Incoming Scotland manager riding a wave of goodwill – and he wants to repay that when ‘his’ players take on Cyprus, writes Andrew Smith
Being Scotland manager would appear to have already inflicted punishment on Steve Clarke even before he has taken charge for a game. That moment arrives on Saturday night when he leads out his team at Hampden for the Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus that will be followed by the onerous assignment in Belgium three days later.
In preparation for his debut double-header, Clarke – with digits pressed to his face if he knew what was good for him – pressed play on recordings of the Kazakhstan calamity and the soulless San Marino success that ended the 14-month tenure of predecessor Alex McLeish.
“I had a little look at that Kazakh game. I had a little look at San Marino,” the 55-year-old said. “Those are the two most recent performances. Obviously I have my way of playing, my tactics and I can see some things that I would change. That is what I am here to do. That is what I am paid for. I have had a little look at the opposition coming up. Not Belgium, because I know how they are going to play and how we are going to play in that game. I hope that it is positive.
“It is important to have had a look to see how they [Scotland] have been playing and how they have been asked to play so we can quickly smooth over things and try to get my style and my system, and the players can understand that and take it to the pitch.”
The fervent hope is that, even if Clarke can’t really make any significant changes to the personnel deployed in the 3-0 thumping in what’s now known as Nur-Sultan – in his first squad he named nine of the starters on that ignominious night ten weeks ago, with only injury causing David Bates to miss out – he can make profound changes to the manner in which Scotland players perform. Asked whether, after a week of double sessions starting tomorrow, differences in configuration and competence will be evident to the country’s supporters, Clarke joked that would depend on the football eye of any beholder.
“I don’t know how you read a game,” he said. “Everybody reads the game differently. My way might be different from yours. You might look and say they are playing 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 or whatever and I might read it differently. I might think we played a pure 4-3-3. You can tell me after the game.”
Clarke is blunt about the inability to alter more than tactics and attitude, with the fact being that his first starting line-up won’t necessarily deviate much from the last two selections of McLeish.
“I can’t go out and give everybody a different nationality,” he said. “These are the Scottish boys, these are the boys that are here. I’d like to think the boys that were involved in these trips will be hurting. They will want the chance to put it right. If they get the chance to put it right in the upcoming match then good. I hope you see the desire and hunger to put things right.”
Scotland – as, in fairness, they demonstrated under McLeish in the thrilling victories over Albania and Israel that earned them a Euro 2020 play-off, if, as expected, they fail to qualify for the finals through the group route – have the players to post the right result against the Cypriots.
Clarke’ formation will be built on a back four, and utilising James Forrest and Ryan Fraser – who claimed six goals between them in the Nations League – on each wing, as he did successfully in deploying Chris Burke and Jordan Jones regularly at Kilmarnock last season. A 4-3-3 system seems entirely likely. “A back four has been pretty much my go-to since I became a manager,” Clarke said.
“The three at the back works in certain circumstances with certain players. You look at what you have there and there is the possibility to work with three at the back but for me a back four is a good way to go if you can get them well-drilled, well-organised, with a good midfield shield in front of them. It gives you a good platform to attack .
“Both Forrest and Fraser are good wide players that understand the game, when to be inside, when to be outside.
“James Forrest, in particular, has improved a lot on knowing when to be inside in the right area, that’s probably why he got his hat-trick against Israel [and] scored a few goals this year. Ryan maybe doesn’t get quite as many goals but his assists are plentiful, which is good, and we are missing one or two forwards. I’ve got two strikers in [Marc] McNulty and [Eamonn] Brophy that, if you create and give them chances, will both score goals, so there’s a big onus on the wide forwards, if you like, to do well for us.”
The onus will be on Clarke to post a convincing win on a night that will provide him with the “proud moment” of leading out a side at the national stadium for the first time – an experience that will also provide an added benefit. “This will be the first time I’ve actually been in the dugout. From first impressions, it looks a hell of a long way from the seat to the edge of pitch, so I’ll get my steps in.”
He has to ensure that the Tartan Army see a step forward for the national team. “It will be [the chance to get people onside],” Clarke acknowledged.
“I don’t think there is any point in hiding away from it and trying to play it down. It is a big game, it is my first game and I want to start with a win. I hope I can transmit that to the players and they will know as well. We have given ourselves a difficult start in the group and we have to try to make sure we get points in the bag as quickly as possible.”
Quicker than that even.