'I’ve still got the video on the phone to show him when I need to' - John McGinn, Scott McKenna, so much on the line in latest Scotland adventure
The derby element means much already rests on any meeting between Scotland and Republic of Ireland. However, there promises to be an extra crackle in the atmosphere at Hampden Park tonight.
Not only are Scotland within sight of securing top place in Nations League Group B1, but they are hoping to address the little matter of a 3-0 defeat in Dublin in June.
Then there is the ceremonial aspect of the evening. Stand-in skipper John McGinn will receive a commemorative gold medal before the game as he becomes the latest SFA Roll of Honour entrant on his 50th cap. Speaking yesterday, Scott McKenna recalled almost ensuring his teammate’s international career came to an abrupt stop at only two caps.
The defender was sent off five years ago for a shocking tackle on McGinn, who was then at Hibs, while on loan at Ayr United from Aberdeen. Hibs won the Scottish Cup tie 3-1, with McGinn scoring the opener. “Thankfully we’ve both managed to move on from it and are both doing OK,” said McKenna, who is set to link up with Jack Hendry again in the middle of defence. “I’ve still got the video on the phone to show him when I need to …!
“It’s great we have both managed to come so far from that day.”
Another full house at Hampden can expect an eventful evening on the rollercoaster ride that is life with Clarke’s Scotland. It’s just over three months since the team were booed off and Clarke’s position was the subject of some serious debate following the comprehensive defeat to today’s opponents, who were inspired by a stirring performance from striker Michael Obafemi.
Clarke admits it was a bruising evening though he produced a typically droll response when one reporter ventured to suggest it had been the manager’s lowest point with Scotland. “Were you not in Russia? Because I was lower in Russia,” said Clarke.
Back when it was possible – and desirable – to travel to Moscow, Scotland were on the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat that could easily have been far heavier.
The international side have been on a voyage of discovery since then. Although not always successful, it’s rarely been boring. Scotland stand on the cusp of promotion to League A. Clarke has overseen an upscaling in ambition. There are few matches now with little riding on them.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility for the home team to clinch top spot tonight and, by extension, secure a precious play-off semi-final spot for Euro 2024. If Ukraine drop points against Armenia in Yerevan this afternoon, a win will be enough for Scotland to achieve their target with a game to spare. Clarke isn’t expecting such a stress-free scenario.
“I think Ukraine will beat Armenia,” was his blunt prediction, while sitting at the team base on the outskirts of Edinburgh. “My coaches are holding onto the hope that Armenia can get something from the game. But for me, I’m just focusing on the fact that Ukraine will win. We then have to deal with the two games our way.”
While Clarke may well be right, Scotland found the going tough against Armenia in June in the opening 30 minutes. There’s also the unavoidable political context that looks set to inject some extra spice into proceedings over 3,000 miles from Hampden. Armenia’s landlocked situation means it has long relied on Russia for security support. As recently as this week, to mark Armenia Independence Day, President Putin re-affirmed the importance of friendly relations between the countries.
It’s perhaps surprising Uefa have permitted the fixture between Russia's allies and a country waged in an actual war with Russia to go ahead in Armenia at all.
Journalists quizzed Ukraine manager Oleksandr Petrakov on the matter at Hampden on Wednesday night, after Ukraine's 3-0 defeat against Scotland. “It’s an official Uefa game,” stepped in the team’s press spokesman, Oleksandr Hlyvynskyy. “It’s about football, nothing else. There are no security worries.”
Clarke is fortunate he has only football worries to focus on – and he has much to be content about. Two goals from corner kicks against Ukraine in midweek means Scotland are now leading the way for set-piece goals in Europe – 11 in 11 games.
However, Clarke has stressed to his players that they have achieved only the barest minimum so far. There is much work still to do. Indeed, the hard graft starts now.
“Everyone was rightly impressed with the team in midweek against Ukraine,” he said. “But I told the players that all we have done with that win is secure the fact we won’t be relegated from the B league. We can still finish first, second or third in the group.
“The next game is the most important one. We want to build towards it. We want to finish first. I have said that consistently. We still have a lot of work in front of us, then we can start to think about play-offs … seedings … whatever.”
The injured Nathan Patterson apart, it’s unlikely Clarke will deviate too far from the formation, and identity, of the players who featured in the midweek win over Ukraine.
He will be mindful – up to a point – of those who have not featured much for their clubs to date this season, with a probably decisive re-match against Ukraine to come on Tuesday.
“We have a decision to make on a few of them,” said Clarke.
Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong and Hendry have all been used sparingly by their clubs this season to date due to injury and others being preferred instead.
“When the players come to me, I borrow them,” Clarke added. “My job is to win matches for Scotland.
“I try to treat all the players as well as I can,” he added. “But if I have to play players in all three matches in such a short space of time, then that’s what I have to do.”