Like 1996 again: Steve Clarke faces Scotland goalkeeping dilemma as Craig Brown recalls hardest decision he ever made

Steve Clarke has plenty to ponder at La Finca Resort near Alicante, a suitably relaxed location ahead of the biggest month of his managerial career.

Scotland goalkeepers Jon McLaughlin, David Marshall and Craig Gordon during a training session at La Finca Resort in Alicante, Spain, at the weekend.

Scotland are poised to enter a European Championship in which they will face England at Wembley with a massive goalkeeping dilemma. It could easily be 1996 instead of 2021.

This time it is Clarke and not Craig Brown making the decisions. The goalkeepers are Craig Gordon and David Marshall instead of Andy Goram and Jim Leighton, but the similarities between both scenarios are striking.

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Scotland’s training camp in Spain’s south east offers plush facilities and no distractions as the national team attune for a first major tournament for 23 years.

They last qualified for the Euros in 1996 under Brown, who can empathise with Clarke’s current predicament. The Marshall-Gordon debate rumbles on, as did the Goram-Leighton saga for many years.

Clarke faces a straight choice between Marshall – a very dependable keeper who played a massive role in Scotland qualifying – and Gordon, the man in better form at club level with Hearts.

Brown endured the same headache between Leighton – a very dependable keeper who was pivotal to Scotland reaching Euro 96 – and Goram, the man in better club form throughout that season at Rangers.

Hardest decision ever

“The hardest decision I ever had to make was to drop Jim Leighton for Euro 96,” explained Brown. “I came to that decision by looking at the form throughout the season. Tommy Burns, Celtic manager at the time, said: ‘Andy Goram single-handedly prevented us from winning the league.’

“That might have been a wee bit of exaggeration. Leighton’s eye was in at the end of the season but during the campaign Goram had been wonderful.

“We were down in Stratford at our training camp and our first game was on the Monday against the Netherlands. We trained on the Saturday morning, then we were to watch England’s opening game against Switzerland. I thought I’d tell Jim he isn’t playing to give him respect and warning.

“When you take the players into a meeting room, it’s very formal and it’s not a football environment. So we were on the pitch walking back and I said: ‘Jim, just to let you know and give you due warning, on Monday I’m playing Andy Goram. It’s just a footballing decision and a value judgment I’ve made.’

“Jim had played most of the qualifying games. I could tell he was really shattered and quite upset. He shared a room with Andy and they were friendly. I told Jim he was welcome to come to my room if he wanted to discuss it further.

“He came to my room and, for a grown man, he was very upset. I was upset having to tell him. I left the room and let him phone his family to tell them as they were supposed to be coming down to Aberdeen for the game.

“After Andy kept a clean sheet against the Dutch, Jim said to me: ‘I take it I won’t be playing against England?’ He just wanted confirmation. Then he thanked me for telling him in advance that he wasn’t playing against the Dutch.

“He appreciated the warning because, if he’d been told on the morning of the game, he said his head wouldn’t have been in the right place in the even of a late injury to Goram.”

Brown’s delicate handling of the matter preserved his relationship with Leighton. When he needed the veteran two years later for World Cup duty in France, he willingly stepped up.

“Jim Leighton managed 42 clean sheets in 91 internationals,” said Brown. “If he was a goalkeeper for Italy, Germany or England, people would have raved about him.

“In 1998, we were in America preparing for the World Cup and Andy Goram had domestic problems back home. He said he had to leave and I got a really nice letter from him wishing me, Jim Leighton and everybody all the best.

“He asked to leave because of a personal matter, so that made it easy for us. I’m still very friendly with Jim to this day. He’s a tremendous guy.”

That save in Belgrade

Clarke’s final choice for Scotland’s opening game against Czech Republic at Hampden will come after friendlies against Luxembourg and Netherlands.

Marshall’s exhilarating penalty save in Belgrade is the most iconic moment in Scottish international football for almost a quarter of a century, but Brown feels there can be no room for sentiment.

“There’s a disposition to be loyal to the guys who helped get you there. You have to consider the influence of that penalty save,” he said. “However, you’ve got to get your best team on that pitch irrespective of everything.

“I would think the goalkeeping coach, Stevie Woods, will have an influence. It’s a nice problem for Steve Clarke to have. I was the very same, I had two of the best keepers in Europe. I learned that, if you’re leaving an experienced player out, give him the maximum amount of time to digest it.

“It would be impertinent for me to tell Stevie Clarke what to do. All I would say is that, as soon as you know a player isn’t playing, you tell him. If he’s going to play Marshall, I would get Gordon two days before it and explain the situation.

“I think we have a good chance of progressing. It won’t be easy but third place might be enough. I’m a Stevie Clarke fan and, apart from anything else, I like his dry humour.

“I’m from Ayr and Stevie is a Kilmarnock man. When he left Killie for the Scotland job, I asked him: ‘What was it like managing the second best team in Ayrshire?’ He replied: ‘You mean the third best? Did the [Auchinleck] Talbot not beat your mob [in the Scottish Cup]?’

“It was a brilliant answer and put me in my place. I’ve got the highest regard for him.”

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