Romantic capital of the world it is not.
Similarly, there’s no way the Zimbru stadium could ever be mistaken for a cathedral of dreams. In fact, it would be hard to find a grimmer setting for a game of international football. Hemmed in by blocks of Soviet-era flats, it felt like the landscape of a dystopian nightmare. One of these brutalist concrete monoliths towered over a stand to provide residents with Row triple Z views of the pitch below. What those who ventured out onto their balconies witnessed on Friday night was the sealing of a love affair.
It’s not in the Scotland manager’s remit to be adored by supporters. Those occupying the role are lightning conductors, expected to take the heat, not feel the love. Affection, adoration? That’s not in the contract. Buy a puppy if that’s what you want. Even a figure as revered as Walter Smith was not often the subject of serenades. Andy Roxburgh relied on gimmicks such as a tartan scarf to establish a connection.
As for Berti Vogts, let’s not go there. The return to Chisinau stirred memories of the most serious barracking any Scotland manager has been forced to endure since the days of Ally MacLeod. It was the German’s unhappy fate to be seated among the supporters while serving a one-match touchline ban as Scotland stumbled to a 1-1 draw in 2004. Love was most certainly not in the air.
It was a very different story on Friday night in the same rather charmless, grey city. Around 1200 Scotland fans delighted in a very professional 2-0 win. Scotland had finished second in a World Cup qualifying group for the first time since Craig Brown’s days in charge. He was the last man before Clarke to lead Scotland to a major finals. He was liked, most of the time, too.
However, even the popular Brown was not often asked to give supporters a wave, as Clarke was urged to do as the minutes ticked down in Moldova. Scotland, following Craig Gordon’s penalty save, were enjoying a degree of comfort. Even then Clarke was unsure. It is not in his character to satisfy the whims of drunken fans, however well intentioned, when there’s the serious business of qualifying for a World Cup to focus on. You could see him endure a mini existential crisis on the touchline as “Stevie, Stevie, give us a wave!” echoed around the barely quarter-full stadium. What does someone who has built an entire career on taciturn dourness – indeed, who seems to revel in it - do in such a situation? He waved bye, bye to Rangers fans once but those were very different circumstances. Play was still raging on in Chisinau. Clarke was trying to figure out whether it was worth ordering players to pick up bookings ahead of tomorrow’s game against Denmark to get suspensions out of the way before the play-offs. There was a lot occupying his mind.
The fans were insistent, however. “Stevie, Stevie give us a wave!” Clarke turned to his bench. What was the form here? What should he do? He recalled a game early in his managerial career when resistance melted and against his better judgement he stood there waving like a goon. “We lost a goal straightaway,” he lamented yesterday. Fortunately, his decision to wave back did not signal all-out Scotland collapse. He got away with it. But natural worrier that he is, he fears pushing his luck.
“I get nervous when I do that,” he smiled. “I did it once as a younger manager somewhere, I can’t remember where. And we conceded straightaway. So I always get nervous doing that. I would ask the Tartan Army, if they want a wave, can they wait until after the game? Because I do get nervous. I actually turned to the bench, ‘do you think I should?!’”
Reader, he gave them a wave. Why not? This was the first time the Tartan Army had travelled in numbers abroad for what felt like a long, long time. The support they gave the team was magnificent. Even cynical, seen-it-all reporters observed this. “They were good, it was fantastic to see,” agreed Clarke. “They are amazing.
“I spoke to one boy outside the lift of our hotel. He had jumped on a plane 22 hours earlier in America to come and watch the game. He looked as fresh as a coat of paint! I would have been dead after that. So that’s a measure of the kind of guys that want to be here. Thankfully we gave them a good night.”
There will be 50,000 willing Scotland on against Denmark tomorrow as Clarke’s side seek to secure the advantage of being seeded in the semi-final play-off in March, which guarantees a home draw. It’s why the players’ celebrations at full-time seemed relatively reserved. They saluted the fans and headed down the tunnel. The boogeying was being left to those in the stands who are enjoying a purple patch of Scottish form. This was more like it from Clarke. Although he acknowledged that the achievement of securing second had to be shared with the fans, grandstanding is forbidden – for now.
“We relaxed and enjoyed ourselves on the flight back – without alcohol this time! We will get ourselves ready for Monday,” he said.
“Job done is to qualify for Qatar. We probably need something from the game on Monday to be seeded but even without something on Monday night we have to win two more matches. When you think at the start of the campaign, we were 10 or 12 matches away. Now we are two. We are getting closer.”