Steve Clarke interview: Kilmarnock boss on VAR, Scottish refs, improving the game and sectarian abuse

Steve Clarke celebrates after Kilmarnock's 1-0 win over Hibs at Rugby Park.
Steve Clarke celebrates after Kilmarnock's 1-0 win over Hibs at Rugby Park.
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It remains to be seen if Steve Clarke becomes as familiar with the technical area at Hampden as he has with the meeting rooms where the Scottish FA hold their disciplinary tribunals.

An obvious and outstanding candidate for the Scotland managerial vacancy, Clarke certainly meets the criteria of maximising the potential of the players at your disposal. His exceptional work at Kilmarnock, which has now seen him win the SFWA William Hill manager of the year award for the second year in a row, is testament to that.

But it’s not just his transformational effect on the Rugby Park club’s fortunes which have pushed Clarke into the limelight. His outspoken interventions on a number of contentious issues in Scottish football, from refereeing standards to the ongoing blight of sectarianism, have helped set the agenda in a compelling season.

Clarke’s observations on match officials have regularly ruffled feathers at his potential employers, the Scottish FA. Having earlier in the season received a suspended two-match ban for calling the organisation’s appeals process into question, he will be back at Hampden today to face a charge of implying “bias and incompetence” on the part of referee Steven McLean last month.

Regardless of the outcome, Clarke will remain unapologetic at addressing what he regards as problems Scottish football can collectively fix.

“The game could be better up here,” he reflected. “We could improve upon a few things. The thing is, if nobody points out what’s wrong, then nothing will ever be done about it. At times, you have to maybe speak out of turn or say a little bit too much which upsets a few people.

“Normally, when you upset a few people, there is a reaction. If the reaction is positive for Scottish football, then that would be a good thing.”

Clarke is among those 
Premiership managers who have backed a call for the introduction of video assistant referee (VAR) technology in the Premiership. But he believes further steps, including the gradual employment of full-time referees, need to be taken if the standard of officiating is to improve sufficiently.

“Everyone talks about VAR, which is great,” added Clarke. “It will help the referees no end. But if you’ve got VAR in place and VAR becomes the ref, I’m not sure that’s good for the game.

“If the refs make five or six serious mistakes in a game and we’re always referring to VAR, suddenly you will lose what football is all about, which is a spontaneous game where things happen off the cuff.

“So as well as VAR, I believe that Scottish referees have to improve. The best way to improve is to go full-time. I understand the financial implications involved, the professional jobs our 
referees have 
outside of football. But, if you put in place a recruitment process in which, several years down the line the younger referees coming through are full-time and accountable because it’s their job, then that would help.

“Because we should all be accountable for what happens in a football match. If you took VAR and full-time refs and put them together, you’d have a better product.”

Clarke also believes the Scottish FA need to reboot their disciplinary procedures which have prompted much controversy this season. “I find it confusing and I’m definitely not alone on that one,” he added. “I see Rangers this week asking why Jon Flanagan was cited for his incident in the Old Firm game and Jozo Simunovic wasn’t.

“There are these discrepancies which all clubs suffer from and all clubs benefit from at different times. At the end of the day, you want a straightforward, simple system which everyone understands. If you can get clarity and simplicity in any process, it’s better for everybody. Because there are so many grey areas it’s easy to become confused by the whole thing. Get rid of the grey areas. Make it black and white and, hopefully, it will make for a better system.”

After spending most of his playing and coaching career in England, Clarke’s return to Scottish football has been fulfilling on most levels. But his encounter with sectarian abuse from Rangers fans at Ibrox in February, along with similar chants directed at colleagues Steven Gerrard, Derek McInnes and Neil Lennon over the course of the season, left him dismayed and saw him bravely call it out in public.

“It surprised me when it came at me because I’ve never expressed an allegiance towards Celtic or Rangers in my life,” he said.

“I’d previously had some conversations with Rangers about going to work for them and was assured it was something they were clamping down on and working to eradicate from their club. Hopefully, every club is trying to do that.

“It’s too easy for someone to walk into a football ground and sing any song that they like. This issue is probably beyond the control of the clubs but it could start there, with them publicly stating they will not tolerate sectarian songs within their stadium.

“Then, if that doesn’t put an end to it, the authorities have to become involved. There’s no way in the world that you’d be allowed to sing racist songs inside a football ground so why should sectarian singing be accepted? Why not try to take that out of society?

“Up until fairly recently, people would have three or four pints and then jump in their car and drive but now everyone realises that’s wrong. So, if you educate, you can eradicate.

“It’s incredible that it still goes on. Aberdeen fans singing it about Steven at Ibrox – why? This is widespread and, if we don’t try and educate people, it will always be there.”

Clarke will collect his manager of the year trophy at the SFWA annual awards dinner on Sunday night, by which time he hopes to have led Kilmarnock to a third-place finish in the Premiership.

“I’ve had a lot of satisfaction from this job,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good press since I came back and it’s nice to return to your own country and do well. I think some people had maybe forgotten about me a little bit because
 I’d been down south for so long. It’s been nice to come back and have my name in the headlines, mostly for the right reasons. To be sitting in third position at this stage of the season is a heck of an achievement for a club of our stature. We are maybe over-achieving but we are not finished yet.”