|Euro 2020 qualifying: Scotland v Russia|
|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Friday, 6 September Time: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website and app.|
Sitting in the Hall of Fame room at the Hampden museum, Steve Clarke has a six-foot cardboard cut-out of Kenny Dalglish standing behind him and another six-foot cardboard cut-out of Alex Ferguson in front of him. He scans the walls and puffs out his cheeks. Busby, Stein, McNeill, Greig, On and on the icons go. “Some amount of leaders in this place, eh?” he says. “Scary.”
This place is his football home now, the irony not lost on him. It gives him a chuckle when he thinks about how different life is these days after all the verbal battles with the authorities during his unforgettable spell at Kilmarnock. “I even get a little badge to wear,” he smiles. “I can go through all the doors. I come up the stairs and I don’t have to have my brief with me to fight an SFA charge. I go down the stairs afterwards and I’m not walking out with a two-match ban. It’s great.”
Clarke is two games into his Scotland reign, a late win against Cyprus followed by a 3-0 loss in Belgium and now a home double-header against Russia and Belgium that has the sense of foreboding about it. He can’t give up on qualifying out of the group, but in the real world the months ahead are all about getting his principles established and his team settled in time for the Nations League play-offs next year.
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The manager was hoping to instil some continuity in his defence for these upcoming games. He wanted to go again with the Charlie Mulgrew-Scott McKenna centre-back partnership but that notion took a dive early when McKenna was invalided out of the squad. The next in line was Stuart Findlay, but he went down as well. After Findlay was Grant Hanley, but he also withdrew hurt.
Add in the absent John Souttar and you are talking about a country with a shortage of centre-halves losing four of the ones they do have before playing the side that knocked Spain out of the last World Cup. And then a few days later playing the country that removed Brazil from the same tournament, who have scored seven goals in their last two meetings with Scotland and, oh yes, are currently ranked number one in the world.
Clarke wanted a challenge – and here it is, with bells on. He’s in his infancy in the job, but he’s adjusting to the landscape. “People who know me know that I’m really determined, but I’m not one that goes around shouting about it. I keep everything to myself. I’m a quiet person, which is why this job is a bit of a challenge because you need to come out, you need to do more media, you need to speak to more people.
“It’s not me. I’m a guy who likes his boots on, tracksuit, little whistle round his neck and probably some coaching notes. That’s what I’m most comfortable doing. The media side, the corporate thing, going into the boardroom before games – it’s a little bit alien to me, but I’m going to be the best I can be.”
‘Don’t lie to players; they see through it’
As a player, a coach and a manager, resilience has been Clarke’s watchword. As a right-back at Chelsea he was the type of character who watched Dan Petrescu arrive in a fanfare to take his place and took strength from the challenge. Petrescu, he reminds us, ended up playing right midfield in front of him. He almost smiles at the memory of it. A glamour player seen off. Again.
“I wanted to stay in the team no matter how many big names came in. Didn’t matter where in the team. Anywhere. Not a lot of people remember this but when Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1997 I played as a central defender. I was never a flamboyant player, never went looking for headlines. I just wanted to go out and do my job. People like me are very important to managers.”
His journey to Hampden began away back at Newcastle when he saw the then-manager Ruud Gullit writing some notes after a loss to Sunderland and realised the next day that what the Dutchman was scribbling was his resignation letter. That put Clarke on the road to coaching. In at the deep end. Why not?
He picked up bits from everyone along the way. From Bobby Robson, who took over from Gullit, he learned about man management. Nobody better than Bobby. “He understood players, he understood the way they think. Don’t lie to them. They see through lies all day long. I tell my players that my door is always open, come and have a chat but be prepared to hear things you might not want to hear. People will accept it, as long as you’re honest. Try to pull the wool over their eyes or try to be too clever and you start to lose them.”
At Chelsea, where his bond with Jose Mourinho was as strong as it was successful, he learned about organisation and intensity, about preparation of training and gameplans. Mourinho had such charisma. Clarke would go into his news conferences and just stand at the back of the room to see a master communicator (and manipulator) at work.
“I haven’t spoken to Jose for a few years now. It’s normal in football, you go down different paths and slowly the text messages dry up and eventually you drift apart. He has his life, I have my life, but we’ll always be friends. I saw a quote from him recently about how he might have to change his style of management a bit, that maybe the modern player doesn’t react quite as well to that driven way of his. He’s a serial trophy winner, Jose. He’ll be back.”
‘I don’t go back and see if they’ve changed curtains’
In June 2012, Clarke became manager of West Brom. He learned so many things there that he doesn’t know where to begin. That first season was Kilmarnock-like in feel. West Brom beat Liverpool (twice), Everton and Chelsea and drew 5-5 with Manchester United in Ferguson’s farewell match as manager. In his breakthrough season, Romelu Lukaku scored a hat-trick. Lukaku has subsequently said that he owes his career to Clarke.
West Brom finished eighth, an all-time high in the Premier League. Five months into his second season, he was sacked. “Brutal,” he says. And in case you missed it, he says it again. “Absolutely brutal.”
Clarke had lost four in a row in the build-up to Christmas and down the axe fell. “It was a shock at the time, but I didn’t moan about it. It’s like what I was saying about learning from Bobby and Jose. I learned a lot at West Brom. A good lesson is don’t lose four in a row. Or react better if you do.
“Maybe I was feeling the intensity of the situation. Maybe I didn’t conduct myself with the right authority to show that I was still in control. Maybe I just panicked a little bit. I don’t know. I didn’t notice any change in my demeanour, but the board must have noticed something. They say that you only become a manager once you get the sack. Well, I became a manager then, December 2013.
“It’s a very strange profession, this. A great profession, but very, very brutal, especially now where everything is more instant and transient. I just moved on afterwards. I’ve always been good at moving on, from bad and good. People ask me about Kilmarnock, but I’m one of these guys that if I sell a house I don’t go back and look to see if they’ve changed the curtains or dug the grass. I just go. My time with Kilmarnock was really enjoyable, but they have a new manager now with different ideas and a different way of playing and they have to move on together without me. For me to keep sticking my oar in there would be wrong. It’s not my job anymore.”
‘I’m quietly impressed with the players’
Clarke is a rare beast in that there was near-unanimous approval when he was appointed as manager of the national team, a level of support he acknowledges and appreciates while realising that there’s a time limit on these things. He knows all about the “apathy” that exists out there for the Scotland team right now. He knows that everybody has been ground down by 20 years of failure.
He could see it, and hear it, for himself when Cyprus equalised late in his debut match in the role. “Resigned disappointment” is how he describes the atmosphere at Hampden at 1-1. “To the fans, that equaliser was another kick where it really hurts. But then we got the winner and you could feel the power again. The fans will come back if we get it right. They’ll definitely come back.”
He won’t lie. He doesn’t know how long it will take for things to start working. “I’m quietly impressed with the group of players. They’re positive. They’ve realised that they’ve made things difficult with the loss in Kazakhstan but they’re determined to make amends. Whether we progress quickly or slowly is something you can’t predict but this squad has the potential to improve a lot.
“The fans are a little bit down, but I can’t say that it’s going to be a quick fix. I don’t think you get quick fixes. Kilmarnock wasn’t a quick fix. It might have looked like that, but it wasn’t. The strength at Kilmarnock was not the individual player, it was the team, everybody working together with a way of playing that they enjoyed. It took a lot of hard work.
“They bought into it and they enjoyed ruffling a few feathers. They enjoyed picking up points against teams they weren’t supposed to pick up points against. Hopefully that’s something we can put together here, a team that believes in itself, believes it can get results, believes it can upset the so-called bigger nations.”
‘The fans want to love this team’
As well as his trophy-laden Celtic players – he calls Ryan Christie “electric” and can now smile when recalling how Christie “absolutely destroyed my Kilmarnock team last season” – Clarke has an increased number of performers from the Premier League to pick from. Andy Robertson at Liverpool, Kieran Tierney (when fit) at Arsenal, Scott McTominay at Manchester United, Kenny McLean at Norwich, Ryan Fraser at Bournemouth, Robert Snodgrass at West Ham, John McGinn at Aston Villa, Stuart Armstrong at Southampton, Oli McBurnie – the £20m striker – and John Fleck at Sheffield United.
Appearances can, of course, be deceptive. These boys are in a glamorous league but not all are regular starters. Armstrong hasn’t begun a game for his club this season. McLean has been on the bench in recent matches. McBurnie is being eased into it. Snodgrass is in and out. As he searches for that cohesion that made Kilmarnock so successful, Clarke says they’ll all get a chance to impress against Russia and Belgium.
When Tierney and Robertson are both fit, what does Clarke do? “Get them in the team. Don’t ask me how, but we’ll find a way, Listen, when you have good players you have to find a way. It’s a puzzle, it’s not a problem. Having two terrific left-backs is never a problem. Getting them into the team is something that I need to find the solution to when the time comes. I won’t lose any sleep about it just yet. The most important thing for Kieran is that he settles in at Arsenal and we’ll see him when he’s ready.”
Ready or not, Scotland are playing Russia on Friday and Belgium three days later. A result against the Russians is get-able if Scotland are all that they can be on the night. Belgium, you fancy, will be another forlorn evening trying to handle the assorted brilliance in the visiting ranks. If Clarke gets anything from the game then Hampden will find it’s voice again, no doubt about it.
“The Tartan Army have been through a lot, but they want to love this team. You can see that. You can feel it. Hopefully I can keep them onside. We’ve got a long road ahead but there’s a fierce determination. When you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance.”