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Scotland’s Steve Clarke: ‘If we are not winning, I’ll get stick’

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There is a twinkle in Steve Clarke’s eye as he poses a rhetorical question. “If you asked every Tartan Army member: ‘Come out of the group in Germany, or qualify for the next World Cup?’ what are they going to want?” There follows a pause and a smile. “I know what my bosses would rather have.”

Finding an appropriate answer is complex. Clarke’s work with Scotland is such that supporters believe the class of 2024 can break the mould by becoming the country’s first to emerge from the group phase at a major tournament. There are subplots: the expansion of the European Championship, the modern-day depth in international football and the added belief that Clarke’s men could very well party in the European Championship finals this month and the 2026 World Cup. The point he is trying to make relates to a bigger picture; landmarks will be reached if Scotland’s players display the best version of themselves from Friday.

“We are going to try and do both, that’s for sure,” he says. “It would be nice to come out of the group having been competitive, not because of historical reasons. Then you can get to knockout football and take your chances. It is a team that can improve a little bit more on what they have done so far. Hopefully that includes qualification from a group.

“We walked straight into this tournament. With a little bit of luck we could have done it as group winners.” Clarke’s confidence is wholly legitimate. He is far less stoical than many typically portray.

Scotland return to the big stage with a point to prove. Euro 2020, staged in 2021, delivered anticlimax, the high of a draw against England sandwiched between defeats against the Czech Republic and Croatia. Clarke and his players have redemption in mind.

“The last Euros, for all of them, was a first tournament,” the Scotland manager says. “It was strange because of Covid. Even two games at Hampden didn’t feel like two games at Hampden. There was something missing.

“I thought we were competitive, albeit a lot of people will try to tell you differently. Nobody could say we were out of our depth. Fine margins went against us – hopefully they go with us this time and experience means we find a way to turn those little moments.

Steve Clarke says of Euro 2020: ‘We weren’t used to tournament football; three games in 10 days felt a struggle for us.’ Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

“We weren’t used to tournament football; three games in 10 days felt a struggle for us. Croatia were good, we got back in the game to make it 1-1, John [McGinn] still beats himself up for missing a chance to put us in front. [Luka] Modric does what he does and that game runs away from us.” The end.

For the Czech Republic, England and Croatia see Germany, Switzerland and Hungary. The eyes of a football world will fall on Scotland as they joust with Germany in the opening game. Do not dare suggest to Clarke that the hosts carry all the weight of expectation. “There’s pressure on us as well,” the 60-year-old manager says. “We want to do better than we did in the last tournament. We want to qualify out of the group. If we don’t do that, we will come away disappointed, regardless of how we play.

“We can’t worry about the occasion or go there taking pictures on our phones. We are going there to get our tournament off to a good start. We have players who can handle big occasions. I’m not sitting here thinking I wish somebody else was playing that first game. It’s a great one to be involved in.”

Clarke lost his father, Eddie, in February. The cruel impact of dementia meant Eddie Clarke did not know his son was the Scotland manager long before his death. It was one of Steve’s brothers, Paul, who started the family football trend by making close to 400 appearances for Kilmarnock. Paul left football at 29 to join the police but is in the Ayrshire club’s hall of fame. Steve’s journey took him to St Mirren and completion of a four‑year factory apprenticeship. “I couldn’t wire a plug now,” he says with typical self-deprecation.

“My dad lost interest in football. It was strange because he taught me everything, coached me, put me through my paces, drove me to every game, watched, critiqued. Normal father/son relationship in terms of he wanted me to become a good footballer.

“Then one day he just said: ‘I’m not coming.’ He stopped coming to watch, said: ‘It’s up to you now son, I’ve done everything. You’re in the team, you’re established.’ I was at St Mirren. And that was it. He would come to the odd game, he came to see the grandkids and would come to Chelsea but he never showed a great love for football after that. Dad meandered off on to his own little path and enjoyed his retirement. He just had enough of football, I think.”

