Scotland’s recent defeat by Kazakhstan is burned into the consciousness of every Tartan Army member. It registered for different reasons with Steve Clarke.
He was a “distracted club manager” watching at his family home in Maidenhead and wondering why Stephen O’Donnell and Stuart Findlay had been left out of Alex McLeish’s side. Now he’s been granted the chance to clear up the mess left by that 3-0 defeat.
Bye-bye Kilmarnock, hello Scotland. Clarke’s decision to say a fond farewell to the Rugby Park side and take the reins of Scotland was informed by a burning desire to right what he felt was a wrong dating back to 1990.
It was the year of the World Cup in Italy. Scotland had qualified for the fifth consecutive time. Clarke was playing consistently well for a Chelsea side who finished fifth in the old English First Division having signed three years earlier from St Mirren.
Andy Roxburgh recognised this and included the right-back in a pre-tournament gathering in Genoa, where Scotland were due to play two of their three group games. But he was never given the chance to return to the Italian city, where Scotland lost to Costa Rica in the opening game and Richard Gough played at right-back.
“The biggest regret I have got in my career is only having six caps – I feel I deserved more,” said Clarke. “I was in the pre squad for Italia 90. Andy Roxburgh took 26 players to Genoa for a camp in the February. I was one of the ones that missed out from that 26. It still hurts me now. I have a chance to put that right with this job and hopefully lead my country to a major tournament.”
A double manager of the year award winner this season, he is finally getting the credit he deserves. The reception he received following the victory over Rangers on Sunday made it all the tougher to leave Kilmarnock.
He’d already resolved to bring his tenure there to an end, with England the most likely destination due to a desire to spend more time with his family. But the fervour of the supporters placed doubt in his mind he was doing the right thing.
He left them wanting more with a masterful speech where he pointed to three stands full of Kilmarnock fans and said they were the equivalent of the major trophy he wished he’d won for them. Turning to the empty away stand behind him, he said: “Bye-bye Rangers”. Later, perhaps after remembering that being Scotland manager means having to be equitable, he expressed the hope that it would be a case of “Bye-bye Celtic” too when they return to Rugby Park next season.
“I think the decision I was going to make at the end of this season was to go back to England and hopefully pick up a job there, either over the summer or unfortunately into the next sacking season when there was going to be jobs available,” he explained.
“I was siding towards that, although having seen the reception I got after the game on Sunday, it would have made it a very difficult decision to actually leave Kilmarnock under those circumstances.”
He could not refuse the offer when Scotland came calling. Clarke knows full well how some view the position – as a career suicide note, the length of which is variable. Predecessor Alex McLeish lasted just 12 matches before bowing out, the stress etched on his face. Even the eternally youthful Gordon Strachan wore a worried frown during his tenure, while Craig Levein, currently looking forward to leading out Hearts at this weekend’s Scottish Cup final, was broken for a spell by his involvement with the national side. Clarke accepts all this and still relishes the challenge.
The Clarke era at Scotland began with a quip referencing the disciplinary charges that usually saw him invited to Hampden: “It’s nice to be on this side of the fence for once”.
The support his appointment has received was summed up by Hampden staff, including performance director Malky Mackay, all filing into the conference hall to witness Clarke’s coronation. His two-game ban for calling into question Steven McLean’s ability to referee Kilmarnock matches properly since he is the son of a former Rugby Park player will be activated if he returns to club management in Scotland. For the foreseeable future, he’s the man in with the blazers, the one with it all to prove.
“I look forward to that scrutiny and intensity and see if I can live up to the challenge,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons for taking the job. It might frazzle me, I don’t know. Nobody knows what the future holds.
“But I’m certainly not scared of the intensity and the scrutiny. I’m not scared that people might say it’s a career-ender. I went to Kilmarnock and they were bottom of the league. If they’d stayed bottom, that would have been a career-ender too. I was happy to take on that challenge. I am happy to take on this one too. Not only am I happy, I am honoured. And if it frazzles me, I will go down fighting – I promise you.”
If he wanted an easy life, he would still be assistant manager at Chelsea. According to him, this was a well-paid job for life. But he chose to walk out to become Gianfranco Zola’s first-team coach at West Ham United.
He has since worked with players ranging in ability at Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, Reading, Aston Villa and Kilmarnock. His recent success in taking the Rugby Park side from relegation candidates to Europe gives Scotland fans most hope he has the required gift for alchemy.