A lot of things don’t work the way Steve Clarke might wish after moving from a club environment, including bidding farewell to a group of smiling players on Sunday night after the 6-0 win over San Marino and knowing there’s no immediate chance to build on some sudden good vibes after an arduous period for him personally.
“I don’t smile – I’m miserable all the time,” he said. “But for the players, I want them to come and enjoy playing for their country. I don’t want it to be an ordeal.”
Clarke admits he is still getting used to the different rhythms of international football, but he isn’t asking for sympathy. He knows there’s a limit to the number of times he can state the obvious; he doesn’t get as much time to coach the players as he would if he was still in club football.
This simply won’t wash if results continue to be as poor as they were before San Marino were swept out of Hampden on a torrent of goals. After tasking Scotland with securing a “big win” in this group, Clarke has downgraded it to “almost big” in view of the games left: Cyprus away and Kazakhstan at home. Scotland can take nothing for granted. Clarke appreciates he remains in a probationary period.
“It’s different to club football and it’s going to take me some time to adjust,” he said. “This [last] week in particular, being the short seven-day week with a long trip to Moscow, was logistically more tricky than anything I’ve maybe come across before. I’ve got to learn quickly because you guys are not going to give me a long time. I’m going to enjoy the [San Marino] result a little but it’s not going to take away from the disappointment from Thursday night [v Russia].
“You can’t sugar-coat a heavy defeat but there were a lot of good things on Thursday night as well. There are things we can build on.”
In addition, Sunday’s win over San Marino at least meant Clarke was sending most of his squad back to their daytime job in a better frame of mind than might otherwise have been the case.
There are some who might feel a little differently about things. Charlie Mulgrew, pictured left, was dropped after a torrid second half against Russia and could be coming to the end of his international days if Clarke decides Steven Caulker, for example, represents a better option at centre-half. He is planning to watch the Alanyaspor defender in the coming weeks.
While there’s not long to wait until the next games, they won’t come soon enough for Clarke. Yet the current period comes as close to replicating club football as it’s going to get for the Scotland manager, who has already overseen four games in five weeks and will have two more to negotiate within the next five.
The recent four-game sequence against Russia and Belgium induced the same apprehension as a tricky run of fixtures – say games against the Old Firm, Aberdeen and Hearts – might when he was at Kilmarnock. It’s not often you are hit by such an intense period of games against such high-quality opposition in international football – especially when you haven’t qualified for a major finals for quite some time.
The September double header against Russia and Belgium was always going to prove tricky, especially when followed up with a trip to Moscow. Three successive defeats were the outcome, to add to the loss to Belgium in June.
“I looked at the run of fixtures and knew it was a possibility,” added Clarke.
“You do that as a manager – with a club side, you look at your fixtures over the course of the season and think ‘that’s going to be a tough spell for us’. You have to face up to it and come out the other side. Now this run of games are ones we should hopefully get points.”
He’s over the worst of it he hopes. The trouble is that, after these most recent two games, when Scotland were either put to the sword or doing the filleting, was there much learned in the final analysis? The usual spate of injuries complicated matters. Clarke has now used four different central defensive pairings in six games and five different strikers.
Mulgrew might have played his way out of contention, while the question of who plays up front is no nearer to being solved.
Oli Burke continues to be a work in progress. Lawrence Shankland did himself no harm after opening his account against San Marino, but will Clarke opt for starting the Dundee United striker against Cyprus? Unlikely.
We are no nearer knowing if Oli McBurnie will ever be the answer and there’s only another 180 minutes in which to find out before a semi-final play-off against, as it stands, Norway, Serbia or Bulgaria/Israel/Romania.
“I mentioned about getting a big result in the group and we’re not going to get that,” said Clarke. “If we can get a couple of almost-big results in the next two games then we’ll be fine.
“If we get to third in the group then that’ll be the short-term objective achieved. We’ve then got a bit more time to prepare for the March games.”