John Carver sees Sir Bobby Robson traits in Steve Clarke as Scotland manager's style revealed
The legendary former England, Barcelona and Newcastle United coach is one of the most respected of his type in world football, not just for his football qualities but as an individual. When he sadly passed away in 2009 after a battle with lung cancer, another knight in the shape of Sir Alex Ferguson hailed him as a “wonderful individual and tremendous football man”. So when the current Scotland national team manager, Steve Clarke, is compared to Robson, you sit up and take notice.
The resemblance has been made by a man who knows both Robson and Clarke well. John Carver, another heralded coach in British football, became part of Clarke’s backroom staff at the end of August, and knows just how fortunate the Scots are to have Clarke at the helm.
Clarke and Carver go way back, as they were coaches beneath Robson when he was in charge at St James Park at the end of the 1990s. They have remained friends ever since. When Clarke’s trusty lieutenant for years, Alex Dyer, decided that he could no longer juggle Scotland duties with his club role at Kilmarnock, Carver was brought in to replace him. The 55-year-old Englishman clearly sees a bit of Robson in his own new “gaffer” and reckons the current group of players have totally bought into his style and philosophies.
"Man-management is one of the most important ingredients in a coach or a manager,” explained Carver, when reminiscing about life under Robson. “If you've got good man-management, that counts more than any tactics. If you have a manager that understands players, treats everybody differently because we are all different personalities, but treats everybody with honesty and respect then you get more out of the players.
"The manager here, Steve, has the respect of all those players because he's open, he's honest and he gives them game plans and training sessions that are straightforward and not complicated.
"He has the same manner and attention to detail [as Bobby Robson]. This is the first time I’ve really seen him in this environment as the leader, the manager, the head guy. His traits are very similar [to Bobby]. He is level-headed but his attention to detail is even more so than what Bobby Robson had. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”
That attention to detail and calm demeanour paid off handsomely on Thursday night as Scotland defeated Israel 5-3 on penalties after a tense 0-0 draw to progress to the Euro 2020 play-off final. Stuart Armstrong’s positive Covid-19 test, plus the collateral damage of Ryan Christie and Kieran Tierney having to self-isolate as close contacts, threw pre-match plans into disarray, not helped either by injury withdrawals from Liam Palmer, Oliver Burke and Scott McKenna. Lesser leaders may have cracked, and it’s a testament to Clarke that he managed to adapt his starting line-up and stay calm. Not that such traits surprised Carver.
“We look at everything and analyse everything,” said Carver. “We give the players the best opportunity and best tools when they go onto the pitch to produce the goods. That’s very similar to Bobby. The way he deals with the players and the way he speaks to people, he treats them with respect.
“But he has that firm hand as well when he needs to use it, as all managers need. Steve doesn’t show too much emotion as you saw on Thursday night in the shoot-out – not as much as I did. But he enjoyed it and celebrated with the staff inside. He’s very similar to Bobby. If he has the same career it will be fantastic.”
It’s not just the manager who has impressed Carver. The former Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield United caretaker manager speaks in glowing terms of the current squad and how they’ve had to deal with pressure and the playbook being ripped up, while revealing that the squad made him feel at home instantly when he arrived on the scene.
"The group are together, they are bonded,” said Carver. “When I walked through the door, they made me feel welcome in two minutes. I actually do feel really part of it now because they have accepted me and I have accepted them and this nation is going to go places if we can keep that togetherness.
“These guys have stepped up to the plate. They’ve done their preparation, watched the video and taken it on board. The way they defended, they did an absolutely magnificent job. It gives the manager a problem – but that’s what he wants. He wants competitiveness and people to come in. That’s why these guys want to play for Scotland and wear the shirt. That’s so important.”
Tonight’s match against Slovakia and Wednesday’s fellow Nations League clash with Czech Republic hold plenty importance, but the eyes of a nation are now on November 12, when Scotland travel to Serbia for a shot at qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 1998. Victory would also give Carver his maiden appearance on the highest international stage.
"I’ve taken teams to tournaments,” said Carver. “I took our youth team at Newcastle to play in a tournament in Germany and the team was full of Scottish players. Steven Caldwell, Gary Caldwell, Brian Kerr – and eight of the starting line-up were Scottish. Gary Caldwell came to me before the game and said they wanted to sing Flower of Scotland rather than the English national anthem.
“I worked abroad and understand different cultures working in Cyprus and the MLS in America but I’ve never been to a major international tournament – not even to watch one.”
Robson led England to three major tournaments, and the great man would surely be smiling if two of his proteges get the chance with Scotland.