Steve Clarke has Tartan Army back onside again but Scotland boss resists joining in England gloating
"I'm just mentioning it!" he exclaimed amid laughter. The Scotland manager – he is due to remain so only until after Euro 2024 qualifying – had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He was, however, being serious when he reminded reporters yesterday that it was only four months and three games ago that his position was the subject of heavy debate following a 3-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland.
Although clearly proud of his patched-up team's battling performance against Ukraine, Clarke wasn't getting carried away. He remained as even-tempered as ever aside from a rare display of emotion when he broke away to give the passing Pat Nevin a bearhug in the corridor at the Cracovia stadium, which had been the scene of one of Scotland’s greatest defensive displays. It was a nice moment between the former Chelsea teammates.
Nevin has always been a fervent supporter of Clarke and while the manager has never been short of allies, there were some hard-to-ignore murmurs of disapproval during the summer.
Although he says he never reads the newspapers or reads what’s written online, Clarke referenced the criticism as he reflected on Tuesday night’s hugely rewarding 0-0 draw. “If you go back to June, some people wanted me out the door,” he said. “Things can change quickly in football.”
There was no better illustration of the shifting sands of international football than in the contrasting moods of the occupants of both dugouts in Krakow.
Not so long ago, Ukraine manager Oleksandr Petrakov was being hailed for melding a ragged band of under-prepared footballers into a spirited and somewhat dazzling team able to brush Scotland aside at Hampden. Fast forward to Tuesday and he was fielding questions about his own future during a slightly awkward post-match press conference.
At one point, unhappy with the line of questioning, he pretended to spit towards the floor. He then abruptly left the room.
Clarke, meanwhile, has gone from feeling unloved to being hailed. It is Steve Clarke’s Tartan Army again. Now in a select band of managers who have managed Scotland for 40 games, he has done something no-one else has achieved before: he has delivered Scotland into League A of the Nations League.
These are the sunny uplands, to use a former Prime Minister’s phrase to describe the brighter future subsequent events have since proved was a laughable notion. Still, football-wise in Scotland, certainly at international level, the outlook is bright. The pound might be crashing at a frightening rate, but Scotland are going up. Even better, they are passing England on the way. Clarke wasn’t interested in making their plight part of the agenda, even if the travelling Scotland fans hadn’t missed the opportunity to mock on Tuesday. A rather more sober Clarke declined the opportunity to gloat.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything over England,” he said. “They weren't involved in this process. We’ll just enjoy it for ourselves.”
He was right to want to keep the focus on his own team. There’s so much to admire and enjoy at present with or without England’s struggles. Scotland have shown they can cope against quality opposition. Although the next edition of the Nations League is still some way off, League A need not hold any fears.
“If we are going to places like the other night, when you are looking to get a result that takes us to that next step, then we know we have a team that can do it,” reflected Clarke.
“It (the Nations League) is certainly not going to be easy. You see Wales, they went up and they’ve come back again. If you want to improve you want to play against the better teams. We’re going to be challenged six times in that tournament, that’s for sure.
“But these players have come away from this tournament as better players. They will come away from the next one even better again. The young guys will be getting more experience playing against top teams.”
Clarke, too, has learned so much from an arduous week. He might well have preferred it if there had been no injury worries and if a sickness bug, however exaggerated, hadn’t struck the camp. But in responding to such adversity, Clarke has, for example, discovered that he can rely on Ryan Porteous in an international setting.
The Hibs centre-half turned in one of the great Scotland debut performances in Poland. The 23-year-old deserves great credit and so does Clarke for playing him. Most had expected the manager to turn to the more tried and trusted Declan Gallagher on an evening of such high stakes. Clarke opted for Porteous’ pace and energy and was rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance.
Porteous slotted seamlessly into a back four, which is another hugely positive takeaway from the international window. Who predicted that Clarke would alter his game plan so significantly? It almost feels impossible to now go back to three at the back, which will make it interesting on the next occasion Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney are both fit enough to be included in the same squad.
And what about on the other side? Nathan Patterson or Aaron Hickey? Hickey now looks in pole position but what a pleasant headache to have. Clarke won’t let the decision keep him awake at night. Not yet, at least.
A friendly against Turkey is slated for November but Scotland are not due to play a competitive match until March, when Euro 2024 qualifying begins. “My immediate thoughts are to catch up with some sleep as it’s been a tough 10 days,” he said. Clarke can rest easy. He has Scotland fans dreaming again.
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