Steve Clarke taken aback by his own Scotland stat as he admits to enjoying bucking trend ahead of huge match against Ukraine

The city walls of Krakow have borne witness to many sieges. Scotland might now be required to launch their own rearguard action in the ancient Polish capital to secure at least a precious point against Ukraine.

Jack Hendry, Ryan Jack and Stephen Kingsley prepare to leave Scotland's base camp for Poland.
Jack Hendry, Ryan Jack and Stephen Kingsley prepare to leave Scotland's base camp for Poland.

Steve Clarke’s side need only to hold these familiar opponents rather than overcome them to claim top spot in their group. But the odds of doing even this have lengthened in tandem with the injury and sickness list.

It’s possible to make a case for Scotland being without as many as 16 players who might otherwise have been in line to start in Poland tonight. Clarke certainly did as he came up that number. "It's quite a lot," he pondered with some understatement. Defence has been particularly badly hit.

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Clarke is managing a personnel crisis and while it isn't yet quite a case of resorting to prayer in this city of churches, the manager might have been tempted to manage expectations.

Steve Clarke will take charge of Scotland for the 40th time this evening against Ukraine in Krakow.
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However, Clarke knows there’s little point complaining on the eve of such a high-stakes encounter, particularly when Ukraine are already being forced to play this home game over 500 miles from Kyiv. “It is our reality,” explained their manager Oleksandr Petrakov at a press conference yesterday morning. “It feels like we are at home here.”

Over half the crowd in the tight but neat 15,000-capacity Cracovia stadium are expected to be Ukrainian, with around 150,000 now living in the city. The number has grown significantly since the Russian invasion of their country. A city square was recently re-named Wolnej Ukrainy – free Ukraine.

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Clarke would be the first to concede that his own reality is not nearly as challenging or as serious as the backdrop to this fixture and the reasons for it being played where it is. He is only charged with putting out a competitive football team and that’s still possible despite the mounting issues. Barrie McKay and Stephen Kingsley have been drafted in as auxiliaries. It says everything when Southampton striker Che Adams explained that some of what he knew about the Hearts pair had been gleaned “online”, although he was aware of McKay’s days at Rangers and Nottingham Forest.

There's an on-the-hoof feel to the preparations. Clarke remains convinced that despite the slightly chaotic countdown, Scotland can prevail. Eleven Scottish footballers – 16 if the manager utilises all his substitutes, as he seems bound to do – will attempt to ‘do a Belgrade’ and overcome the odds to secure promotion to League A. The 1-1 result secured that night would be sufficient without the need for any penalty shootout drama.

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Che Adams admitted he had to google some of the latest arrivals to the Scotland camp.

The only survivor of the backline from that clash in the Rajko Mitic stadium is Declan Gallagher, who was called in to the squad last Thursday. It's slightly surprising an SOS signal hasn't been sent out to Perth for Andrew Considine – and it wouldn't be merely for the boogie this time.

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Gallagher, meanwhile, is set to become St Mirren's first player to be capped by the Scotland senior side since Roy Aitken in 1991. The 31-year-old could now be set to play a pivotal role. Clarke made a point of referencing Gallagher's experience of tough away assignments last week and Belgrade immediately sprang to mind.

“That’s what we have to aim for,” said Clarke “We have to aim to replicate that performance and that result. If we can do that then everybody will be happy.”

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Even Clarke might permit himself to smile on a night that constitutes a milestone whatever happens on the pitch. It is the manager's 40th match in charge. Only Jock Stein, Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh have overseen more games in the role.

Clarke was taken aback at learning he had reached this figure already. The job seems to suit him even if his demeanour does not always reflect such contentment.

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“I was very surprised it was 40,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like 40, I’ve got to be honest. That must mean that somewhere in there, although you don’t see it very often, I’m actually quite enjoying the job.

“I didn’t notice that statistic, but I always say the same thing to people about achievements and categorising things. I will only do that when I am finished and sitting lying on a beach somewhere counting back.

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“Only then will I try to categorise how I felt about that job and this job and what my best moment was or what was my win ratio. All that is for later. For now? I’ll just carry on being miserable and get on with my job.”

As recently as June some were questioning his suitability for the job and suggesting he had overstayed his welcome. But Clarke has continually found the answers to his critics and has gradually continued transforming the international side.

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The World Cup play-off defeat to Ukraine in June is a useful marker. Clarke has since sought to re-imagine the team as a more fluid, attacking unit rather than relying on three centre halves making Scotland supposedly hard to beat. There is more ambition now evident, backed up by a tally of nine goals in the last three outings.

“It’s always nice to buck the trend and go against how you’re perceived,” said Clarke. “My perceived image is as a very pragmatic and defensive coach.

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“It’s nice to be able to show that I’ve got another side as well. You have to be open-minded and realise that the game has changed a lot from when I first started away back in 1983.

“The game evolves and you tend to find that the people with longevity in the game are the ones that evolve with it, the ones that can adapt and change to the trends if you like. If that’s what it needs, then I am happy to do that.”

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In saying all that, this evening promises to be less about style and panache and more about digging in. An old fortress town seems an apt location for what could well stand as another famous night in Clarke's Scotland chronicles.

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