Euro 2020 cured a painful longing but World Cup is where Scotland most want to be

No-one needs to tell Steve Clarke about the special properties of a World Cup. A lot of what he has achieved to date as Scotland manager seems rooted in the pain of missing out on the squad for Italia ’90 after being included in the original pool of players.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MARCH 24: Manager Steve Clarke during a Scotland training session at Oriam, on March 24, 2021, in Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group) **Please note these images are FREE for first use.

Already depicted as a whiskery fairy godmother who got Scotland to the ball after 23 years, he doesn’t wish to be sitting there with a white flowing beard because Scotland have taken as long again to reach the next one. There is a real desire to build on the Euro 2020 success rather than see it rendered a one-off.

Qatar is not everyone’s idea of a World Cup host country. It lacks the promise of a World Cup held in Italy, as when Clarke saw the chance to sample one cruelly snatched away from him, or, say, Brazil.

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Scotland managed the feat of being the first European nation eliminated from the qualifying equation for the final held in the latter country in 2014. The rot set in almost immediately when they were held at home by Serbia. Tonight’s second pot opponents Austria are well equipped to secure such a result – or better. Such early setbacks create a pall that is hard to shake off.

Given the choice of qualifying for a World Cup or a European Championships, it would normally be the former. Obviously, when it reached Scotland’s levels of desperation, it didn’t matter which scratched the itch – particularly when Hampden was one of the host stadiums, as is the case at Euro 2020. However, the World Cup is, well, the World Cup. It’s not being greedy to desire both.

“I think it would be special for everybody,” agreed Clarke. “We want to be consistently successful. We don’t just want to qualify for one tournament, rest on our laurels then wait another 23 years. I will be in my 80s if we have to wait that long! I would much rather qualify for the next one coming up, so that is the target. The target is Qatar 2022.”

Such a mission is made easier with a successful lift-off. Scotland aren’t always expert in this department. Only three times in the last 11 qualifying campaigns since France 98 have they won their opening game.

“You’ve probably just taken another two hours off my sleep with that news because I didn’t know that,” said Clarke. “I’m struggling to get six hours a night anyway, thinking about my team and my selection. Now that’s just chopped it down to four!

“Listen, a good start is important. Obviously, without putting too much pressure on ourselves, we want to start the group well. We won’t know until the end of the campaign what a good points total will be so it’s important that we don’t put ourselves under too much pressure. Of course a winning start would be good, especially because we’re playing a team seeded above us. Austria are seeded to finish second in the group so if we got a good start against them that would hopefully set us up for a good campaign.”

It seems remarkable that Scotland have not played a World Cup qualifier since the 2-2 draw with Slovenia that saw Gordon Strachan come out with his infamous ‘genetics’ theory. A manager has since come and gone, the victim of a disastrous opening result in Scotland’s last regular qualifying campaign. Indeed, had the Scots not been such slow starters in Kazakhstan, Clarke might not even be sitting where he is. Alex McLeish eventually paid the price for going 2-0 down inside the opening ten minutes in Astana in the bid to reach Euro 2020.

Although Scotland made it there in the end, thanks to play-offs secured by the former Rangers manager, it was Clarke who took them over the line. Now he hopes that having qualified for one tournament, the achievement proves habit-forming. It’s now less about genetics and more about genealogy. Clarke has shaken up his forward options by recruiting Che Adams, whose maternal grandparent hails from Edinburgh.

Clarke has looked at the squad and concluded that, despite qualifying for a major finals at long last, there’s room for improvement. The games following the famous night in Belgrade underlined that. Hungover or not, Scotland’s limitations were plain to see when they fell to two defeats against Slovakia and Israel and failed to score in either of them, hence why Adams as well as Hibs’ Kevin Nisbet have been brought in.

Clarke, however, is far from ready to discard Lyndon Dykes, who has returned to form at a good time after a run of 20 goalless games with Queens Park Rangers. He returned to the scoresheet last weekend and Clarke believes there were a number of mitigating factors explaining why the player struggled for a spell in London.

"I know how difficult the English Championship is," the former Reading manager said. "It’s an absolute grind. Lyndon came a long way in a short space of time. He left Livingston and got his move to QPR. There was big upheaval, moving down south with his family and game after game after game in the English Championship.

"Obviously he had a great start with the national team which was good for him. I think eventually he just needed a little rest. To be fair to Mark Warburton at QPR, he must have recognised that because he left him out of the side for a few games. Lyndon has come back a little bit more refreshed in his last couple of club games.

“I think he got man of the match in the 3-2 game last Wednesday (against Millwall) and backed that up with a goal (against Reading) before he came to join up with us. He has looked lively and sharp in training. Competition for places is great. It makes everybody step up a little bit.”

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