Why Ireland ‘ordinariness’ tasks Scotland’s team of top-flight names with easing Steve Clarke pressure in Armenia

Roy Keane. Steve Staunton. Robbie Keane. Niall Quinn. The names flashed up on the electronic hoardings running round the Aviva stadium. Irish legends to a man were celebrated as the Football Association of Ireland sought to boost the spirits of around 35,000 home fans ahead of Saturday's clash with Scotland.

It was a bold move because it only served to underline the ordinariness of the current team who it was being suggested by local media were charged with saving Stephen Kenny’s job. It isn’t being too disrespectful to suggest many visiting fans might have walked past half the current Irish first XI on O’Connell Street without a second glance. That was before 5pm on Saturday. They know all about Michael Obafemi now.

Still, this team, made up of recruits from the likes of Derby County, Swansea City, Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion, are nowhere near the standard of previous vintages.

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But like Scotland once had to do, and might have to do again soon, Republic of Ireland are stripping it all back at the risk of exposing flaws. Saturday was the first time two players aged 21 or younger had scored for the Irish in a competitive international since 1997. Were Scotland witlessly compliant in what might stand as the rebirth of an Irish team?

By contrast, every name on Steve Clarke’s team sheet was a top-flight player bar Grant Hanley, whose last game for Norwich City was still in the Premier League, and Ryan Christie and Scott McKenna, whose next league appearances, for Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest respectively, will be there.

And yet, Scotland were well beaten. The players, to use Clarke’s phrase, were as “flat as a pancake” afterwards. They even suffered the indignity of being shooed away by their own supporters at the final whistle.

Clarke is not one for being unduly demonstrative. Even when he was being hailed by fans in Moldova in November – yes, it was that recently - he said he felt uncomfortable about waving back. It was not therefore unusual to note his absence from the party that received such short shrift from the Tartan Army.

“I don’t usually go to the fans, no,” said Clarke. “At Hampden I never go out and do any walk of honour or anything like that. I have only done it occasionally in away games. But I wanted to be at the side of the pitch to be with my players coming off.”

Ireland's players - including Michael Obafemi - made a name for themselves in Dublin win over Scotland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The backing he gives his players is admirable. He is a players’ manager. But several are letting him down at present.

Clarke is now under pressure. While Kenny’s side can head to Poland to play Ukraine with a spring in their step, Scotland face a gruelling flight to Armenia from Dublin for a game they can’t see far enough. If Andy Robertson plays, it will be his 59th match of the season. It will be Callum McGregor’s 63rd. Both reliable, exceptional players are performing like they are now very much in need of a rest. Who can blame them?

It can’t come as any surprise. It’s why we must be careful before using a pair of below par performance in June as the reason to rush to judgement on Scotland and use it as evidence to damn Clarke.

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There are also the enervating effects of the Ukraine game to consider. Again, we wonder what might have been. What might have happened had this World Cup play-off semi-final been played in March, when it was originally scheduled. Not only did its delay – for reasons no one can question – mean Scotland were denied one of their key players in Kieran Tierney, but the defeat has now served to infect the start of Scotland’s Nations League campaign.

Grant Hanley, recently relegated from the English Premier League with Norwich, shadows Michael Obafemi at Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

An ordinary Armenia team were brushed aside last midweek but it is hard not to draw some link to after-effects and continued hangover from the Ukraine blow. It has cast a pall over a team.

Clarke will likely shake things up again in the return fixture against Armenia on Tuesday. He must. He may even decide to revert to a back four. With Tierney’s continued absence, the option to switch from a three is becoming increasingly persuasive. “That's more a question for the manager,” said goalkeeper Craig Gordon afterwards. “We have good players who can play any system. It's up to us to go and carry it out.”

Whether Gordon will win his 70th cap in Yerevan remains to be seen. His performance in the Dublin defeat was questioned by some but he has plenty of credit in the bank.

Anthony Ralston’s display– he was one of the few, indeed, perhaps the only player, to emerge with credit– might make it more difficult for Clarke to hand Nathan Patterson a start at right wing-back, if indeed that position exists next time out. Scotland will certainly require the injection of energy such youth can provide.

Steve Clarke takes his team to Yerevan for the final Nations League match of the summer session. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Aaron Hickey could even replace Robertson on the other side if the manager decides his skipper needs a rest. Or Greg Taylor – one of four outfield players yet to see any action in this window – could be given a run out. He will surely want to rest out-of-touch striker Che Adams but there is little experience in reserve.

Clarke will also be conscious of the jeopardy now attached to the fixture. The level of criticism following the Dublin result means a defeat cannot be borne.

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One thing is for sure, Scotland could not have picked a worse place to play the 13th and last international of a long, arduous international season.

Republic of Ireland wilted in the heat of Yerevan last Saturday and while the Scotland game kicks-off later, at 8pm local time, conditions could still be uncomfortable.

As much as they were poor at Hampden, Armenia will relish welcoming this somewhat rattled, even beleaguered version of Scotland into their midst. As for Clarke, we are entering must-win territory. Never mind the Caucasus, feel the heat.

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