Whenever the late, lamented stand-up – a master of the wry – found himself performing at sparsely populated gigs, he would thank everyone in attendance “for bringing an empty seat”. The inability to spot hardly a single one as Scotland hosted the Republic of Ireland in a bracingly raucous atmosphere – enhanced by a vociferous visiting support – can make it easy to forget how transformative Clarke’s era has been for stimulating a sense of occasion at Scotland’s national stadium.
Of course, it will be suggested that the Saturday evening for the Nations League game, and the therefore imbibing period afforded to much of the crowd, could account for the near sell-out and real cup final-style ambience. Certainly, it may have played a part in one of the lustiest renditions of Flower of Scotland in recent times, and the sing-off with the Ireland faithful with both these factions as engaged and energised as were their teams across a pretty titanic, tousy struggle. In which the crackle generated by the home support unquestionably proved a major factor in their second-half comeback to earn a 2-1 victory.
However, the PA announcement issued at full-time that declared an attendance of 48,853 for the thrills-and-thrash contest made for a figure entirely in keeping with what is becoming the norm. Incredibly. Three of Scotland’s past four encounters on Glasgow’s south side have been near sell-outs. And the one that wasn’t, Wednesday’s visit by Ukraine, hardly proved a non-event for the paying public in attracting the non-too-shabby figure of 42,846. Indeed, Scotland have now staged eight home internationals not been impacted by pandemic restrictions on live gathering over the past 16 months. For only two of these, the friendly against Poland in March and the June Nations League hosting of Armenia, have any crowds dipped below 40,000. And in these two instances, they hardly did so, with ticket sales 39,090 and 38,627 respectively.
It isn’t fully recognised how these numbers truly make Clarke the pied piper of Hampden. Across his early home outings following his appointment in May 2019, the old ground was rarely more than half full. And this represented an uptick from the turn off the national team had become to supporters across his predecessor Alex McLeish’s ill-fated 14 month second spell. There were five Scotland games at Hampden. Two brought glamour nations Portugal and Belgium. Another, against Israel in November 2018 ended up with a 3-2 Nations League victory for Scotland that allowed them to top an international group for the first time since 1981. No nothing fixtures then. Not one of the national team’s home games under McLeish witnessed Hampden even being close to half full. In fact, the average attendance across this span of games, astonishingly, was below the 20,000 mark.
In all but the time frame, that era seems so far removed from now. The endeavours of Clarke and the current squad – assisted by astute marketing and sensible pricing, it should not be overlooked – have made Scotland games at Hampden events that are capturing the imagination of the Tartan Army. And the fare they are consistently being served up – the Ireland win ultimately a glorious assault on the senses – will surely keep them coming back for more.