Scotland boss Steve Clarke reveals first priority before turning attention to World Cup and Euros

Scotland's coach Steve Clarke speaks to his players during the UEFA Nations League B Group 2 match against Israel at the Netanya Municipal Stadium on November 18, 2020.(Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)Scotland's coach Steve Clarke speaks to his players during the UEFA Nations League B Group 2 match against Israel at the Netanya Municipal Stadium on November 18, 2020.(Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Scotland's coach Steve Clarke speaks to his players during the UEFA Nations League B Group 2 match against Israel at the Netanya Municipal Stadium on November 18, 2020.(Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Well, that’s the party's over, or is it? Ashleigh Jack, wife of Ryan, wanted to make sure the Rangers midfielder knew he had been part of something historic and strung up balloons in the family home, spelling out the word “Euros”, for when he arrived back in the early hours of Thursday morning. She later posted a photograph on Twitter.

While it was hard to avoid a sense of deflation at the way it all had ended, Steve Clarke’s main task has been to remind his players about what already had been achieved. He did so on Wednesday evening after pausing before entering the away dressing room in a bid to find the necessary words and strike the right tone. It was clearly not the time for dancing to Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, neither was it the time for tears.

A 1-0 defeat to Israel had compounded the earlier loss to Slovakia by the same scoreline and meant Scotland missed out on promotion to League A and the (slim) chance of a World Cup play-off place.

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He wasn't exactly telling the players to forget it. But do remember, Clarke urged, how you made Scots feel when they woke up last Friday morning following such a brave and deserved triumph against Serbia. A place at Euro 2020 was the panacea people desperately wanted. Repeat viewings of a clip of a veteran goalkeeper flinging himself to his left to save a penalty to the tune from Titanic was the tonic few knew they needed. Such memories will outlast what happened in Trnava and Netanya.

And yet, and yet. Scotland fans were issued with their own reminder: the team is not quite as good as some might have been tempted to believe – and some commentators argued was the case - in the delirious hours and days post-Belgrade.

Scotland remain very much a work in progress, as one goal in five hours of football underlines. No one needs to tell Clarke this. No one, other than close family members, would be advised to bother him until he’s had the opportunity to decompress. “It’s been a very intense 10 days,” said Clarke. “I’ll go home and probably sleep for three days.

“I’ll take the time to relax, reintroduce myself to my wife, children and grandchildren,” he added. “That’s my first step. I’ve not really had time to sit and analyse things.”

It’s easy to forget he’s a grandfather. It’s been a draining few days, emotionally and logistically. Clarke knows it will become very hectic again very soon. Long spells of inactivity used to be one of the great bugbears of international management. Clarke himself has mentioned this being a concern when he pondered accepting the post. Even if they are eliminated at the first stage of Euro 2020, something that wouldn’t be a great surprise, Scotland could well play as many as 13 competitive matches between March and the end of 2021. They’ve just played eight times in ten weeks.

While Clarke has no actual game commitments until the Spring, he won’t be idle. He has the pleasant headache of identifying 23 players to fill his Euro 2020 squad. Handily, he has already had the chance to run the rule over 23 players in match action over the course of the last week.

Only two of the 25-man squad saw no minutes on the field, Celtic left back Greg Taylor and Rangers goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin. There are of course those such as James Forrest and Ryan Fraser, both of whom missed out through injury, who will be added to the mix. Indeed, if we suppose the XI who started two of the last three games, including the most crucial fixture in Belgrade, are Clarke’s current first choice, with Fraser and Forrest as well as Stuart Armstrong there or there about, there are not many other places left to fill.

“There will be a fight to be in the 23 this summer,” acknowledged Clarke. “That is what we want, that is the target for them. They are all going back to their clubs, but they’ll need to play well and stay fit and healthy. Of course, we are thinking about the summer but the next stage for them is these World Cup qualifiers in March. That’s the road I’m going down."

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Clarke has the more unpleasant headache of working out how to make Scotland more dangerous in the last third of the field. There is no switch he can flick. Scotland have rarely been free-scoring.

One thing Clarke will do is take the matter of selecting a squad of players for the Euro 2020 finals very seriously indeed. Although there are three important World Cup qualifying fixtures to come first, the task will occupy the back of the mind. It is a privileged, and, in some ways, terrible responsibility to have to bear. He's aware he will need to break it to players they have not made the cut. Worse, he will know exactly how they feel. Clarke missed out on Italia ’90 having been included in the initial 26-strong party. These are all bridges to cross.

Right now, Clarke is hoping to be allowed to savour a not insignificant success in Serbia. It did not come soon enough to save Performance Director Malky Mackay’s job, but reaching Euro 2020 has undoubtedly saved many others at the Scottish Football Association, as well as handing a nation a fillip.

“I don’t think we really appreciated the feeling back home,” said Clarke. “Being such a long way away the whole time, we’d only get little snippets of it. But we know we achieved something big last Thursday. There was small disappointment, but we have to remember this group of players have come a long way in just over a year."

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