Steve Clarke on why he’s still confident of reaching Euro 2020
The first anniversary of Steve Clarke’s appointment as Scotland manager will roll around this Wednesday. It hasn’t been the 12 months that the 56-year-old anticipated – the Covid-19 pandemic has made sure of that.
The bid to lead the country to a first major finals since 1998 has been pushed back to who-knows-when because of the global health crisis that closed down football two weeks before Scotland were scheduled to host Israel in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final.
Life is frozen in all respects, and in a personal sense that has resulted in Clarke finding himself in an altogether different place from a year ago. Then, he was left emotionally drained by the whirlwind that resulted from his taking over at Scotland immediately after he had helped Kilmarnock to a best league season in half a century. Now, he might be fatigued by inactivity over the past two months.
His reflections on the period include his unwavering conviction he can be the Scotland manager who delivers the country from tournament wilderness. His speech on receiving the manager of the year award at the football writers’ end-of-season ceremony this weekend in 2019 had a line about returning 12 months later as a successful Scotland manager. Circumstances have prevented that, but he hopes that occasion has only been put back a year… as with the Euro 2020 finals themselves.
“It was a terrific end to the season for Kilmarnock [last year] and to finish third in the manner we did, in front of our own fans, was a moment I will never forget,” Clarke said. “But it was also draining: I had no real time to draw breath on such a tense climax before I was offered the privileged opportunity to manage my country.
“I think there was 48 hours between addressing the fans at full-time against Rangers after finishing with the highest points tally in Kilmarnock’s history, to saying goodbye to [chairman] Billy Bowie and the players, hello to [SFA chief executive] Ian Maxwell and then having less than a week to put together a squad for the qualifiers against Cyprus and Belgium.
“I can look back now and enjoy the moment and the recognition from the Scottish Football Writers Association and PFA Scotland for the success we had as a team – the players, coaches and staff – at Kilmarnock. I [know I] also said I wanted to be back up on the stage in a year’s time because it would have meant qualification for Euro 2020 but a lot has changed in that 12 months.
“The most important thing at the moment is to put the situation Scottish football finds itself in into perspective. Covid-19 has changed life for us all and our immediate thoughts must be with those who have lost loved ones, or who have taken ill. We also need to truly appreciate the efforts of our NHS in keeping us safe and the other key workers who are helping us to get through these difficult times.
“I have purposely avoided interviews throughout because discussing football, or the selfish impact on us as coaches clamouring for the dug-out, seems inappropriate: there are far greater priorities in life right now.”
In terms of the frippery of football, though, Clarke feels that his national side can overcome Israel and then defeat either Norway or Serbia away to be preparing for a major finals in 2021.
With Scottish FA president Rod Petrie insistent that the play-off semi-final at Hampden will only be played when social distancing measures have been relaxed to allow the stadium to be filled to capacity, it is likely to be next year before Clarke can fulfil his remit. “I remain confident that we can qualify for Euro 2020 next year when football returns and just hope that by then it will be safe for the supporters to help us – that, though, is out of our hands. We learned a lot as a team in the past year, even in the defeats against Belgium and Russia,” said the Scotland manager, whose team were on a three-game winning run following morale-sapping defeats home and away by the aforementioned nations in the early months of his tenure.
“The results against Russia [a 2-1 loss at home in September after Scotland took the lead, and a 4-0 reverse away the following month] were the biggest disappointments because I felt we gave ourselves a platform in both games to get positive results and missed the opportunity to at least put some pressure on them in regards to automatic qualification.
“By the end of the qualifiers I think we had a better balance of playing to our attacking strengths and being more stable defensively. There’s still a lot of work to be done – and a year is a very long time in international football – but the players are clearer on how I like to set up and I am clearer on how to play to our strengths.”
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