Scotland manager Steve Clarke confesses 'improving now will be more difficult than from where we have been' after signing extension

There is an uncharitable way of assessing the contract extension Steve Clarke has signed as Scotland manager.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke is looking into the distance after signing a contract extension that allows him the current World Cup qualifying campaign and the Euro 2024 to build on the country's return to the major finals domain in the summer after a 23-year exile. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

It is this: having had led the country in a major finals, the 57-year-old doesn’t want his tenure to end without again doing so. Committing himself for a further two years – to allow him to take charge both for the on-going World Cup qualifying campaign and the 2024 Euros beyond that – allows him a decent opportunity to do that. Realism dictates differently over the immediate future.

Trips to Denmark and Austria form the crucial components of next month’s daunting triple header for their 2022 Qatari quest, which Clarke yesterday named a largely familiar squad for. The notion Scotland could bounce off their group stage exit at summer Euros to finish above group rivals that, respectively, were semi-finalists and only edged out by eventual winners Italy, seems an almighty stretch. Clarke betrays no naivety over that, acknowledging is encompassed by stage two – “that’s quite a good way of putting it,” he said – of his international tenure following Scotland first finals in 23 years.

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“I think improving now will probably be more difficult than improving from where we have been,” he said. “You come in as Scotland head coach and you get the two tournaments and basically your brief is that you’ve got to qualify for the tournament. It was nice to get the first one done. And the reason for extending was just getting another tournament to keep it at two tournaments. We got that monkey off our back and it’s now time to do that more consistently. I have two tournaments to try and do that.”

The difficulty for Clarke comes with the need to squeeze more from a group that scored one goal and claimed one point from their three Euro 2020 group games pitting them against England, Czech Republic and Croatia. And that took only five points from their three World Cup qualifiers leading up to their tournament participation, three of these from a home flailing of the Faroe Islands.

Although he has promoted Aberdeen midfielder Lewis Ferguson, the only notable difference in his selections for the trip to Copenhagen on September 1 – which will be followed by the hosting of Moldova four days later before an Austrian assignment – will be fielding Craig Gordon as his keeper. The Hearts no.1 has joined St Johnstone’s Zander Clark in a rejig in that department; enforced because of David Marshall’s travails with Derby County and Rangers’ Jon McLaughlin being unavailable.

Yet, Clarke maintained contract talks were unavailable because he believes there is growth in his squad – and on that front such as Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, Billy Gilmour and David Turnbull have all pushed on their club careers since he was appointed in May 2019. Clarke would point to others, too.

“I look back two years to when I came in and compare that to where we were in the summer – involved in a tournament with an improved squad getting more experience,” he said. “Andy Robertson is approaching 50 [caps], and even players like Stephen O’Donnell are approaching 25. We are gaining more experience and we have improved a lot. It was relatively straightforward to try and improve on the work we have done so far.”

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