Scotland could run out in front of one of the smallest home crowds for a qualifying match when they take on San Marino this evening but manager Steve Clarke says the players cannot allow that to affect their performance as they seek out a much-needed win to bolster the mood among the Tartan Army.
The current record low for a Hampden turnout during a qualifying campaign was set in 1975 when a paltry 11,375 showed up for the December clash with Romania, but with just 10,000 tickets sold, including those that are part of the season ticket package, only complimentary briefs, handed out to schools, look capable of possibly elevating this afternoon’s tally beyond the current low.
“If the stadium was empty, we still have to win the game,” said the Scotland boss, aware of the growing apathy. “We have to go into the game, not looking for the crowd to give us anything. We have to go to win the game, whatever crowd is there. If we can win the game and hopefully put on a good performance, they enjoy the game and that will be the most important thing.
“What’s gone is gone. But everything we want to achieve is still in front of us. We want to win the next game, so that’s in front of us. We want to win the next three games, so that’s in front of us. If we achieve that, then we go into March [for the Nations League play-offs] with positivity, hopefully a full house here at Hampden and the chance via two matches to qualify for Euro 2020, so everything that was in front of us when I came into the job is still there in front of us to be achieved. If that’s not an incentive for the players, I don’t know what is.”
In the wake of the 4-0 collapse in Moscow, San Marino are expected to pose fewer problems for the Scotland rearguard but, rejigging the starting line-up, goalkeeper David Marshall will be replaced by his understudy Jon McLaughlin and Clarke will consider introducing other newcomers as he treads a fine balance between offering inexperienced players more exposure to international football while also finding a way to win the fixture. The manager explained: “It was pre-planned, always going to be the case Jon would play. David Marshall’s been the No.1 since I came into the job but something might happen to David over the next few months, so you need to have another goalkeeper who has had some minutes on the pitch.
“We’re in a position where we have to win a game of football and we won’t treat San Marino lightly but it would be nice to give one or two a cap. But I have to look and I have to decide which is the best team to get that result.
“Don’t forget, Liam Palmer got his second cap the other night. Mikey Devlin got his first cap, John Fleck got his first cap, so there’s already been one or two capped who haven’t been involved before.
“If I can do one or two then I will but only if I think that’s going to get us the result we need.
“We have to win the game. There is no way of trying to say anything else. I am not talking about stumbling or worrying about the game or thinking about what the scoreline might be. We have to win first and foremost and turn the corner. We have had a rough four games against good opposition, against very good opposition, and we have suffered for it. The only way to turn the corner is to start winning games and we have an opportunity to win this game.”
With the qualifying route via the group stages blocked off, the purpose of the result is building confidence and reigniting belief.
“One win turns the corner, stops the negative slide,” said Clarke. “One win can do that. But on top of the one win we need to go into the next camp and get another two wins. If we get another two wins then everybody goes into March hopefully feeling a little bit more positive.”
A few goals could help cast a rosier glow. The manager admits that as a former defender his foremost thought is how to limit the goals his side concede but, especially against so-called minnows like San Marino, who have never won a competitive away game, there has to be a valid route to goal at the other end as well.
With Oli Burke out that may mean utilising the attacking threat of Celtic’s Ryan Christie and also taking another look at Thursday’s debutant Lawrence Shankland.
“I thought his first few touches were very good and at that moment in the game everything was looking okay,” stated his manager, who admitted he had to extrapolate any positives he could from Thursday’s match. “Listen, as a head coach, there are some small crumbs of comfort that I can take from the game.”
But with an obvious dearth in goalscoring options and battling to put together a competitive team in the absence of several obvious squad members, he also has Johnny Russell, who helped spare blushes by adding to Kenny McLean’s opening goal, pictured left, in a 2-0 win the last time the sides met.
“We’ve got two or three who picked up knocks the other night. Hopefully they’ll all come through. But we will see. Only John Fleck missed training this morning [Saturday], with a little tightness in his groin but we’re hoping he’ll be fine.
“The way that I’ve been brought up as a coach, it’s always to think first and foremost about the players who are available. And try and work to get the best out of those players. That’s what we have to do.
“There is a chance for some of these players – who maybe weren’t in the original squad – to nail down a place in the squad going forward.”