Steve Clarke and Scotland left with more questions than answers as history repeats with Northern Ireland loss

The previous time Scotland lost to Northern Ireland at Hampden was also the cause of national anguish ahead of a major finals in Germany

The next time there’s a major finals in Germany on the horizon, here’s some advice for the SFA: best flick past the page containing Northern Ireland’s contact details.

“We were skipping along the road to Munich, singing ‘Dooby dooby doo’, and yelling ‘Easy’. We were high on euphoria and it was all becoming too smooth and too predictable and we had not noticed that we travelled on a via dolorosa. We know now.”

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So wrote John Rafferty for this very newspaper nearly half a century ago after Scotland succumbed 1-0 at Hampden against Terry Neill’s re-emerging Northern Ireland side. The knives were out for Willie Ormond, the then Scotland manager. Even Denis Law's place was being questioned. The World Cup in Germany was only a month away.

Scotland's Kieran Tierney and Kenny McLean look dejected after the 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)Scotland's Kieran Tierney and Kenny McLean look dejected after the 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Scotland's Kieran Tierney and Kenny McLean look dejected after the 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

At least Steve Clarke has a bit longer, around 78 days, to sort things out. Is he confident he can do that with just two matches left between now and the Euro 2024 opener against Germany in Munich on 14 June? “They are two friendlies...” he pointed out in the aftermath of Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland, the country's first win at Hampden since 1974. “I wish there were nae more games!”

It’s certainly true that Scotland and friendlies are uneasy bedfellows and have been for a long time. The record is poor, just two wins from the last 19. “Not just mine,” noted Clarke. “Everybody’s friendly record. It is not very good.”

Of course, one crucial difference to 50 years ago, when Rafferty wrote the above words, is that the “jolt” against Northern Ireland, as the celebrated sports writer described the one-goal defeat, cannot be dismissed as solely that in the current scenario.

Rather, it is further evidence of a worrying downward spiral that’s been apparent since qualification was secured on a night when Clarke's team did not even play.

Steve Clarke, in the foreground, takes notes during Tuesday's defeat against Nothern Ireland while opposite number Michael O'Neill looks on - but what has the Scotland manager learned?  (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)Steve Clarke, in the foreground, takes notes during Tuesday's defeat against Nothern Ireland while opposite number Michael O'Neill looks on - but what has the Scotland manager learned?  (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Steve Clarke, in the foreground, takes notes during Tuesday's defeat against Nothern Ireland while opposite number Michael O'Neill looks on - but what has the Scotland manager learned? (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The truth is Scotland have not had anything to celebrate when they have been in action since a win against Cyprus in Larnaca in September. Even Berti Vogts did not suffer as long a sequence – seven matches – without a victory.

The late Craig Brown was in charge when Scotland last endured such a drought, which extended eventually to nine games and, like now, partly spanned a period when the team were preparing for a major finals. So yes, these things can happen when a manager is seeking to employ some new ideas. But worryingly, Clarke seemed slightly spooked on Tuesday. The change from a back three to a back four was forced because of an injury to Andy Robertson. Might he have done this before half time had it been otherwise? Too little experimentation has been a charge levelled at him although all outfield players bar Celtic left-back Greg Taylor got minutes against the Netherlands and Northern Ireland.