of players got injured, I got my chance and after that the manager seemed happy to keep playing me. And all the players were starting to gel as a team.

"Since then I've been getting more playing time and when that happens you get more comfortable on the ball. It has been feeling nice; feeling more like when I was back home."

No-one is ever going to confuse Dundee with a Caribbean paradise, but you know what the aptly-named Scotland is talking about. The goals have finally started to come, just as they did when he was twice the leading scorer in Trinidad's Pro League.

"I got a lot of stick off the other players earlier in the season when I tried things and they didn't come off. But now the players don't say anything because they know what I can do."

Scotland is not short of confidence now, but while he feels he has begun to establish himself in the SPL, he remains mystified why his goals haven't won him a regular place in his national team since his debut under Ian Porterfield four years ago.

A fortnight today Trinidad & Tobago will take on Scotland - the national team that is - at Easter Road. But the man who would have relished a chance to add to his 20-plus caps will be back home in the Caribbean enjoying a well-earned break.

Bertille St Clair is the latest national coach yet to be won over by Scotland's talents. He didn't name the United striker in his original squad for the trip to face Berti Vogts' side, much to the player's disappointment.

"They picked the squad and I wasn't in. Then a guy from Trinidad gets injured so they call me up and and tell me they want me to play. I say no, I'm going home, I've already booked my ticket.

"I don't see why I should be second choice. It is always the way - I'm the back-up they call. But I've scored a lot of goals in Trinidad and now I'm scoring here too and I feel I can be first choice. I've never got a consistent run and I don't know why. Maybe it is just coaches don't fancy me," he said.

He has some regrets about missing out - particularly as it would have caused some confusion in the stands at Easter Road. "Playing against Scotland would have been nice. I might have had to think whether they were chanting 'Scotland' for me or 'Scotland' for the national team!"

"Rocket", as he is known back in his homeland, certainly has no regrets about choosing Scotland over China last year. Back at the start of 2003 Mike Berry, his agent, arranged for him to go on trial with Beijing Guoan. He didn't enjoy the experience, but knew the time was right for him to leave Defence Force in Trinidad and try his luck abroad.

Then United offered him a trial last summer. Two-footed and powerful, he did enough to encourage McCall to offer him a two-year deal.

In many ways he wishes he had made the move abroad sooner. "I look at Dwight Yorke, who came to Britain when he was 17. I think I may have adapted to the game quicker if I had arrived at that age because the football is so different back home."

He believes one season in Scotland has already made him a better player. It has certainly made him a harder-working one. "Back at Defence Force I was the guy who got goals. I got the ball, did my stuff and didn't really defend much.

"But in Scotland it is different. Everyone likes to see you working hard when you haven't got the ball. I have to defend and run about more than I ever did in Trinidad."

Today there is the little matter of Henrik Larsson's last competitive match at Parkhead. Scotland is looking forward to the atmosphere, having never started a match at Celtic Park before.

He doesn't expect to upstage Henrik. But he certainly fancies himself in front of goals now.