Graham Ruthven: Scotland are only going backwards under Steve Clarke

What is happening north of the border?


Steve Clarke isn’t one for mincing his words, but it was somewhat understandable that having watched Scotland suffer an almighty collapse at the Luzhniki Stadium.

The former Kilmarnock boss was meant to be the solution, at least a significant part of it. Clarke, like the rest of us, can see the problems, but he is seemingly struggling for answers. Again, like the rest of us.

“I have to put it down to fragile confidence,” the 56-year-old suggested after the 4-0 defeat to Russia, Scotland’s second successive loss by such a scoreline.

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“The players seemed to lose heart very quickly, which is unfortunate because we had done okay up to that point. Hard work, maybe one or two different selections in terms of squad as well as starting 11. It’s something I have to look at. We can’t keep conceding goals.”

Scotland boast the talent to compete at the top level of the international game, at least to qualify for major tournaments, but they have never before appeared seemed so far away from that standard.

The cliché that there are no easy games in international football will be tested this weekend as a Scotland team at their lowest ebb takes on San Marino in a dead rubber qualifier.

It’s difficult to recall a feebler Scotland side that this one.

Clarke’s team selection for the trip to Moscow has been scrutinised and it’s true that one or two of his picks were questionable. Most notably, the selection of John Fleck over Ryan Christie – who has been a rare bright spark for Scotland in recent appearances – stood out. But, the malaise currently undermining the national team cannot be attributed to the picking of one midfielder over another.

Many will justifiably point to the incompetent governance of football in Scotland for the real issues compromising the development of the game in the country.

Some argue that the sport has become too middle class, locking out those who can’t afford to pay to play.

Indeed, Scotland has lost an entire generation of young football players since the late 1990s.

More recently, however, the outlook from a talent perspective has been brighter. In Andy Robertson, Scotland possess arguably the best left-back in Europe right now.

Kieran Tierney also seems set to become a key figure at Arsenal after joining from Celtic during the summer, while Scott McTominay is one of the few players to have kept his dignity among the unfolding car crash that is Manchester United’s season.

Ryan Fraser was the Premier League’s second-top assist-maker behind only Eden Hazard. Oli McBurnie became Scotland’s first £20m striker by signing for Sheffield United. Then there’s James Forrest and Callum McGregor who have become the brightest stars in the Scottish Premiership over the past few years.

There are gaping holes in Clarke’s squad (like at right back where Liam Palmer was shoe-horned in at on Thursday night), but he has more talent at his disposal than any of his recent predecessors dating back a decade.

Scotland should be building something, at least gathering momentum before next March’s play-off earned through the Nations League, but instead, they continue to crumble.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Scotland have gone even further backwards since the sacking of Alex McLeish and the appointment of Clarke. They seem even softer, allowing the floodgates to open at the first sight of rain.

Robertson explained after the home defeat to Russia last month that taking the lead only put his teammates on edge.

How can a football team ever be expected to move forward with that sort of mental fragility?

Nobody is calling for Clarke to go. He is still the best-qualified man for the position, but he looks to be as baffled as anyone by what he has witnessed over the first five months of his tenure.

Scotland are in bad shape. That has been clear for some time. But, the measures taken to improve things only appear to be making things worse.

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