Steve Clarke has joined the tartan army again, but the Scottish boss gloatingly resists joining England
“I’m just mentioning it!” he exclaimed amid laughter. The Scottish coach – he should only remain so after qualifying for Euro 2024 – had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He was serious, however, when he reminded reporters yesterday that just four months and three games ago his position was hotly debated following a 3-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland.
Although clearly proud of his patched-up side’s performance against Ukraine, Clarke wasn’t getting carried away. He remained as even-tempered as ever, save for a rare show of emotion when he broke away to give passerby Pat Nevin a hug in the hallway of Cracovia Stadium, which had been the scene of one of Scotland’s greatest defensive displays. It was a beautiful moment between the former Chelsea teammates.
Nevin has always been a staunch supporter of Clarke and although the manager has never been short of allies, there have been whispers of disapproval that are hard to ignore over the summer.
Despite saying he never reads the papers or reads what’s written online, Clarke referenced the criticism as he reflected on Tuesday night’s hugely rewarding 0-0 draw. “If you come back in June, some people wanted me out,” he said. “Things can change quickly in football.”
There was no better illustration of the shifting sands of international football than the contrasting moods of the occupants of the two dugouts in Krakow.
Not so long ago, Ukrainian manager Oleksandr Petrakov was being hailed for fusing a group of ill-prepared footballers into a spirited and somewhat dazzling team capable of brushing aside Scotland at Hampden. Fast forward to Tuesday and he was answering questions about his own future in a slightly awkward post-match press conference.
At one point, unhappy with the line of questioning, he pretended to spit at the floor. He then abruptly left the room.
Clarke, meanwhile, went from feeling unloved to being welcomed. It’s Steve Clarke’s tartan army again. Now in a select group of managers who have led Scotland for 40 games, he has done something no one else has done before: he delivered Scotland into League A of the Nations League.
It’s the sunny highlands, to use the phrase of a former prime minister to describe the brighter future that subsequent events have since proved was a laughable notion. Still, when it comes to football in Scotland, certainly at international level, the outlook is bright. The pound could crash at a frightening rate, but Scotland is rising. Better yet, they pass England on the way. Clarke wasn’t interested in making their fate part of the agenda, although traveling Scottish fans didn’t miss the chance to scoff on Tuesday. A rather more sober Clarke declined the opportunity to gloat.
“I don’t think we have anything above England,” he said. “They were not involved in this process. We’re just going to enjoy it for ourselves.
He was right to want to stay focused on his own team. There’s so much to admire and enjoy right now with or without England’s struggles. Scotland have shown they can handle quality opposition. If the next edition of the League of Nations is still far away, League A has nothing to fear.
“If we’re going to places like the other night when you’re looking to get a result that takes us to the next stage, then we know we have a team that can do that,” Clarke said.
“It (the Nations League) is definitely not going to be easy. You see Wales, they went up and they came back. If you want to improve, you want to play against the best teams. We’re going to be challenged six times in this tournament, that’s for sure.
“But these players have come out of this tournament as better players. They will come away even better from the next one. The youngsters will gain more experience playing against the best teams.
Clarke, too, learned a lot from a tough week. He might well have preferred it if there hadn’t been any injury worries and if a virus, no matter how exaggerated, hadn’t hit the camp. But in responding to such adversity, Clarke, for example, found he could rely on Ryan Porteous in an international setting.
The Hibs centre-half produced one of Scotland’s first great performances in Poland. The 23-year-old deserves big credit, as does Clarke for playing him. Most expected the manager to turn to the more tried and trusted Declan Gallagher on such a high-stakes night. Clarke went for the pace and energy of Porteous and was rewarded with a man of the match performance.
Porteous fit perfectly into a back-four, which is another hugely positive part of the international window. Who predicted that Clarke would change his game plan so significantly? It seems almost impossible to get back to three at the back now, which will make it interesting next time. Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney are both fit enough to be included in the same team.
And what about the other side? Nathan Patterson or Aaron Hickey? Hickey now looks in pole position but what a nice headache to have. Clarke won’t let the decision keep him up at night. Not yet, at least.
A friendly against Turkey is scheduled for November, but Scotland are not expected to play a competitive game until March when Euro 2024 qualifying begins. “My immediate thoughts are to catch up on some sleep as it’s been a tough 10 days,” he said. Clarke can rest easy. He is once again making Scottish fans dream.