Surveying the wreckage of Scotland’s Euro 2020 group campaign, there would appear to be not a single straw to clutch that hasn’t been burnt to a crisp.
The latest collapse by Steve Clarke’s side, which condemned them to a second-straight 4-0 defeat courtesy of the scudding in Russia three days ago, has brought up a four-game competitive losing streak for the first time in 15 years. If that were to extend to five when international whipping boys San Marino are hosted at Hampden tonight, then Scotland would become the straw men of international football.
Anything other than a thumping victory over the Principality this evening will be insufficient, Johnny Russell admits. The Kansas City attacker believes that stands for all three of Scotland’s remaining Group I fixtures, which will take Scotland to Cyprus next month before they end this most miserable of campaigns at home to Kazakhstan.
Never mind building towards the Nations League play-off next March, the national side must merely demonstrate that the roof has not entirely fallen in.
Losing twice to a Belgium ranked No.1 in the world, and being on the wrong end of a painful double at the hands of a Russian side that reached the World Cup quarter-finals on home soil last year was, in some respects, hardly unexpected. But Russell accepts that it is a different story for the next three games.
He needs no reminding about the fall-out from the last San Marino encounter in March, with his first international goal one of only two netted in a soulless encounter that precipitated the end of Alex McLeish’s suddenly not-so-unremittingly-awful 13-month second spell in charge.
Indeed, Russell knows that Scotland’s climb from the bottom must begin with a far more emphatic win than was recorded seven months ago over a side that come to Glasgow fresh from a 9-0 crushing by Belgium.
“We will be looking for goals,” said the 29-year-old. “Thursday was a disappointing night to say the least and it’s been a disappointing campaign overall. We are under no illusions about where we are. But it’s up to us. We need to get out of this rut and we need to show a bit of fight. There is no room for error. We need to build some momentum and confidence ahead of these games in March. Three wins is what we need from these final group games.
“This has been a poor campaign and we need to get the points on the board to improve our position in the group and to ready us for the play-offs. We have to prepare as if those matches are just round the corner. This is the tune-up and we need to make sure we are at it because there is so much at stake.”
The spotlight is being shone ever-more unforgivingly on Clarke, with a streaky victory at home to Cyprus all he has to show from his five months in charge – a period during which he has endured the worst start to a tenure made by any Scotland manager. Russell expresses sympathy for a manager whose methodical ways are bumping up against the scheduling restrictions forced on him by the international calendar.
“Every manager is different and the thing I’ve found with Steve Clarke is that he is very hands on,” said the forward. “He wants to be on the training ground and he hasn’t had enough time to put in the work that he feels is necessary to get the squad ready for these matches.
“International football is hard for coaches. The break might last for ten days but some boys might be playing Sunday, arrive Monday and not be ready to train properly until Tuesday. When you’re flying out for a game in Moscow on the Thursday that is not ideal. In his case it’s been especially tough because this is a very short campaign and when he came in it had already started.
“To get everything across to your players in that kind of time frame is very difficult. We are prepared for the games, he is clear in his instructions, and everyone knows what is expected of them. But ideally I think we would need a lot more time to work on everything. Personally, I’ve enjoyed coming back into the squad. I’ve always been happy to come away with Scotland.”
Russell’s dedication flies in the face of any sniping suggesting that the Scotland set-up is bereft of players willing to go the extra mile for their country. In the course of this tour of international duty, Russell will travel no fewer than 12,000 miles in his desperation to do his duty. He covered 6,000 of those in the fruitless pursuit of game-time in Moscow, but hopes his dedication will be rewarded this evening. Yet he talks with an admirable selflessness about what is important against the Sammarinese.
“I hope I get a shirt,” said the 11-times capped performer. “It’s always disappointing not to play but I’m just grateful to be called up. I’m hoping to get a wee shot and hopefully we can get the result everyone needs. We’ll be looking to try and grab an early goal. We understand the crowd might not be the biggest or the noisiest so we’ve got to try and lift their spirits.
“We need to do something to get them out of their seats because we understand it is a difficult time for everyone right now. They were stuffy opponents over there and we expect more of the same.
“People expected that night to be a walkover but they are used to sitting in and trying to frustrate the opposition.
“Last time we played them we got the early goal through Kenny’s [McLean] header but it became sort of frustrating after that. Eventually we managed to wear them down and get the second. We’re hoping Hampden, the bigger pitch, can play to our advantage. The onus is on us to go out and take the game to them and that’s what we intend to do.”