While the conditions and geographical details might be very different, the circumstances are broadly similar.
Zagreb in the height of summer can never be mistaken for Moscow as winter sets in. But there are undeniable parallels between what Scotland were experiencing six years ago prior to a game against Croatia and what they are facing now, including an overwhelming sense of apathy towards the international side.
It was June 2013. Manager Gordon Strachan was toiling. He could even have been described as on the ropes. Like many new Scotland managers in recent times, he was struggling to inspire the desired bounce. Scotland’s hopes of joining the latest World Cup party were already quashed. Doubts had already begun to form about whether he was the right man after successive defeats by Wales and Serbia.
Steve Clarke is not quite at that stage yet. But he needs a spark. He is desperate for his reign to be ignited. It was much the same for Strachan when he led his tired, depleted and already eliminated squad to play Croatia, the No 4-ranked team in the world at the time.
There was little expectation and not much more interest. Despite such an unpromising context Scotland secured a surprise and invigorating victory thanks to a first-half goal from Robert Snodgrass, one of only three members of the current squad involved that night (David Marshall and Stuart Armstrong were on the bench).
Strachan’s reign, while not delivering the yearned for major finals appearance, suddenly became a more sanguine enterprise, concluding with a run of six unbeaten games as Scotland just failed to secure a play-off spot for the World Cup in Russia last year.
They have finally got here, just 16 months too late. Clarke is now in Strachan’s shoes. He has returned to a city where he might reasonably feel he is owed some luck. It was here, amid the tombs of Tsars and onion domes, that he experienced one of his worst nights in football. He was assistant to manager Avram Grant as Chelsea lost the Champions League final to Manchester United after a penalty shoot-out. “Someone had to drag it up,” he said yesterday.
Chelsea were a John Terry slip on a sodden pitch away from winning Europe’s premier trophy for the first time in their history. Clarke’s anguish was Sir Alex Ferguson’s delight. Chelsea did become European champions four years later, but this was of little consequence to Clarke, who had moved on to the Liverpool assistant manager’s post by then and was about to take the reins at West Bromwich Albion.
“It is not very often you have a player going up to take a penalty to win the Champions League,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, John slipped and hit the post with the penalty. It was not our night. Most of the team that played that night in Moscow won the Champions League a few years later, maybe when they were past their best. If ever a group of players deserved to win the Champions League, it was that group of Chelsea players.”
The neutrals in the crowd favoured Chelsea, given their well-established Russian connection. Roman Abramovich was especially downcast as his dream of winning the European Cup in his homeland evaporated in such agonising fashion. “I did not speak to Roman an awful lot,” recalled Clarke. “I was only the assistant. The various managers I worked with at that time were more likely to spend time with Roman than I was. He was a good owner for the club.”
Knowing there was little more could be done might have provided some comfort for Clarke. A long league season of daily contact with players, a pre-final camp where he had time to formulate tactics, it sounds like paradise to him now. In contrast to this immersion, he estimates he has worked with his Scotland players for a total of one hour this week. It’s no surprise to discover that he finds this intensely frustrating. “I am a good manager, but I think I’m a really good coach and I don’t get the time on the coaching pitch to work,” he said.
Clarke is desperate for a moment of inspiration, a la Snodgrass’ winner against Croatia. Who can provide it? Perhaps Snodgrass himself, or even Dundee United striker Lawrence Shankland, who could feature at the Luzhniki Stadium to become the first player from the Scottish lower tiers to make his Scotland debut in a competitive match since Stevie Crawford. The Raith Rovers striker played – and scored – in a Kirin Cup fixture against Ecuador in 1995 shortly after his side had won promotion from the old First Division.
A win this evening would not be as meaningless as it might appear, since Scotland need to at least finish in third place in Group I to reflect their seeding (they are currently fifth). It would also provide the perfect platform to start building some momentum before the play-off semi-final in March, Clarke’s stated aim for the remaining qualifying games. After all, Strachan got lift-off from what seemed a hollow victory.
“That would be great, wouldn’t it?” said Clarke. “That’s what you hope for. I’m not in Russia thinking ‘we’ll get this game out of the way and then attack the last three games and see if we can get the points there’.
“We have to think ‘come on, let’s turn over Russia’. We have to think we can get three points here and if not then at least take a point. It’s going to be a tough game, but I saw enough in the first game at Hampden to let me know we have a chance to win the game.”