Scotland and Steve Clarke back in tricky position - 'we have to adapt a little bit'
A full Hampden still felt like a novelty when Steve Clarke’s side powered past Denmark to set up a home World Cup play-off semi-final tie.
Excitement grew when the Scots were drawn against Ukraine. Now Ukrainians are more concerned about encroaching Russian tanks rather than their side’s World Cup prospects. Everything is back to feeling uncertain again. The game itself, whenever it can be played, suddenly seems a lot more trivial.
Steve Clarke faced one of his more awkward assignments on Tuesday at Hampden. He knew how little if any of what he wanted to talk about – his latest Scotland squad, for friendlies against Poland and the losers of the Wales-Austria World Cup play-off tie – really mattered.
Scotland’s own World Cup semi-final play-off against Ukraine, scheduled for next Thursday night at Hampden, has been pushed back to be replaced by a charity friendly against Poland. Nevertheless, Ukraine was still very much at the forefront of everyone's minds, as of course the country and its people should have been.
Few could have imagined there would be quite the number of Ukraine flags fluttering around Scotland when the draw was made in December. Support for the country’s plight has been widespread.
The SFA have already announced that a £10 donation from every ticket sold for next Thursday’s hastily arranged friendly will go towards UNICEF’s humanitarian response. SFA president Rod Petrie has already sent a message of goodwill to the country and offered such help as providing facilities for their players to train before the rearranged game. It is currently scheduled for June.
Clarke’s own difficult position had to be acknowledged. He is a football manager whose Scotland reign has already been severely impacted by a pandemic. He has negotiated these difficulties adroitly as well as sensitively. Now there is a war to address. Clarke sought to steer a tricky path between expressing his fervent hope that Ukraine are in a position to partake in a football match in June and acknowledging there are more serious issues at hand.
All he can do is continue to prepare his team to the best of his ability. It meant discussing less weighty matters such as Aaron Hickey’s international prospects and Ryan Jack’s welcome return to the fold after a near 17-month absence due to injury.
“On a human level, if we can play Ukraine in June it means the situation has improved dramatically and that’s what we’re all hoping for,” said Clarke.
He admitted there was now a different vibe to Scotland’s year. As before, the ultimate aim remains to reach the World Cup finals in Qatar. However, should they manage this, it must come at the expense of Ukraine either because they have been beaten on the park or because of an inability to fulfil the fixture.
If it is to be played, Scotland will be conscious of their status as the team nearly everyone will want to see beaten. Clarke has invited people to remember that Scots have their own dreams. The players have worked hard to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they are currently two games from sport’s greatest show. Scotland will have to do it the hard way.
Not just because a motivated and well-backed Ukraine could stand in their way, but also because they will then have to overcome the winners of the Wales v Austria tie. That game goes ahead as scheduled next week meaning the victors will have nine weeks to prepare. “Ourselves and Ukraine will play the semi-final and then three or four days later will play the final,” noted Clarke. “So we’re probably a little bit disadvantaged on that side as well.”
“Listen, I appreciate that they (Ukraine) will have the emotional support of most people across the world,” he added. “But we want to go to the World Cup as well.
“So from a sporting point of view, we’ll be ready for the challenge. It’s just what it is. I think it’s fantastic that the Scottish FA and the Polish FA could get together and organise with the help of UNICEF this game.
“Hopefully the Scottish public and the Tartan Army will do everything they can to get there and support in whatever small way we can to try and help a little bit.
“When you see the images of kids getting chucked on a train and shipped out of their homeland, it’s heart-breaking. Anything we can do to help them is great. That’s the primary aim of this fixture.
“Obviously the sporting aim is to get my squad together," he added. "I haven’t seen them for four months. It’s important we get together and brush up on a few principles and ideas that we always work on and prepare ourselves for competitive matches in June.”
The upcoming games provide Clarke with a welcome chance to experiment. Such have been the changes at international level following the introduction of the Nations League, bona fide friendlies are rare. Hickey comes into contention following some hitherto concern about his commitment levels. Otherwise it is largely a case of we go again. The manager hopes the momentum of last year can be maintained.
“We were in a good place in November,” he said. “The run of six wins was good. To finish here with a win against a good Danish team and another full house at Hampden … everyone was excited and looking forward to the play-off game.
“It was a great place to be, but circumstances have changed so we have to adapt a little bit and we will adapt this month in sporting terms by playing two friendly matches.
“We’ll just try to keep improving. Hopefully we can hold onto our unbeaten run and try and keep a bit of momentum going into the June games.”