Steve Clarke's baying Scotland critics left with bloody noses at Euros once again

Scotland head coach boosts reputation as bounce back merchant

It’s highly unlikely, granted. But, if a (very) persuasive literary agent ever managed to persuade the current Scotland manager to author a self-help book there can be no debate about the subject. Steve Clarke and the Art of the Recovery.

He can even have that title for free. It's the least he deserves after succeeding in guiding his Scotland team back from the brink yet again. In fact, he’s already written the book when it comes to grizzled defiance.

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At a time when so many were writing him off, he put on his game face and continued to do what he always does in such times of near crisis.

Scotland manager Steve Clarke on the touchline during the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.Scotland manager Steve Clarke on the touchline during the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.
Scotland manager Steve Clarke on the touchline during the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.

He pulled down the rim of his baseball cap he’s been wearing to protect his shaved head from the sun and went to work. He was a terse, slightly tense presence at the Cologne stadium on Tuesday night. He wasn't entertaining questions about himself. What has he learned about his own make-up in the last few challenging days, someone asked?

“I’ve just been thinking about my team and what I can do to help them,” he replied. “Any personal reflections can wait until after the tournament.” Could this be described as his biggest-ever match? He said he’d answer that when he stopped working, whenever that is. Despite those who wondered whether his future was on the line against Switzerland, it isn’t likely to be anytime soon. A 1-1 draw reinforced his reputation as a bounce back merchant.

Remember Dublin, June ’22? A 3-0 defeat that was every bit as shambolic as the 5-1 reversal against Germany but against a team not even half as good. A few days after the Tartan Army waved him and the players away as they attempted to applaud the fans in Dublin, Clarke's side travelled to the edge of Europe and earned a 4-1 win in Armenia. Job done, critics back in their box.

A widely admired 0-0 draw against England at the last Euros was also timely, with Czech Republic having brought excited Scots back to earth in the opening game with a 2-0 win. It felt flat against a good Croatia side in the last game and now Clarke must find a way to complete the miracle of Group A against Hungary on Sunday in Stuttgart.

Scotland's Billy Gilmour gestures towards the fans following the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.Scotland's Billy Gilmour gestures towards the fans following the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.
Scotland's Billy Gilmour gestures towards the fans following the 1-1 draw with Switzerland at Euro 2024.

He’s often demonstrated that, when it really matters, he can produce a result that pulls Scotland back from the brink. It speaks volumes for his own resilience while underlining the esteem in which he is held by the group. The players will go to the well for their manager, and themselves, when the heat around them is rising and life risks becoming very uncomfortable. Their resilience must be commended too. Che Adams ran himself to a standstill in the second half against Switzerland. He will need to do so again this weekend.

And talking about the powers of recovery, what about Anthony Ralston? Playing wide on the right, almost under the nose of Clarke in the first half, he committed the kind of error that might have broken lesser players when his pass back lacked sufficient weight and Shaqiri pounced in the flash of an eye.

There’s no doubt he was spooked for a spell thereafter. He took too many touches, ran into trouble. Clarke didn’t glare. He helped the player through this trial, later defending him at the press conference.

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But at the heart of it stands Clarke, who, the words of the recently departed Fife poet John Burnside, “stands proven after all”. Well, until Sunday evening at least.

We reserve the right to complain about his caution, his inflexibility and his clear inability to take Scotland to the next level in the event of a defeat or even draw against the Hungarians, although the latter scenario could still be enough for Scotland.

For the time being, however, Clarke is the man with the plan, whose intention to start Billy Gilmour in the second game rather than the first now seems like such sound sense. Scotland are back on track. One can hardly bear to imagine the scenario had Wednesday ended in defeat.

The long dismal journey back to base camp at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where the rain was battering down when the squad returned. The light training session Scotland had planned was cancelled.

The scheduled press conference would have gone ahead. A player, maybe even a coach, possibly Clarke himself, would have been forced to issue platitudes about the forthcoming game against Hungary. They’d venture that perhaps three points might still be enough, stranger things have happened. And anyway, it’s about pride. About trying to provide a lift before the upcoming Nations League games. About trying to win for the first time at a major finals since Euro ‘96.

Well, that last target remains the aim. But following the battling display in Cologne, a win in Stuttgart will instil more than just pride, it will almost certainly insert Scotland in the last 16 for the first-ever time. History will have been made, something few were entertaining a few shorts days ago. Now travel plans are being looked at again, messages are being sent home to test the water should it come to an extra week on manoeuvres.

All hail Clarke. All hail the man who simply won’t be knocked off course.

Perhaps we should have been alert to this quality long ago. There’s plenty evidence that this stoic son of Ayrshire has resilience in spades as well as unwavering faith in himself, including when he made the step from St Mirren to English football in a £400,000 deal in 1987.

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Just over three years later, after finding himself out of the Chelsea team under Bobby Campbell, he arrived at a crossroads.

He blamed his lack of first team games for ruining his World Cup dream. Andy Roxburgh named him in his provisional pool for Italia '90 but excluded him from the final squad. Clarke had already submitted a transfer request at Chelsea.

But what happened? Clarke won back his place in the team and asserted himself in modern Chelsea history. One of their greats. One of their heroes, no more so than on the night he helped the club lift their second European trophy.

As well as being the penultimate European Cup Winners’ Cup final, it proved to be Clarke's last-ever professional game. The opponents? VfB Stuttgart. Perhaps it’s an omen.



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