Steve Clarke's extra debt to players after Scotland boss divulges big promise he made at SFA board meeting

Steve Clarke has revealed the extra debt he owes his players after they unwittingly honoured a pledge he had made to the Scottish Football Association to qualify automatically for Euro 2024.

The 60-year-old spoke to the media on Monday night for the first time since Scotland's place at next summer’s finals was secured on the back of Spain’s 1-0 win against Norway in Oslo on Sunday night.

Clarke is the first Scotland manager to qualify for back-to-back European Championships but he played down his own achievements and talked up those of his players, who he says dug him out of a potential hole. He did not tell them of the extra burden he had placed on their shoulders when he stood in front of a panel including Ian Maxwell, the SFA chief executive, and the then president Rod Petrie.

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“I still haven’t told the players!” Clarke said. “I should thank my players even more because they made sure I didn’t break a promise. After the draw I had to have a board meeting – sometimes you have to (attend) these board meetings. So I had the board meeting and I told them that this group would qualify direct for Euro 2024. No play-offs, I said they would go straight there … so I made it.”

Scotland manager Steve Clarke during a press conference at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy ahead of Tuesday's match against France.Scotland manager Steve Clarke during a press conference at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy ahead of Tuesday's match against France.
Scotland manager Steve Clarke during a press conference at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy ahead of Tuesday's match against France.

Had the SFA board been taken aback by such a strident claim - after all, the Scotland men's team hadn't qualified straight from a group for a major tournament since France '98 “Obviously they thought I had maybe put myself under a little bit of pressure," he said. "But you have to know what you have and how determined the players were. Obviously we wanted this to be the third tournament, It’s only the second. So we’re still missing one…”

Even though Scotland were drawn in what some considered was a Group of Death, which as well as Spain included Norway, the strongest-looking Pot Three team, Clarke stressed he had complete faith in his players. “I know what we’ve got,” he said. “I know we’ve got a good team. I think we’ve qualified like a good team. So let’s embrace that.”

Clarke has now charged his players with finishing level on points with Spain, who are in pole position to finish top. “I think it is almost certain that Spain will top the group as it would need a hell of a swing in goal difference to change it in our favour,” he said. “What I would like to do is match Spain’s tally then we can say we were the equal of Spain in the qualifying campaign, that would be nice. That would be a target.”

Scotland will play seven games before their Euro 2024 opener, with the draw taking place on December 2. As well as two competitive matches against Georgia and Norway next month when they round off their Group A commitments, they will prepare over the course of five friendlies, starting against France in Lille on Tuesday evening on a pitch that has suffered from hosting five matches at the rugby World Cup. “It’s taken quite a beating to be honest,” said France manager Didier Deschamps.

Clarke has confirmed there will be several changes due to injury. “Aaron Hickey is out, Andy Robertson is out, Ryan Porteous has an injury but will be fit enough to sit on the bench,” he said. “John McGinn has something similar so there will be changes." The manager also confirmed that Bologna midfielder Lewis Ferguson will play from the start for the only second time for Scotland. “I have a number of players in the squad who have been patient and deserve some time on the pitch but Lewis is the one you can say will definitely start this game," said Clarke.

Former Motherwell wing-back Max Johnston, who now plays for Austrian side Sturm Graz, has also been drafted into the squad after Clarke watched him perform for the Under-21s against Hungary on Friday. A late red card for a second bookable offence meant Johnston was free to join the A squad France. "I have lost two wing-backs. Max can play there and he's suspended for the under-21 game (v Malta) anyway," explained Clarke. “I just told him, ‘that's probably the best red card you've had for a while!'"