Scotland’s visit to Stuttgart for their final group match, against Hungary, presents an interesting parallel for Clarke. Stuttgart – then managed by Joachim Löw – provided the opposition for his last competitive outing as a Chelsea player, the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final. “Scrappy game,” Clarke recalls. “I gave one big chance away. [Gianfranco] Zola had been injured, he worked really hard to get back from a hamstring injury. He came off the bench and scored more or less with his first touch.”

Not that Clarke knew at the time he would never don blue again. “It just materialised that way over the summer. I was told I was becoming a player-coach. Which means they are bringing someone else in to take your position.” Chelsea duly bought Albert Ferrer from Barcelona.

“To be fair to Ken Bates, he saw the change that was coming in the game in terms of it becoming more global,” Clarke says. “All that did was make it harder for a Scotsman to get a game but I was nearing the end anyway. Winning a European trophy is obviously a big thing but that also became a pretty memorable last game to have. I loved my playing days. I miss them. And I am proud of what I achieved.”

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Clarke’s celebrated spell at Stamford Bridge had looked to be coming to an end much earlier. He was, for example, never part of the equation for the Scotland squad at the 1992 European Championship. The arrival of Glenn Hoddle improved Clarke’s fortunes and planted seeds.

John McGinn will be one of Scotland’s key players in Germany. Photograph: Colin Poultney/ProSports/Shutterstock

“Glenn had a good manner, spoke well, could get messages across,” Clarke says. “He was the first coach who really made me think about the game. Before that, the manager was the manager.

“Maybe it just coincided with me thinking about what I would do next. I had started on my B licence then Glenn came to the club and you start thinking a lot more about the game: how to affect it, different positions. We started playing 3-5-2; I soon found out wing-back was a horrible position but to be fair to Glenn he tucked me inside and made me a centre-half. But that gave me a look at a different system and I ended up going three at the back with Scotland. I had never coached it as a club manager – it was referring back to that spell as a player.”

When accepting the Scotland post in 2019, formations were the least of Clarke’s concerns. The national side had not qualified for a tournament since 1998. There felt an acceptance of irrelevance. “It’s Scotland, that’s what they do,” Clarke says. He is candid that being “humped on the pitch” during his early days was a grim period. Clarke’s role was to alter attitudes in the dressing room and the stands.

“People had to understand that they were there as part of a squad but you have to want to be there as part of that squad,” he says. “Otherwise it doesn’t work. Everybody has to understand where their role is as part of 20‑odd players. That doesn’t mean they turn up happy to be a sub – you need more than that – but it’s about making your squad feel valued. If they feel valued, they enjoy coming.

“They give everything for their country. I have always said that very strongly about this group. Slowly the connection came with the public because they could see how well this group wanted to do. That isn’t always a smooth path, sometimes you are going to suffer, but they suffered the right way.”

The level of buy-in towards Clarke was typified by the case of Ryan Fraser. Scotland has no rich pool of talent but Fraser has basically been banished from the international scene after pulling out of crucial games in late 2021, days before he was pictured in training at Newcastle United. Nobody bemoans Fraser’s absence. “Only because of results,” Clarke rightly insists.

“If you are not getting results, I’m getting hammered for not picking this player or that player. That’s the job. Everybody has an opinion on the national team. If we are not winning, I’ll get stick. I’m sitting here waiting on it because at some stage it will come.”

Popular opinion suggests West Brom erred badly with the jettisoning of Clarke in 2013. Months earlier, they had finished eighth in the Premier League. “Harsh or not harsh, it didn’t matter,” Clarke says. “I was out the door. I don’t cry about sackings. I shake their hand and wish them well. It’s the best way to be.”

There may, however, be an itch to scratch back in England’s top flight. “I probably still have one club job left in me,” he says. “There have been a few sniffs, nothing concrete.” Not yet. Creating history in Germany could alter Clarke’s path once again.

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