International management is a different kind of game. Some never make the transition between the two. The term ‘club manager’ is frequently used as a synonym for those who have no wish to be restricted to just a matter of days with their players a year, as is customary for coaches in the international game. Until just a few weeks ago, Steve Clarke was the archetypal club manager.
Now he is the new Scotland manager, granted just a few days with his new players ahead of his first match in charge, a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus before another against Belgium. The term ‘hit the ground running’ doesn’t quite cover the extent of what Clarke must do over the next week.
This, however, shouldn’t cloud the new sense of optimism around the Scotland team following Clarke’s appointment. For the first time since the hiring of Walter Smith back in 2004 the Scottish FA have appointed the best man for the job and this is also the most exciting group of Scottish players since that time.
Defeat to Kazakhstan has left Scotland with ground to make up. Realistically, their hopes of making it to next year’s European Championships might already be over. But in Clarke Scotland have a maximiser, someone who earned a reputation for himself at Kilmarnock for pulling off unexpected results.
Clarke has called four of his former players (Eamonn Brophy, Stuart Findlay, Stephen O’Donnell and Greg Taylor) into his first Scotland squad. This has led to calls of favouritism, but given Killie’s success this season, finishing third in the Scottish Premiership and qualifying for Europe, these players warrant their places.
Scotland’s new core operates at a higher level, though. In Andy Robertson, they boast arguably the best left back in Europe. Then there’s Kieran Tierney, a player who has been linked with everyone from Barcelona to Lyon, and Scott McTominay, the midfielder Ole Gunnar Solskjaer supposedly wants to build around at Manchester United.
Ryan Fraser finished the 2018/19 Premier League season with more assists (14) than any other player besides Eden Hazard. Scott McKenna and John Souttar are rated as two of the best young centre backs in the country while John McGinn is expected to take England’s top flight by storm next season after leading Aston Villa to promotion.
There is something of a void to be filled up front with Leigh Griffiths still out of the game right now – Brophy or Oliver Burke are reportedly vying to start in attack against Cyprus – but Clarke has otherwise been handed the best-equipped Scotland squad since the first time Alex McLeish was appointed.
Scotland, as a country, has fallen out of love with its national team. Attendances for home games at Hampden Park have been dropping year-on-year for the best part of a decade. While Scotland games were once national events, now they barely even register. Under McLeish, it was difficult to imagine how the cycle could possibly be broken. Under Clarke, things might be different.
In many ways, Clarke is a coach steeped in a previous generation. His preferred style of play has many elements borrowed from his time working under Jose Mourinho. At various times, Clarke’s teams have been labelled dull. He might contest they were organised, tough to break down, and indeed, Scotland will be more difficult to beat under the former Aston Villa and West Brom boss.
Will this be enough to help re-energise a footballing nation? After all, Gareth Southgate has captured England’s imagination by adopting a dynamic, exciting brand of football. Scotland, however, just wants a winning team. Clarke presents an opportunity to achieve this whether that starts this week or not.