Steve Clarke can end Karamoko Dembele Scotland doubt by playing him v San Marino

Karamoko Dembele has already had a taste of what a victorious Hampden dressing room feels like on a big occasion.

Karamoko Dembele has played for Scotlands under-16 side but seems to be favouring England for the future. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty
Karamoko Dembele has played for Scotlands under-16 side but seems to be favouring England for the future. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty

It remains to be seen if Celtic’s precocious 16-year-old, drafted into their first-team squad on merit at the end of the season, will go on to repeat that experience on a regular basis with Scotland in years to come.

Steve Clarke has other priorities filling his in-tray as he begins his tenure as Scotland manager, barely having time to draw breath after his appointment before taking on the imminent Euro 2020 qualifiers against Cyprus and Belgium.

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But, once those fixtures have been completed and Clarke gets the opportunity to cast his eye over the bigger picture in his bid to improve the fortunes of the national team, then the issue of Dembele should come to the fore.

It is clear that Celtic believe Dembele, who signed his first professional contract with them last December, is already good enough for regular exposure to first-team football. The attacking midfielder shone on his debut as a substitute against Hearts at Celtic Park on the last day of the Premiership campaign, retaining his place on the bench – albeit unused on the day – for last weekend’s treble-treble clinching Scottish Cup Final victory over the Gorgie side.

There is universal agreement among those who have closely monitored Dembele’s progress since he joined the Celtic academy that he is exceptionally gifted and has the potential to develop into a genuinely world-class player.

So how galling will it be for Scotland if this young man, raised on the streets of Govan and who possesses a fine Glasgow accent, goes on to ply his international trade for England at senior level before too long?

Sadly, that currently appears the most likely outcome of Dembele’s deliberations over his international future. Born in London before his family moved to Glasgow when he was just one year old, Dembele has flip-flopped between the Scotland and England youth teams since he first emerged in the public consciousness with his appearance for Celtic’s under-20 team at the age of just 13 back in October 2016.

He has been capped eight times for Scotland at under-16 level – ironically including a role in a 2-0 win over England in July 2017 – while at the same time keeping his options open with appearances for the English under-15 and under-16 teams.

Dembele’s most recent outing in the dark blue jersey was in a victory for the under-17s against Russia last August. Since then, he has been increasingly swayed by the prospect of committing himself to wearing the Three Lions on his shirt.

He scored in a 4-0 win for England under-16s against Brazil two months ago and has indicated his intention to remain part of that squad, of which he will be made captain, next season.

Chris McCart, the head of youth development at Celtic who has overseen Dembele’s progress through the ranks at Lennoxtown, revealed recently that the prodigy is taking a pragmatic approach to his international career.

“Hopefully we can convince him that he should be choosing Scotland,” said McCart, who has backed Scottish FA performance director Malky Mackay’s efforts to get Dembele on board.

“Malky worked very hard to convince him that Scotland was there for him and the club tried to support Malky with it as well. But he [Dembele] wanted to test himself against the very best and he saw the standard of the English team was better than the Scottish squad.”

There will be some among the Tartan Army who believe anyone not fully committed, both emotionally and professionally, to the Scotland cause should simply be left to go elsewhere.

But the blurred lines of international eligibility in football, however unsatisfactory, are simply a reality which Scotland must deal with in the most proactive manner possible if they want to build a future which includes regular participation at major tournament finals.

To that end, there is a tempting and admittedly cynical solution to the Dembele conundrum for Steve Clarke.

When Scotland face the minnows of San Marino in a no-risk Euro 2020 qualifier at Hampden on 13 October, Dembele could be named in the squad and offered the chance to become the country’s youngest senior international player, thereby committing him irrevocably to the dark blue jersey for the rest of what may become a truly stellar career.