A photograph recently did the rounds on Twitter dating back to 1990, prior to the World Cup finals in Italy, which made many people wistful.
Taken from the pages of Shoot! magazine, it was a Scotland team group comprising 33 players, which said everything about the strength of depth at the time. Among several notable faces was a young-looking Steve Clarke. Chest out, arms folded behind his back, he looks flushed at the possibilities lying ahead. He needn’t have been; he was cut from the final squad.
What also stood out were the characters to his right on the back row: Craig Levein, Dave McPherson, Richard Gough and Alex McLeish, Clarke’s predecessor in the post that threatens to leave him looking a lot more grizzled if he does not watch out. What would he do to be able to utilise just one of those centre halves now? Or, preferably, two of them?
What would he do to be able to rely on a younger version of himself at right-back? Clarke won the laughably low number of six caps, something he almost spits out when asked how many international appearances he made.
He is now the latest Scotland manager to be brought low by having to rely on too many players who are past their best and several others who have been promoted above their station and who might not otherwise have stood a chance of playing for Scotland were the team not in the midst of a prolonged, profound crisis. Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than at centre-half.
Mikey Devlin and Charlie Mulgrew became just the latest partnership to have their limitations exposed in ruthless fashion, with the former making his debut and the latter taking another step towards his 50th cap and Roll of Honour territory. Russia’s hulking centre forward Artem Dzyuba will haunt their dreams long after they resume playing for their clubs, Aberdeen and Wigan Athletic, where Mulgrew is currently on loan from Blackburn Rovers. That’s assuming they play. Devlin is not even necessarily first choice at Aberdeen.
Before they do this, Clarke has to decide whether to give them another chance against San Marino tomorrow or else unveil yet another new partnership; Declan Gallagher and Stuart Findlay, two more prospective new caps, wait in the wings.
Clarke yesterday reflected on Scotland’s inability to defend set pieces, something he will take as a personal affront. He often portrays himself as happiest on the training ground.
There is, though, a limit to what you can do with the hour he estimates he was able to work with the players prior to the game with Russia. It seemed to emphasise a point that Scotland’s collapse started just before the 60-minute mark. Clarke is now considering taking drastic action; pulling everyone back at corners. The set-piece issues are clearly vexing him. He seems ready to wield the axe.
“That’s a big concern,” he admitted. “When you look at the goals we’ve conceded from corner kicks it’s not really about our organisation. It’s been about one-v-one battles as the balls come in. When that happens, I need to look at the personnel.
“I always try to leave one or two players up the pitch to give you a chance to get out from a corner. But maybe we’re getting to the stage where we need to bring everybody back and pack the penalty box.”
Of course, the hope is Scotland won’t need to do much defending tomorrow night when San Marino visit Hampden. Will they even need two centre-halves? Two strikers, in an old fashioned 4-4-2, might be one way to get the paltry crowd expected on side from the beginning. Johnny Russell could be given a chance following Oli Burke’s departure due to injury after proving such a willing conscript from his base in the United States. Dundee United’s Lawrence Shankland could also be handed his first start to give him the chance to create fresher and better memories than on Thursday. It was cruel that his introduction in Moscow should coincide with the loss of four quick goals. He should not be maligned.
It’s the start of a run of games where Scotland can feel reasonably confident of picking up victories. This includes the play-offs in March, when they can shake off a traumatic qualifying campaign that cost one manager his job and has placed another’s reputation on the line. Clarke was clearly hurting when he faced reporters just before midnight local time on Thursday to explain another multi-goal defeat. This raggedness was something which his recruitment was meant to halt. “It’s difficult for me to go into a press conference and talk about a 4-0 defeat,” he said.
It’s reached the point where Scotland have need to be grateful for facing the likes of San Marino. “The only little crumb of comfort is that we now have three teams closer to our level,” he said, with reference to San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan.