So much for the Scotland job being a poisoned chalice that nobody wanted to take. If reports are to be believed, the brightest managerial star in Scottish football at this present time - a man with English Premier League experience, no less - is prepared to become the next national team boss.
The news that Steve Clarke is likely to be Alex McLeish’s replacement as the man in charge of the national team has been a surprise to anyone that thought the position had become so toxic that any self-respecting coach would stay well clear. How often have we heard pundits question whether the manager of Kilmarnock would be interested in leaving Rugby Park for Hampden? It was odd to hear but it was the position we’d found ourselves in. The years of underachievement, the malaise among the support, the bungling of the Scottish FA and the unmitigated disaster of the previous manager’s tenure. It all combined to create a cauldron of negativity that spread throughout the nation and distorted our vision.
Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be many managers who’ve become intoxicated by it all. Instead, both Clarke and Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes insisted it was a job they’d very much be interested in taking at some point in their career if the opportunity arose. It now seems that it has for Clarke.
The truth is the Scotland job has rarely been a massive draw for managers at any point in its existence. Of the previous appointments, Gordon Strachan took it after being binned by Middlesbrough in the Championship, George Burley took the reins after his Southampton sacking. Even Walter Smith and Alex McLeish both found the role when they were kicking their heels waiting on the next challenge. Going back further, Craig Brown and Andy Roxburgh were in-house hires, while the greatest manager to take the role, Jock Stein, only took it on in the latter part of his managerial career, again when he was out of work.
Nobody in charge of Celtic or Rangers leaves to become Scotland boss. The same goes for those in the top flight of English football. The usual candidates are those with previous experience of either and are presently unemployed. The exceptions are the candidates like Clarke, or Craig Levein when he was at Dundee United, who are in the process of doing an excellent job with another team in the Scottish top flight and draw attention that way. (Let us all hope that is the only comparison made about Clarke and Levein’s tenures in charge of Scotland.)
Being manager of the Scottish national team isn’t the be all and end all. Far from it. However, it does present an opportunity for ambitious managers looking to move up the football ladder. That’s why Clarke is interested in the job.
It’s often been assumed that Clarke would be leaving Killie this summer to move back to English football. He’s done such a wonderful job with the Ayrshire side, surely there would be a plethora of clubs willing to take him back south of the border?
But how much does success with Kilmarnock register in the English leagues? In Scotland the media sing his praises most weeks. Deservedly so. That’s not the case in England. Even the publications, radio stations or podcasts who give the Scottish leagues a courtesy acknowledgement, they talk about Celtic and Rangers. If Clarke finished above one of them it really would move the needle. Finishing above Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs, though? It’s great, but it would be wrong to assume it’s simply raised his profile much higher than where it was when he left Reading. There just isn’t enough respect for the Scottish Premiership these days, whether it’s players or managers. The Championship is the route he’d have to take and it’s such a minefield that he’d need to wait for the right job.
Enter the Scottish national team. While finishing third with Kilmarnock doesn’t make much of a splash, getting Scotland to a major international tournament for the first time in 22 years would ripple across Europe. It’s not even that inconceivable either. We’re pencilled in to face Finland in the Uefa Nations League play-offs, and then Norway or Serbia if we get through that. We’ve certainly made a complete mess of things against teams of similar stature in the past (or much worse in the very recent past) but it wouldn’t be impossible for a competent manager with the current squad to navigate those hurdles and get the nation to Euro 2020.
The job also works in the sense that it would allow Clarke to see his family more often, as they’ve remained in England while he works in Scotland. Though he’ll be expected to attend Scottish games in order to keep up to speed with the talent in the league, he won’t have to be at the training ground nearly every day. He can reside south of the border and travel up when needed, as opposed to spending all week in Kilmarnock and only seeing his family occasionally, as he does at this moment in time.
Those in English football may not respect Scotland or Scottish football, but they know all about our struggles over the past two decades and every supporter in the UK will know the name of the man who ends our barren run and gets the Tartan Army back to a major tournament. It may not be as impressive a job as the one Clarke has performed with Killie, but it would provide a clearer path to an English Premier League return.
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