Aweek might be a long time in politics, especially in the current climate. But it isn’t enough time for Steve Clarke to unearth all the answers as he seeks to investigate why playing for Scotland currently lacks the appeal it once had.
Clarke was hailed as a miracle worker at Kilmarnock, where he succeeded in turning the Rugby Park side into more than the sum of its parts. Now he is charged with making the negativity that has attached itself to recent Scotland squads disappear while, at the same time, conjuring up results against Cyprus and, more dauntingly, Belgium.
The latter team are ranked No 1 in the world. Clarke has no wand but does possess a mobile phone, arguably the more useful item at present as he tries to establish who wants to play for Scotland and who does not. He is also determined to discover why there is a need to even ask this question.
Clarke admits he has risked angering his SFA paymasters before a ball is kicked after spending much of the first seven days of his tenure on the phone to players. Some were included in his first squad, some were not. His phone bill is set to rise further over the summer and before Scotland return to action against Russia in the autumn.
“If it takes two or three conversations and I feel that they are the right people to help the squad, to make the squad better, then I am prepared to keep trying,” said Clarke.
“It’s a completely different job to club management because you are trying to convince people who are not your players to come and play for you,” he added. “It should be easy because everyone should want to play for their country.”
He has found 27 players who do wish to represent Scotland. Crucially, he believes they are good enough to do so. Five uncapped players are among the group, including a trio from Kilmarnock in Greg Taylor, Stuart Findlay and Eamonn Brophy. Aberdeen’s Michael Devlin and Livingston goalkeeper Liam Kelly are the others.
Clarke dragged himself away from the phone for long enough yesterday to explain his choices and look ahead to his first matches as Scotland manager. Over the next international period he intends to get to the bottom of why there has been such negativity attached to the Scotland set-up.
He has already learned some of this ill-feeling dates back to the weeks following Gordon Strachan’s departure as manager, when several players who formed the spine of that side were left out of subsequent squads.
James McArthur has since retired. Returns for Robert Snodgrass and Matt Ritchie had been speculated upon but neither player has been included. Steven Fletcher is also unavailable for these games after an arduous season for Sheffield Wednesday. Now 32, he does not represent the future in any case.
He performed well when recalled by Alex McLeish for the final two Nations League fixtures against Albania and Israel. But the striker’s most recent absence for the ill-fated fixtures with Kazakhstan and San Marino tested the Tartan Army’s patience.
“It’s difficult for me, after seven or eight days in the job, and talk about what happened before,” said Clarke.
“Some of the more senior ones felt after the qualifying campaign under Gordon they’d been pushed aside a wee bit. That’s something we can work on. It will come with conversations,” he added. “99 per cent of the squad I haven’t spoken to because I don’t need to – I’ll speak to them face to face next week. The phone calls were with people I wasn’t sure were available for selection or were injured. It was important to get in touch with them. Hopefully, in the next ten days, I’ll come out with a better understanding of what might have been the issues that caused the last camp to be quite negative.”
One way of lightening the mood is devising training sessions the players all enjoy. Generating such good vibes can have the additional effect of encouraging others to want to get involved. “If the players enjoy working with us, they might phone their mates and say, ‘it’s not bad here now’. You might get a few more back,” said Clarke. “It’s a really important week and, if we can make it enjoyable, with good information for the players, they can phone or WhatsApp their mates and get a few more involved.”
As might be expected, there has been no problem convincing Kilmarnock players to come on board. Clarke should not have to justify picking four players from a team that finished third in the Scottish Premiership but he understands the perception of favouritism.
“On the Kilmarnock one, people might look at it and say, ‘he’s just bringing those boys in as a thank you for what he did for him at Kilmarnock’. That’s not the case. Stephen O’Donnell with seven caps has been pretty much a fixture at right-back.”
He pointed out that Findlay was in McLeish’s last squad while Taylor has been brought in as left-back cover for Andy Robertson, whose involvement is not guaranteed given he has the small matter of a Champions League final to attend to first.
“Young Greg has a million caps for all the under-age Scotland teams coming through,” said Clarke. “His natural progression is to step up from the Under-21s to the full squad. He has been probably the most consistent Scottish left-back in the SPFL this year so deserves his call-up.”
Brophy, meanwhile, “is a goalscorer”. Clarke added: “He is enthusiastic, he works hard and I know he would run through a brick wall for his country. Hopefully, he will do the same for me.”