Lockdown life has been of a gentler pace for Steve Clarke. The Scotland manager said yesterday that since the pandemic caused football – and the planet – to pause in March he has been going “squared eyed” watching games on the box, maintaining the artificial turf in his garden, painting sheds, and gone from one to three grandchildren.
Perhaps all that helps explain why he didn’t seek to overthink a squad for the Nations League openers, even allowing for the introduction of uncapped pair Lyndon Dykes and Robby McCrorie. It will be intriguing to see if the striker and keeper are given exposure in the closed-doors home games that will pit Scotland against Israel at Hampden on 4 September and the Czech Republic in Olomouc three days later.
These encounters can feel like the starter before the main course of the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final – also against Israel – at the national stadium on 8 October. But the fact Scotland last played in November 2019 guarantees the first opportunities to get his side on the pitch will feel huge. “I’m absolutely buzzing. I can’t wait for the games. It’s been a long, long wait,” said Clarke. “I love my wife very much but it’s time to get out and about again and get on with some work.”
Clarke’s latest squad, in being framed by the desire for continuity, is an expression of what he thinks has worked. As well as, in the case of Dykes and McCrorie, principally, what could work. Certainly, the elevation of the Australian is a reward for the work the bustling forward has put into transforming his career. It is a mere two years since the 24-year-old, whose parents were born in Dumfries, was leading the line for the town’s Championship team, Queen of the South. His outstanding 18 months with Livingston means he joins up as an entirely different Queens player, a £2 million fee having taken him to the English Championship side QPR.
As a frontline performer whose strength and physique allows him to be a focal point, Clarke’s belief is that his trajectory intersects with the approach Scotland are building towards in seeking a spearhead buzzing threats such as John McGinn and Ryan Christie can play off. And, despite his bad rap from the Tartan Army, Clarke believes Oli McBurnie has the potential to offer likewise.
“I like the fact he’s improving,” the Scotland manager said of Dykes. “[When] he came through at Queen of the South, it took him a bit of time, but he found his level. He got better at Livingston and they did really good business to steal a march and get him signed up in the January. There were maybe a few questions about whether he would step up to Premier league level but he did that comfortably and became a good striker in the Premiership.
“He’s improving, he’s strong, he doesn’t mind the physical side of the game. His hold-up play is decent and the way he plays will help us; we have a lot of good attacking midfield players and it’s important you have a striker who can hold the ball up and bring these players into play. I think Lyndon can do that.
“He’s confident in his ability and feels he can come into the squad and challenge for a starting spot. That’s great because it’s an area of the pitch where we need a little more strength in depth.
“I have to mention Oli McBurnie here because Oli maybe hasn’t quite caught fire on the international stage, but he had a terrific season for Sheffield United last year in the English Premier League.
“That’s a difficult league to play in. Oli was a key part of how Sheffield United played and he did very well. I watched a lot of his games and I could see progress from Oli throughout the season.”
Clarke considers that the development of keeper McCrorie could also serve the country well in the longer-term. The Rangers 22-year-old has started his second loan spell with Livingston impressively to claim a place alongside fellow Ibrox keeper Jon McLaughlin and the country’s No 1 and new Derby County signing David Marshall. “It’s a chance for me to look at a younger goalkeeper. Sometimes you have to have one eye on the future,” Clarke said. “Listen, I have terrific goalkeepers and could have picked Craig Gordon but I just felt this camp was a chance to look at one of the younger ones and Robby has come up.”
Clarke has also been able to pick both the country’s left-back jewels in Andy Robertson and Kierney Tierney for the first time. Clarke considers that Tierney’s versatility since English football resumed has rendered redundant the perennial question about Scotland: how he might be best accommodated alongside Robertson, Scotland’s captain.
“They’ve played together before,” said the Scotland manager matter-of-factly. “Gordon [Strachan] used Kieran as a right-back which was one way to fit them in. Kieran can play left centre-back, he can play left of a back three or pushed on as a wing-back.
“He played all those positions for Arsenal towards the end of last season and did very, very well. I think he made a few people in England sit up and take notice of his talent but I don’t think that would be a big surprise to anybody who watched Kieran develop over the years at Celtic.”
For Uefa Nations League matches v Israel at Hampden on 4 September and Czech Republic away on 8 September:
David Marshall (Derby County)
Robby McCrorie (Rangers; on loan at Livingston)
Jon McLaughlin (Rangers)
Liam Cooper (Leeds United)
Declan Gallagher (Motherwell)
Scott McKenna (Aberdeen)
Stephen O’Donnell (Motherwell)
Liam Palmer (Sheffield Wednesday)
Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
Greg Taylor (Celtic)
Kieran Tierney (Arsenal)
Stuart Armstrong (Southampton)
Ryan Christie (Celtic)
John Fleck (Sheffield Utd)
Ryan Jack (Rangers)
John McGinn (Aston Villa)
Callum McGregor (Celtic)
Kenny McLean (Norwich City)
Scott McTominay (Manchester Utd)
Oliver Burke (West Bromwich)
Lyndon Dykes (QPR)
James Forrest (Celtic)
Oliver McBurnie (Sheffield Utd)
Lawrence Shankland (Dundee Utd)
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