Positive Steve Clarke plans to bring back missing Scotland fans

New Scotland manager Steve Clarke puts his squad through their paces at Hampden. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
New Scotland manager Steve Clarke puts his squad through their paces at Hampden. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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A Champions League star, 
several treble treblers, two English Premier League promotion winners and a clutch of players who helped take Kilmarnock to their highest position in the league for 53 years.

Factor in a manager who was recruited on account of that achievement with the Rugby Park side and it is easy to see where the positivity 
Steve Clarke reports is coursing through the Scotland squad emanates from.

He is sorely aware that transferring such confidence into the psyche of the supporters,
where enthusiasm is a little
less evident, is the tricky part. Clarke noted that his own appointment has been met with plenty of warmth among fans – “or so they tell me” (he says he doesn’t read newspapers).

But many others, while they might approve of the appointment, are also reserving judgment prior to a Euro 2020 double-header in which Scotland host Cyprus this evening before travelling to face Belgium on Tuesday.

Clarke has every sympathy with stay-away supporters. He knows it is what happens on the pitch that counts. He mentioned this with his next breath after relaying news of the good vibes both on and off the training pitch. “There is a positive feel about the camp,” he said. “We have the Celtic boys, with their three trophies, John McGinn and Kenny McLean with promotion to the Premier League. There is all this positive feeling in the camp.

“Listen, I am not naïve or 
silly enough not to know that the next step is to get the result,” he added. “We have to get the points, hopefully with a great performance. But if we just get the points then the positivity will continue and we will move on.”

It is easy to promise in a press conference, harder to achieve. Hampden will be far from full – a crowd of just under 30,000 is expected – so the disconnect with the international side has to be addressed for a start. Clarke knows it will take time to get people on board. They need to see tangible evidence as well as hear reports of a happy camp, something they have been told so many times before and by so many managers.

Clarke’s challenge is to ensure the home double-header with Russia and Belgium this autumn are sell-outs, even if tonight is not. Four points from the next two outings would certainly help.

Clarke realises the team he picks tonight will have a different objective to the one sent out in Brussels against the team currently ranked as the best in the world. Adventure – with limits – as opposed to containment in Belgium.

Clarke believes he has devised a system that will create chances and, ideally, goals. Eamonn Brophy, pictured right, has fared well in training and could start following a remarkable rise by the 23-year-old Kilmarnock striker, who has scored 12 times this season.

“Am I confident I’ve found the formula? I’m confident I’ve got players in the squad who can create chances,” said Clarke.

“Our job as a group is to make sure we get the win we need so that, when we come back here in September, the supporters will be with us a little bit more and we get more fans for the two big matches against the so-called big teams in the group,” he added. “If we can get a good points total out of the next two games, the supporters will come back. You know football supporters – if your team is successful, you get more people coming in.”

That is what he managed to achieve at Kilmarnock, of course. Within two years he turned sparsely populated stands into full ones – something he referred to in his farewell speech from the pitch following a win over Rangers last month.

“When you are winning and winning, eventually they come back,” explained Clarke. “The Tartan Army is maybe a little reduced in numbers at the moment, but you know if the team is winning and the team is positive and it looks as if the team is going to have a chance of qualifying then the supporters will be there.”

He has already set out his stall in bullish manner by stressing he has forgotten all about the play-off Scotland have already banked. Clarke is determined to qualify automatically by dint of securing one of the two top spots in Group I. It is strange to consider that the first objective of the new manager’s tenure is to render redundant the very prize Scotland earned amid such delirium – and not to say tension – on their last Hampden outing.

That 3-2 win over Israel, which confirmed Scotland as Nations League group winners and secured a play-off, proved to be the last home game in charge for Alex McLeish. He was sacked after faith in him was shaken by both the comprehensive nature and manner of the 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan. A subsequent 2-0 win in San Marino four days later was not enough to restore confidence.

Clarke is aware of the price of failure. He knows what could lie in store and how quickly public opinion can turn, no matter how well the news of his appointment was received.

“Hopefully it’s a job I learn to love,” he said. He described walking out this evening at Hampden – whatever the size of crowd – as the pinnacle of his career to date.

“I’m sure come tomorrow night I will be quite emotional,” he said. “To be the manager of your national team is an honour. It’s something I’m looking forward to. I will have a lot of family here. I just hope I don’t burst into tears!”

After an emotional, exhausting and – so far – successful season, Clarke is eyeing “sleeping for three days” and then a trip to Royal Ascot after these assignments. They are the first games of the rest of his career. They are also the most important.