Steve Clarke to join exclusive band of Scotland managers with special milestone but could be in league of his own in Georgia
It’s a source of regret and no little frustration for Steve Clarke that he won only six caps for Scotland as a player. “Every time a squad was announced it hurt me that I wasn’t in it,” he recalled in 2019, a few days after his first match as manager.
He has referred to the relatively low number of caps as the biggest disappointment of his career.
Unlike players, Scotland managers aren’t included in a Roll of Honour once they hit 50 matches in charge, as Clarke is set to do this evening in Tbilisi in a stadium where the national side have had precisely nothing to celebrate in the past. But there might be some equivalent form of recognition bestowed on anyone who can lead the international side to a win in the Georgian capital. Or at least inspire so much as a goal.
These are two ambitions on a milestone-evening for Clarke. Scotland are winless and goalless in two away meetings against Georgia so it’s just as well that the three points already earned against their old foes on a freakish, rain-drenched night at Hampden in June have helped stamp their ticket for Euro 2024 already.
That’s not to say the return clash is meaningless. Scotland are seeking to at least keep pace with Spain at the summit of Group A.
Luis de la Fuente’s side have an away appointment in Cyprus at the same time as the Scots take on Georgia. Wins apiece will leave the top two on 18 points heading into Sunday’s final round of fixtures. A sizeable Tartan Army following, trips perhaps booked before Scotland’s Euro 2024 destiny was confirmed by Spain’s win in Norway last month, will join the team in Tbilisi for a game where so much could have been lying on the line.
While there are no playing survivors from two previous visits - the currently injured Craig Gordon was on the bench for one and played in the other - there will be plenty of supporters carrying the scars from both games.
Contemplating tonight's clash while sitting at Hampden after naming his squad, and after being asked whether the circumstances of the last meeting might impact on the re-match, Clarke mentioned that he had forgotten that the previous game against the same set of understandably peeved opponents finished “close to midnight”.
How Scotland fans will wish they could as easily erase the memory of the previous two trips to face these dream wreckers, chiefly the first one - in 2007. The hour was getting late when Alex McLeish's side headed to Tbilisi with qualification hopes not just firmly intact but buoyed by a pulsating win over Ukraine a few days earlier. A win against Georgia would have set them up for a home clash versus the then world champions Italy, when just a point would be needed to end what was then just a decade of hurt.
Euro 2008 here we come! But that proved a mirage - a maroon mirage. Scotland wore their change kit of the time, one that was subsequently quietly binned, as they lost 2-0 against a side with a 17-year-old novice in goal. They were back in blue and dreaming of France under Gordon Strachan by the time of the next visit. The already slim hopes of reaching Euro 2016 were torpedoed by Valeri Qazaishvili’s first-half winner.
Clarke was a coach at Chelsea when the first match took place. As for the second game, he was in charge at Reading. “All we can do is affect the future, the next game we play,” he said yesterday with reference to these painful past reversals.
Georgia are trying to wash one of their own recent results out of their hair. They lost 7-1 to Spain in their last-but-one home competitive outing. A win over Scotland, the other group high-flyers, might provide a little redress, particularly after the farce of the last meeting in Glasgow, when Georgia were firmly against the game restarting at 9.35pm after a deluge meant the players were left kicking their heels for over 90 minutes.
Manager Willy Sagnol might look at Scotland and fancy his side's chances. The visitors are on a run of three consecutive defeats, though the former French international defender won't be deceived by that. These games were against England, Spain and, most recently, his own countrymen in Lille. More germane to tonight's fixture is the fact Scotland are without as many as five almost-certain starters in goalkeeper Angus Gunn, skipper Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Aaron Hickey and Che Adams.
Celtic’s Greg Taylor could well fill-in at left wing-back while Nathan Patterson might get some much-needed minutes at right wing-back. It would surprise no one if Clarke, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to hand Lewis Ferguson a first competitive start in midfield given his recent displays for Bologna, where he recently become the joint-leading Scottish goalscorer in Serie A alongside Denis Law, no less.
In goal, it’s a straight choice between Liam Kelly and Zander Clark, with the former having been given the first half against France in Scotland’s last outing. Either way, a Scotland goalkeeper will be making his competitive debut.
As for Clarke, 50 matches is something to be proud of just months after he turned 60. McLeish – a more than decent Scotland manager - did not even get to half as many games in two spells. Strachan’s contract was not renewed with him ten short of 50.
Craig Brown was the last to reach this figure on the way to 72 matches in charge. Indeed, Clarke is one of only four managers to hit the half-century, with Andy Roxburgh and Jock Stein the others.
They all reached World Cups, something Clarke is endeavouring to do. He has already become the first manager to lead Scotland to back-to-back European Championships. And now, perhaps, for his next trick – the first to taste joy in Georgia?
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