Clarke is almost the anti-Ally McLeod, who, god bless him, encouraged the nation to believe in him ahead of the ill-fated trip to Argentina. The current manager is not quite so expressive but that’s not to say Clarke wishes to downplay the significance of the days ahead as the Scotland men's football team prepare for their biggest week this century.
“I want them to realise how big this is,” he said. “I want them to be hungry to be at the next one and the one after that. And the one after that. We had a good run qualifying for successive tournaments in the 90s and that’s what we want the younger core to think – this is half decent so let’s do it again.
“Take the goalkeepers out of it – and they can be a bit older anyway – and the group I have now, 30 is not too old. There’s still two tournaments in the 30-year-olds. It’s a group that I get quite excited about. I think it’s a group that can take us to a few tournaments in the future.”
Asked on the eve of Scotland’s first major finals game for 23 years for the first tournament that caught his imagination, Clarke mentioned 1978 and that briefly heady period of being intoxicated by the prospects of the national football team. “I was gutted I couldn’t get to Hampden to wave the bus away,” recalled Clarke, who, metaphorically speaking, also missed the bus for Italia ’90 – he was omitted from the final squad after being included in manager Andy Roxburgh’s original pool.
There was no such organised farewell at Hampden for the current squad – in current times, it would not be permitted. But while no-one, least of all the manager, is predicting Scotland will win the tournament, there is a growing feeling that this team will at least qualify from the group stage for the first time at a major tournament. Clarke is very alert to what that would mean for the nation.
“I think we are well aware about the power of football in the country,” he said. “Last November proved that, right in the middle of probably the worst part of the lockdown when we could not really see any light at the end of the tunnel.
“So, we are aware of what football can do and want to do our bit if we can. But it is football and you never know what can happen. If you get a bad refereeing decision or a bad break of the ball then things can change.
“Let’s be excited about it but let’s try and keep a little bit of pressure off the lads and them go and enjoy themselves and see where we end up.”
Clarke is hoping to feed off the sense of optimism as he and his players prepare to play in front of a Hampden crowd for the first time since late 2019. Just over 12,000 will be present tomorrow as Scotland open their Group D schedule against Czech Republic.
“It is a compliment to me, my staff and my players that we have that confidence and belief around the national team again,” he said. “The strength of the squad is good with the added bit of sugar when they increased the size to 26 and we had the chance to put three young ones in with the idea they are good, they can be part of the future.
“You manage to persuade Lyndon (Dykes) to join us and Che Adams to join us and suddenly the squad has grown and got stronger.”
Although he has more options now, with the inclusion of Adams and youngsters like Billy Gilmour and Nathan Patterson, who were not involved when Scotland qualified in Belgrade, Clarke wants his players to summon the spirit of that night again against Czech Republic.
He describes that performance as they best Scotland have played under him. “The game in Serbia we showed two sides,” he said. “First our quality. And then, when we got the kick in the nuts in the last minute, we showed our grit and determination to get through the extra-time.
“To get it to penalties and get the qualification. That’s the big thing for me about the evolution – that when they had to produce in that game in Belgrade, they produced.”
They also know they produced the last time they played Czech Republic – in the game before that famous Serbia trip. Ryan Fraser’s strike was the difference that night at Hampden as Scotland completed the double over the Czechs. A somewhat less impressive win was recorded a month earlier against a Czech Republic auxiliary side following a Covid outbreak.
The visitors will be a very different proposition tomorrow and will likely feature the Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick, who did not play in either of these games. “They are a big strong and athletic team,” said Clarke. “Good going forward, they take a lot of risks and put a lot of bodies up the pitch.
Listen they are a good team. I actually look at them as being quite similar to ourselves.
“They are maybe ranked a little bit higher than their performances, but they are a team that is improving together.
“When people look at the group they talk about the Czech Republic as the weakest link but that tells me it’s a helluva strong group because England and Croatia are good teams too,” he added. “It’s a tough group. I know people say we have a good chance to come out of the group, but we will need to be good.”