As he illustrated more than once during his time as Kilmarnock manager, Steve Clarke is not afraid of confrontation. But as he faces the myriad issues which could handicap Scotland’s chances of reaching next summer’s Euro 2020 finals, he accepts he has to know when and where to pick his battles.
During the current international break Clarke’s squad has been hit by a raft of high-profile call-offs by English Premier League-based players, prompting suggestions the Scottish FA should invoke Fifa’s five-day rule which would prevent those absentees turning out for their clubs the following weekend.
It is a route Clarke sees little value in going down, just as he adopts a similarly pragmatic view when it comes to the prospect of domestic fixtures being rescheduled by the SPFL on the weekend before Scotland go into the Euro 2020 play-offs next March.
While Scottish FA president Rod Petrie has stated he will pose the question to his colleagues on Hampden’s sixth floor, there has been little in the way of encouragement from the SPFL who manage an already skewed and congested Premiership fixture list.
The situation could be further complicated if either or both of Celtic and Rangers reach the last 16 of the Europa League, meaning they would be playing in that competition on Thursday 19 March, seven days before Scotland’s play-off semi-final at Hampden.
That would almost certainly eliminate any chance of there being no Sunday league fixtures in the intervening weekend.
Clarke is keeping his powder relatively dry on that one ahead of Scotland’s final Euro 2020 Group I fixture against Kazakhstan at Hampden tonight.
“I can’t remember if I actually said I wanted a cancellation of fixtures – I don’t think I did,” said Clarke. “All we are asking for is for a little bit of common sense to come in on that weekend.
“The flip side of that is that I don’t want Rangers or Celtic to get knocked out of the Europa League before then. If they are playing on the Thursday night the previous week, then there’s nothing we can do about that.
“So you have to respect all sides. It’s probably something to speak more about after this game. It’s better to concentrate on the game on Tuesday night.
“Maybe for a lot of people, it’s not an important game. But, for us, it’s very important. We want to play well and we want to win.”
Clarke was more forthcoming on the topic of the five-day rule. While he is hopeful those missing this week – including Liverpool’s Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney of Arsenal, Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser and Manchester United’s Scott McTominay – will all be available again for the play-offs, he is not of a mind to try to toe a hard line with the clubs concerned.
“It becomes a case of not wanting to cut off your nose to spite your face,” said Clarke. “You have to be in a position where you can get your best players. You don’t want to cause upset between players, clubs and international managers.
“So I also have to take it at face value that every call-off is an injury call-off. The only one which was for personal reasons this time was Matt Phillips of West Brom. Everyone else was flagged up as an injury by their club.
“Of course you don’t want to harm the relationship between players and their clubs. It’s easy to say ‘invoke the five-day rule’ – but I’m not sure there are any winners when you do that. It puts the player in a difficult position – that’s probably the best way to put it.
“As you probably noticed from my short time at Kilmarnock, I don’t mind a fight if I have to have a fight, as long as it’s a fight for the right reason.
“If I do have to have a fight, I’ll face it head on. I don’t shirk away from it. I don’t think I’m a soft character. If I need to be strong, I’ll be strong. But, for the moment, I don’t see any value in it.”
Having experienced a difficult start to life as Scotland manager, Clarke can bolster his win percentage rate in the job to a more encouraging 50 per cent if all three points are collected against Kazakhstan.
It would secure a third-place finish in Group I and boost morale among both players and supporters going into the crucial assignments in March.
“After beating San Marino and Cyprus, there’s no doubt it’ll help if we go into the play-offs on the back of three straight wins,” added Clarke.
“It would be much better than going in on the back of two wins and a draw or a defeat. I’ve got no doubt in mind that in March – and I know the nation and the mentality we have in this country – Hampden will be full or almost full. I have no doubt.
“The fans will be with us. The fans are always with us. The 3,000 fans who went to Cyprus were behind the team. The Tartan Army have levels of endurance and their ability to put up with the pain that the national team have put them through is amazing. I’m telling you that, come March, they’ll be there and right behind us.”