The Faroe Islands are a better side now than when they burned their name into the Scottish psyche by establishing a two goal-lead against Berti Vogts’ Scotland team in a Euro 2004 qualifier in 2002. Scotland managed to scramble a couple of goals in reply to draw 2-2 on a chaotic afternoon in Toftir. “Worst result since 1872” was the memorable headline in The Scotsman.
It’s probably just as well Clarke says he didn’t watch it. “Probably still had the hump because I only got six caps!” he said, before adding that he was “concentrating on his coaching career” at Chelsea at the time. This could serve as a reminder that he is well qualified to do his job, despite what the critics are saying. He has been irked by the suggestion two points is a ruinous return from the opening two games of this latest World Cup qualifying campaign.
Clarke is adamant the three-at-the-back system proved a lot less dysfunctional than many claimed against Israel. He is, however, considering continuing to play with four at the back – the formation he switched to in the second half as Scotland came back to earn a 1-1 draw in Tel Aviv.
Whatever he decides, there will be two centre-halves – at least. it won’t be the Gordon Strachan approach of playing one centre-half – and telling everyone else to push on – in a similar type of game against Gibraltar six years ago.
The then Scotland manager did not exactly live to regret this bold measure. But Strachan did wish he had been slightly less gung-ho after watching Gibraltar, playing only their sixth competitive fixture, score their first competitive goal. To deepen the horror, it brought the visitors back into the game at 1-1.
Scotland eventually ran out 6-1 winners and so disaster was averted. Strachan brought on Gordon Greer at half-time to help out Russell Martin, who was the lone centre-half with Alan Hutton and Andy Robertson acting as wing-backs alongside him.
Clarke is now the one pondering the formation to use against a side who many expect should be cannon fodder for Scotland’s strikers. Of course, the reality tends to be very different. In any case, the Faroe Islands are a very different kettle of fish – fish being the operative word – to Gibraltar.
They kept Austria out in the second-half of their clash in Vienna on Sunday having already taken the lead in an eventual 3-1 defeat. Although the majority of games have been against teams of their level, they have only lost three times in their last ten outings. “If you are not sure about the Faroes then watch the first 30 minutes of their match against Austria at the weekend,” Clarke suggested. “They’re a physical threat from set-plays and long throws. They’ll try to put us under pressure so you have to tip your hat to that a little bit just in case.”
Clarke makes no apology for being a safety-first type of manager. Securing record wins or improving goal difference are well down a list of priorities headed by the pressing need to land three points. There will be no Tartan Army inside the ground baying for goals.
“The first thing is you have to be hard to beat,” he said. “If you are hard to beat and you don’t concede too many then you don’t need too many goals to get something out of the game. When we did concede two, we scored two v Austria. So, we have the capabilities to score more than one goal. And hopefully we can score that tomorrow night.
“It’s a game we need to win so there maybe won’t be quite as many rotations or changes as I might have done had we got a few more points in the bag,” he admitted. “We’re definitely going to go strong to win the game. We need to get the balance right too.
“I’ve got a few decisions I want to mull over in my head overnight. It’s difficult to put a figure on how many changes there could be. We’ll just wait and see. No doubt I’ll get stick for it anyway!”
Clarke had plenty of time to ponder his options on the six-hour flight back from Tel Aviv. “I think the pilot must have been going uphill,” he quipped.
Uphill struggle is how some critics are describing Scotland’s bid to qualify for Qatar 2022. Patient man though he is, Clarke is clearly tiring of the negativity that every Scotland manager must endure, even one with a place at a major finals already safely deposited in the bank. Asked if a high-scoring win against the Faroe Islands might see the feel-good factor return within the camp, he replied, pointedly, that “it’s never left”.
It has, though, been another intense spell on the Scotland beat. Clarke is looking forward to returning home to see his grandchildren for the first time since Christmas, thanks to the easing of Covid restrictions in England. A win against the Faroe Islands will leave Scotland on five points and possibly in second place, depending on the outcome of Austria v Denmark.
Three points is all Clarke cares about so don’t expect him to start outlining preferred goalscorers, as much as Oli McBurnie, and even Che Adams, could do with opening their international accounts prior to the Euros this summer. “I don’t care who scores,” he said. “As long as we get one more than them.
“The goals will come as and when. It does not really matter to us as a team and a squad of players who gets the goals, we just want to get more goals than the opposition.”