The Scotland international football team’s own period of lockdown has now entered its eighth month since Steve Clarke’s side hinted at better things to come with successive victories over Cyprus and Kazakhstan in November.
It is now 220 days since the national side kicked a ball in anger. Clarke was expecting long stretches of inactivity interrupted by intense periods of action when he agreed to become manager just over one year ago – indeed, that was one of his stated concerns about the job.
But he did not expect this would involve such extremes. No one did.
He is confident Scotland can pick up where they left off and deal with an arduous set of seven, potentially eight, fixtures in the space of just over ten weeks, starting in September. Providing all goes well, this will include two triple-headers, the second of which will involve three away games in just six days including a play-off final against either Norway or Serbia.
One consequence of the Covid-19 shutdown is that Scotland’s failure to qualify for a major finals is guaranteed to stretch to at least 23 years, despite Uefa’s decision to stick with the “Euro 2020” branding suggesting otherwise. The stands might well be empty, or largely empty, but the pressure to end this miserable run will be as fierce as ever as the nation, however unwisely, looks to the football team to provide some relief amid these trying times. It’s been a long time since the football team were able to offer a morale lift.
Clarke is confident the players remain in good enough fettle to respond to the challenge, with the likes of Andy Robertson, John McGinn and Kieran Tierney all having resumed playing again for their respective clubs in England. Most Scotland-based players will return in August and as for the mighty, football-starved Tartan Army, who knows?
“It would be helpful, no doubt, having a number of fans in [for the play-off semi-final] – whatever that number is,” said Clarke. “That would help us and qualification would definitely help the mood of the nation.
“I understand that as the head coach and I take that pressure and embrace it. But it’s really important that we don’t put this particular group of players under all that pressure for not qualifying for 22 years because they’re not responsible for not qualifying over all those years.
“The squad is in a reasonable shape I think,” he added. “Although the strength in depth we have in the midfield we don’t have, to be honest, all over the pitch. But it’s very, very unlikely that that’s ever going to happen. You’re always going to have areas in the team where you could do with a few more players.”
One of these under-resourced departments is up front. Clarke has revealed he is “optimistic” that Livingston striker Lyndon Dykes, recently linked with a move to Rangers, will opt to play for Scotland, the country of his parents’ birth, rather than Australia, where he grew up.
The goalkeeper position, meanwhile, once such a formidably strong area, looks suddenly less-well buttressed.
Allan McGregor has retired and Craig Gordon’s future at club level remains uncertain. Jon McLaughlin, meanwhile, has recently joined Rangers, where he faces a challenge to dislodge McGregor from the first team.
Clarke was able to report that David Marshall, who has started all bar one of Clarke’s eight games in charge, is continuing to perform well for Wigan Athletic, who have resumed playing in the Championship.
“David Marshall is first choice for Wigan,” said Clarke. “He made a wonderful save at the weekend and kept a clean sheet [v Huddersfield] so he is in a good place.
“Liam Kelly is playing for QPR. Hopefully some of the younger goalkeepers can come through. Ross Doohan played out last year in the Championship. If he can get another club and can go out and play it would be great. Robbie McCrorie played at Livingston last year. It would be great if he could go out and play.
“We have to look at the younger ones as well because obviously David Marshall and Craig Gordon are getting on a little bit in years,” he added. “I am pleased for big Jon that he has got that big move to Rangers and hopefully he will get that chance to play. He will have a fight on his hands to get Allan McGregor out the team. It is a big challenge for Jon.”
Clarke was able to comment on some emerging news concerning Israel, with whom Scotland resume battle in September in the first of three meetings. They are currently in the process of replacing manager Andreas Herzog. Clarke was undecided about whether playing a Nations League fixture against Israel a month before the pivotal play-off clash in October will be helpful or not. It will at least offer Scotland a hint of how Israel will have changed under new management compared to the last time the countries met, in November 2018.
“It is one of those strange little quirks that could probably only happen to Scotland,” Clarke said, with reference to being drawn against Israel for a third successive time.
“Is it good or not? They will have a different coach who will have different ideas and maybe a different way of playing.
“From that point of view, it might be interesting. It might be that they could play a totally different team and throw up a smokescreen and try to prepare only for the play-off game.
“Listen, we will just deal with the game as it is. For me those two games in September [v Israel and Czech Republic] are important to get us thinking the positive way we were thinking when the players left the camp in November.”
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