Steve Clarke Gives Scotland Fans Cause For Optimism
Scotland's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign got off to a disastrous start in March with defeat in Kazakhstan. That was followed up by a far from convincing win over minnows San Marino. For Scotland fans performances like this are nothing unusual.
What was unusual has been the Scottish Football Association's (SFA) swift action in removing struggling manager Alex McLeish from his position.
Even more pleasing to Scotland supporters was the news that Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke would be leaving his job at Rugby Park to take over as Scotland manager.
Clarke signed off from his duties at Kilmarnock in style - a win on the final day of the season sealed third place in the Scottish Premiership (the club's highest finish in Scotland's top flight since 1966) and the opportunity to play in next season's Europa League.
More on Clarke's excellent work at Kilmarnock later in this piece. For now let's examine his coaching and managerial history more closely.
After ending a successful 16 year playing career (200 appearances for St Mirren, over 300 for Chelsea), Clarke moved into coaching. He joined up with his ex-Chelsea boss Ruud Gullit, becoming his assistant at Newcastle United in 1998. Clarke then returned to work at Chelsea, coaching their youth teams before being appointed Jose Mourinho's right hand man at the London club in 2004. Clarke moved on from Chelsea but remained as a trusted second in charge - first to Gianfranco Zola at West Ham United, then to Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool.
After leaving his post at Liverpool in 2012, Clarke took on his first managerial position with West Bromwich Albion. Clarke led West Brom to an eighth place finish in England's top league in 2012/13. That was the club's highest placing in English football since 1981. There is a theme developing here.
Clarke's next managerial position was at Reading. His most notable achievement there was guiding the club from the second tier of English football to the semi-final of the FA Cup. It was their first appearance at that advanced stage of the competition in 88 years.
After a spell out of football Clarke brought the knowledge and experiences he gained in England back home to Scotland when he was appointed manager of Kilmarnock in October 2017. At the time it was seen as quite a coup for Killie. And so it proved. Clarke joined a club languishing at the bottom of the Premiership table. Using the same players as his predecessor, Clarke quickly moulded a side that confidently pulled away from the relegation zone. The season ended with Kilmarnock finishing fifth and amassing a record points tally in the process. Not bad considering the starting position he inherited.
2018/19 was even better for the Ayrshire club. Last season's points record was smashed as Clarke's team, once again using the same group of players - I think this is important, finished in third position. That really is a grand achievement for a club of Kilmarnock's size and is testament to Clarke's abilities as a manager.
From what I can ascertain Kilmarnock fans are disappointed to be losing their manager but they don't begrudge him the opportunity to move on and manage his country. He certainly left their club in a far better position than what he found it in.
Speaking of Kilmarnock fans, I was interested to hear about Clarke's tactics and style of play while he was in charge at Rugby Park. I reached out to my friend Kevin Craig who watches Killie regularly. Kevin told me this: "Sir Steve Clarke always employed a back four and encouraged the full backs to push on when possible. He likes two holding midfielders plus one who can drift forward into the number 10 position but with the task of dropping back to help out defensively when needed. The formation is basically a 4-3-3 but can also be a counter-attacking 4-5-1. Clarke likes speed out wide. His centre forward also needs pace, good movement and high energy levels. He used a mix of direct football and playing it out from defence. He didn't force the players to play it out from the back at all times - if they were under pressure he didn't have a problem with them knocking it down the channel for the striker or the wide man to chase."
It sounds like he is adaptable but with a fairly simple outlook on how football should be played. This non-complicated approach should suit the players he has at his disposal for Scotland.
While not expecting miracles, the Scotland fan-base on the whole are delighted with Clarke's appointment. Most of the remarks I have seen and heard this week focus on the fact that at least he will give the team an identity and try to develop a consistent style of play. At this stage that is all we can ask for.
Mirroring the start of his tenure at Kilmarnock, Clarke is beginning life as Scotland manager slightly behind the eight ball. While not impossible to finish in the top two in Euro 2020 Qualifying Group I, the defeat in Astana badly damaged Scotland's hopes of achieving that.
It is therefore necessary to praise the SFA once again. By appointing Clarke now they have given him the maximum amount of time possible to get the players used to his methods before the March 2020 Nations League Playoff. Winning that may well be Scotland's most realistic route to qualification for Euro 2020.
Clarke, at least initially, will be working with the same players Alex McLeish was. Did I mention elsewhere in this article how Clarke had got more out of an underachieving group of players than a previous manager had?
In all seriousness though, it is a big task Clarke has on his hands. Scotland have been starved of success for so long that accepting failure has become the norm for many. There is a belief within Scottish football though that currently we do have the foundation of a decent national team. Steve Clark will provide his players with all the information they need to do as well as possible on the international stage. He will also give them the confidence to implement what they take from the training ground into the matches. Clarke is a determined character so he definitely won't roll over and let the clubs tickle his belly the way previous Scotland managers have done when it comes to players withdrawing from squads. For these reasons I believe Steve Clarke is the man who can nurture and develop the existing potential into a capable team.
Some patience may be required as the constraints of international football mean Clarke won't get to work with the players on a daily basis. The job begins immediately as the next two qualifiers are just around the corner. Scotland face Cyprus at home on June 8 before a daunting looking trip to Belgium on June 11. It will be interesting to see how Clarke approaches these two very different challenges.
I, for one, am cautiously optimistic that Scotland under Steve Clarke will once again grace an international tournament. If he does manage this it won't just be Kilmarnock fans like my friend Kevin who refer to him as "Sir Steve Clarke" - it will be the entire country!