The new Scotland manager is intending to inspire a swift change in fortunes and reach the finals by finishing first or second in Group I.
Scotland are already off the pace having lost to Kazakhstan, which eventually led to Alex McLeish being sacked. He had already delivered a play-off place by leading Scotland to top spot in their Nations League group ahead of Israel and Albania.
Clarke is determined to avoid having to use this safety net and be able to schedule warm-up games for Euro 2020, where Hampden Park is one of the host venues, instead.
“We will try to be better than we have been and we will try to qualify,” Clarke said yesterday in his first press conference since signing a three-year deal. “It is really important that we qualify out the group and don’t rely on the play-off games as a fall-back as those games will be really difficult and will have a lot of pressure. It is really important we get out the group.”
“It is a big thing to do, it is a big step in my career, that’s why I couldn’t turn the job down,” he added. “I spoke to quite a lot of people in football who were telling me ‘don’t go, it can be a career killer’. Listen, I am happy to take it on, I am happy to have a go. I promise I will give 100 per cent for the country.”
He dismissed any suggestion he might treat the remaining group games as preparation for the play-off semi-final in March. If Scotland win that fixture they stand 90 minutes from a berth at Euro 2020.
Clarke knows all about inspiring an immediate reaction. He took over a Kilmarnock side sitting at the bottom of the league in October 2017 and helped them finish fifth. He led them to third place and Europe this season. Clarke won’t waste any time identifying the players he wants to rely on. He announces his first squad on Tuesday for next month’s double-header against Cyprus and Belgium, currently ranked No 1 in the world.
“I want my first XI nailed down for Cyprus on 8 June,” he said. “We have to be ready. On the back of Cyprus we have to be ready to go to Belgium.
“Because of the points we dropped in Kazakhstan we have to gain those points against the top teams in the group, Belgium and Russia. To qualify we have to take points from them.”
He has already spoken to Andy Robertson, who is at a training camp in Spain preparing for Liverpool’s Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur. Clarke confirmed the left-back will carry on as skipper having been handed the armband by McLeish last year.
“I spoke to Andy this morning,” he said. “If everybody is as enthusiastic and determined as Andy is to qualify out of the group then we have got a chance.
“The play-off has been mentioned a lot: the play-off, the play-off, the play-off. The play-off is for the future. I want to be going to play a friendly next March in preparation for the tournament, not the play-off games. Let’s concentrate on the group.”