Steve Clarke warrants bouquets not brickbats - Scotland deserve all the praise in biggest win since France '07
But the utterly valiant 1-0 win conjured up in the Ernst Happel Stadium demands that no praise could possibly be too lavish. The World Cup play-offs aren’t just back in contention. The admiration for Clarke and his players, that has been drained by the indifferent Euros and an equally indifferent start to this Group F campaign, requires to be topped up once more. To the brim.
That is because Clarke isn’t now merely the first Scotland manager in 23 years to lead the nation to a major finals. He has now presided over, without question, the most liable away win since the France success in 2007. When he needed such a humungous result, when he needed his players to stand tall, they developed giantism to snare an outcome that would dwarf the BFG.
Scotland players, to a one, put in such shifts, if they were paid by the hour they would have been required to give double-time recompense. It is Clarke’s imperatur to be able to squeeze from his players towering defensive displays. So it was in Vienna … dare we even say it was a masterclass, with a late point-blank save from Craig Gordon providing it full value. In front of him, defenders Jack Hendry, Grant Hanley, Kieran Tierney and Stephen O’Donnell were absolute rocks. In the case of O’Donnell, for him to burst his lungs up and down the right hand side having not played for a month after testing positive for Covid-19 was remarkable. No wonder he had to be removed for the final quarter of an hour.
Likewise, at the other end of the pitch with the ceaseless industry of Che Adams, and burrowing, the physical strength he exhibited not just to win the penalty but work the Austria centre-backs an utter marvel. The whole evening was a marvel, indeed.
It felt as if the surest way to be mocked was to hold out even the faintest hope of Scotland escaping Vienna with a victory. For very obvious reasons. Just as the national team don’t do World Cup in having missed out on the past five, so they don’t do World Cup qualifying wins, or even European Championship wins for that matter, against countries of international standing in the game.
Austria are 23rd in the global rankings. The last time Scotland defeated a team in such a lofty position, it was an encounter that effectively was meaningless to the hosts and their vanquishers. Gordon Strachan’s depleted team shocking Croatia in Zagreb in June 2013 may be a sweet memory, with the home team then fourth in FIFA’s rankings. Yet, it came on the back of them having lost four and drawn two of their previous six qualifiers in a grim World Cup campaign.
Not since Alex McLeish’s team pulled off the unforgettable Paris punch thanks to James McFadden’s knock-out strike against France in September 2007 had Scotland conjured up a World Cup qualifying win of the variety they were seeking in Vienna.
What the realists and the pessimists among the nation’s armchair supporters – which covered about 90% of this constituency – wanted to see from Clarke’s men was some good old fashioned Scottish virtues. They wanted to see their team far removed from the supine side that were effortlessly dismissed by Denmark and instead one that exhibited heart, desire and drive, as well as football smarts. Facets that have flickered Scotland into life as they have staged their best moments across Clarke’s two-and-a-half years in charge.
In the first period, the visitors delivered on all fronts. In spades. Clarke’s decision to deploy nine of the 10 outfield players that performed with such aplomb in the Euro 2020 Wembley draw in June – Hendry in for the injured Scott McTominay the only alteration – seemed to work the charm.
And perhaps this was Clarke’s cunning ploy all along. Even without the Covid-19 and call-off issues, three games in six days precluded him from running with his strongest team across this triple header. He saved his best till the last, till the game that Scotland had to be at their very best.
The fact his gamble paid off so spectacularly is a reminder of a fact that has been too readily forgotten over recent months. And it is that Clarke is a coach with real nous. Scotland are a team that, if they can push to their limits, can be competitive in the qualification campaigns for major finals. If he can mastermind a win over Isreal at Hampden next month, as well as take full points from the trip to the Faroes Islands that follows this, he will have proved that point across two tournaments. And set up a grandstand finish in November when Scotland travel to Moldova before entertaining runaway group leaders Denmark in their final confrontations.
Progress may have been stuttering, and at times seemed to have been in the balance in the past eight months, but what ensued in Austria proved it has been made, and that it could yet produce glorious dividends. It might seem daft to say that there requires to be a reappraisal of Clarke once again, but there have been so many brickbats flying around him, he warrants some bouquets in the coming days and weeks.