Steve Clarke denies Scotland are running players into the ground

Steve Clarke has rejected criticism that he is over-working his Scotland players. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Steve Clarke has rejected criticism that he is over-working his Scotland players. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
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Steve Clarke accepts there are lessons to be learned from the recent row with Steven Gerrard over Ryan Jack but denies Scotland are 
“flogging players to death”.

The Scotland manager was accused of being careless with the Rangers midfielder after he aggravated a knee injury last month while on international duty.

Jack was sent back to his club prior to the Euro 2020 qualifier against Belgium with a swollen knee. He did not play in the first fixture of the double header against Russia either.

Gerrard criticised the Scotland coaching staff for making Jack, below, run a total of 11 kilometres two days after he had played the full 90 minutes of a match against Celtic.

He was subsequently forced to miss Rangers’ first game after the international break against 
Livingston, much to Gerrard’s evident frustration.

“It’s probably a lesson for me,” said Clarke. “We have to get communication better. None of the players were forced to do the extra training session. It’s an organisational set play afternoon that can make the numbers look quite dramatic, but they are not dramatic because there is no real load in the afternoon session.

“It is 11k spread over seven hours in the day. For me, it would have been better had Ryan not done 
the [second] session obviously.”

Clarke was not issuing a complete mea culpa, however. He said it was the 
responsibility of all three parties concerned to ensure such issues did not reoccur.

The Scotland manager would have preferred Gerrard, with whom he once worked at Liverpool, picking up the phone to him rather than broadcasting his complaints in a press conference.

“I understand Steven was upset,” said Clarke. “You have a key player like Ryan going away for an international and missing a key game for Rangers, I understand why he was upset.

“Would it have been better in private? Yes, it would have been better in private. But there you go.”

Clarke accepts there are parts of the Scotland job he is still getting used to as he prepares for the third double header of his nascent reign against Russia and San Marino.

He is still learning and the players, he says, are doing likewise. What he has detected already is a need to toughen up. The loss of soft goals has led to four comprehensive defeats in this campaign, three under his charge. “We have to tighten up, be more ruthless,” he said. “We have to be more streetwise, more… horrible.”

There was a steeliness detected in his own demeanour yesterday. He certainly wasn’t ready to accept any criticism that he is over-working his Scotland players. There is a fine line that needs to be found between giving them sufficient opportunity to rest after club commitments and preparing for the upcoming Scotland game.

Often there is a tight turnaround – which will be the case next week, when the Scots travel to face Russia in Moscow in the first step of a bid to find some much-needed momentum ahead of a play-off semi-final in March.

“Listen, I am a very experienced football coach and manager,” said Clarke. “I have been in the game a long time. We certainly could not be accused of flogging players to death.”

The unfortunate Jack episode has not had long-lasting consequences. The player is included in Clarke’s latest squad and could even help the manager out of a recurring tight spot at right-back.

Clarke is reluctant to risk annoying Gerrard further by playing someone currently shining for his club in the centre of midfield out of position.

Jack’s chances of starting in his preferred role have increased given Scott McTominay’s absence from the first game against Russia through suspension. Dundee United’s Lawrence Shankland, meanwhile, could feature in either or both games.

“At this moment in time Lawrence is a viable option so why not have a look?” said Clarke. “We spoke about getting into a better position over the next four games so we know clearly what we are going to do in March. Now’s the time to have a look at one or two different things.”

Apart from Shankland’s promotion from Championship level, the squad contains no real surprises. Norwich City skipper Grant Hanley returns from injury to stake a claim for a place at centre-half, Scotland’s enduring Achilles’ heel.

Although the remaining group games are all effectively dead rubbers as far as Scotland are concerned, 18-year-old former Rangers midfielder Billy Gilmour, who has recently broken into the first team at Chelsea, has not been fast-tracked into the squad, as some had hoped.

“I see everybody shouting for Billy to be in the squad and I understand why because he’s a terrific talent,” said Clarke.

“Obviously I get good reports from the people at Chelsea, but he needs time to develop.” He will remain with Scot Gemmill’s Under-21s for the time being.

John Fleck returns in a bid to win his first cap more than a decade after making his breakthrough at Rangers. Now at Sheffield United, Clarke saw nothing in the 28-year-old midfielder’s performance against Liverpool last weekend to make him question an intention to bring him back into the fold.

Fleck missed Clarke’s first double header because he was getting married and the most recent games against Russia and Belgium due to a hamstring strain.

“I had my eye on John anyway, but he missed the last camp with an injury,” said Clarke. “He was playing week in, week out. I know he is very highly thought of at Sheffield United.”

Stuart Armstrong, who is currently struggling for game time at Southampton, has made way to accommodate Fleck in what is a competitive area of the team. “I had a good but difficult conversation with Stuart on Monday and he was disappointed to miss out,” said Clarke. “But I certainly wouldn’t close the door on someone with Stuart’s ability.”