Steve Clarke makes Scotland Euro 2024 squad decision: Rangers duo at risk, Craig Gordon poser, John McGinn school quip

Head coach says he knows who is boarding plane – now it’s a question of telling unlucky two

On a day when several thousand school pupils took advantage of being allowed into Hampden to watch Scotland players train, it seemed appropriate that manager Steve Clarke should be pondering a very simple maths puzzle.

It’s one his young audience might have been able to help him with. As even those still in the early stages of the syllabus will know, 28 into 26 doesn't go.

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If a football manager has 28 players but is only permitted to have 26, then what must he do? It is of course a very simple matter of subtraction. Or, indeed, elimination. Despite the heavy responsibility resting on his shoulders, Clarke seemed very much himself earlier today as he oversaw a public training session, with new recruit Tommy Conway joining in. An even more recent call-up, Lewis Morgan, was still making his way from New York.

Scotland head coach Steve Clarke watches on during a training session on Thursday at Hampden.Scotland head coach Steve Clarke watches on during a training session on Thursday at Hampden.
Scotland head coach Steve Clarke watches on during a training session on Thursday at Hampden.

Clarke certainly can’t be accused of trying to make things easy for himself. He could have opted against making any new additions when Lyndon Dykes and then Ben Doak dropped out, thus meaning there would be no need to cut anyone from the group. But it’s not in his nature to buck the issue, as underlined by his response on the night he was the victim of sectarian abuse at Ibrox during his time as Kilmarnock manager.

Now, of course, he is the Scotland manager – well, head coach at least. Introduced as “Scotland manager Steve Clarke” to the school children during an on-pitch interview, he made a gentle correction. "Head coach, if you don't mind..." He will be wearing several hats over the next 24 hours, including that of executioner. Once he's delivered his decision about who won't be going to Germany, he may well be required to play the role of counsellor.

An SFA agm was being held at Hampden at the same time as the public training session. Perhaps a pay rise for Clarke was included on the agenda. If not, it should have been. Not many Scotland managers in recent times have had to tackle such a dirty job. Clarke was given the rather more pleasant task of adding three to his roster three years ago after Uefa upped the Euro 2020 squad size limit to 26 due to Covid, paving the way for the inclusion of Billy Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull.

Clarke would clearly prefer that form of mathematical rigour to the one he's currently dealing with, amid reports veteran ‘keeper Craig Gordon is one of the unlucky ones. If so, there is method in the seeming madness. Would Gordon have been happy as a No. 3 in Germany when some believe, himself probably included, he should be No.1? Liam Kelly, who many reckoned might be cut adrift, will be more inclined to stomach simply being part of things.

Rangers defender John Souttar could be at risk.Rangers defender John Souttar could be at risk.
Rangers defender John Souttar could be at risk.

Clarke has confirmed that he’s already made his decision. What he hasn't done is chosen when, where and how to deliver it. The high spirits of over 7,000 school children who took advantage of free entry to Hampden contrasted with the private torment of the man in the middle in a baseball cap.

“Hope you’re all going back to school in the afternoon!” teased John McGinn while he was being interviewed on the pitch during a break in the session. He was then treated to a few high-pitched choruses of the "Super John McGinn" song. At least the Aston Villa midfielder can rest easy knowing he's on the flight to Germany on Sunday, fitness permitting. Others cannot be so sure.

Clarke has already suggested he's overcompensated when it comes to defenders. Back in March, when he picked seven centre-halves, including Kieran Tierney, for the friendlies against the Netherlands and Northern Ireland, he said he wouldn't be taking all seven to Germany.

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All seven named for those games – Grant Hanley later dropped out – are in his current squad, although three – Hanley, John Souttar and Liam Cooper – have fitness issues. The trio took part in training today. Cooper is responding well to a knee knock sustained in the 2-0 friendly win over Gibraltar on Monday night.

Craig Gordon is one of four goalkeepers in the squad.Craig Gordon is one of four goalkeepers in the squad.
Craig Gordon is one of four goalkeepers in the squad.

Hanley, meanwhile, was deployed as middle centre-half in a team that looked like it might very well be the side that starts tomorrow night's final friendly against Finland and could well line-up against Germany in Munich next Friday. He is guaranteed to be on the plane, though that was always likely to be the case. Clarke has underlined how he is one of his “men”. The manager, sorry, head coach, will want Hanley with him in the Allianz Arena, even if slightly under-cooked, which the Norwich City defender must be after so few appearances this season.

Rangers defender John Souttar might in the ‘at risk’ category however, along with Cooper, whose recent injury combined with scant usage at Leeds United this season could count against him. Or perhaps Clarke might choose to cut one from his midfield, where Ryan Jack looks most at threat. However, he is also handy cover for for Callum McGregor and Billy Gilmour, and could even do a shift at right back. Jack also missed out at Euro 2020 due to injury. The loyal Clarke will have included such factors in his deliberations.

The clock is ticking. Clarke must submit his paper by the Uefa deadline of 11pm tomorrow night.

This 'school' theme is a strong one. This process of whittling down the squad is the international football equivalent of the excruciating experience of being picked second last and last in the playground. Someone must be, though. Having given these players the opportunity to represent Scotland at Euro 2024, Clarke must dash the dreams of two of them.

It’s a cruel, cruel world though no-one needs to tell him that. As a player he was omitted from not one but two World Cup squads, with the first of these occasions, before Italia '90, coming after he had been named in a provisional pool of players that travelled to Italy earlier in the year for a camp.

His response was to put in a transfer request at Chelsea, whose manager at the time, Bobby Campbell, was blamed by Clarke for ruining his World Cup dream. Emotions will be running high. Still, no one can explain to the disappointed players involved that he knows how they feel with the same sincerity as Clarke.

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