Kicking Off Under Steve Clarke
The waiting is almost over for Scotland fans. Saturday's Euro 2020 Group I qualifier against Cyprus at Hampden Park in Glasgow will begin the Steve Clarke era. Officially appointed on May 20, Clarke has had much to do in a short space of time before this first game. Having inherited a bit of a mess, in terms of the current group standings and player attitudes, Clarke will have spent a fair bit of time sounding out key players to gauge their feelings on the current situation as well as putting together his desired coaching team. He also had the small matter of announcing his first squad and getting some work in on the training field with them.
That initial squad selected will also be the players at Clarke's disposal for Tuesday's trip to Belgium. The purpose of this article is to look at what Clarke has done so far, and some of the reaction to it as well as providing a preview to both upcoming fixtures.
As mentioned, the scenario in terms of qualifying out of Group I doesn't look good, but all Clarke can do is take one game at a time. If he is to somehow rescue things, then he simply must oversee a win over Cyprus tomorrow. Tuesday's trip to Belgium will take care of itself but it would be nice to go into that challenge on the back of a morale boosting performance.
We don't know exactly what Clarke spoke to certain players about when he was taking their temperature in terms of how committed they are to be playing for Scotland. He did say that talks with several disillusioned players had been "ninety percent positive" and stated that recent retirees from the international fold such as Allan McGregor, James McArthur and Scott Brown would "have to un-retire themselves" as he wouldn't be chasing them to get back into a dark blue jersey.
What we do know is which coaches Clarke has selected to help him restore some pride to the men's national team. Alex Dyer, who was his assistant at Kilmarnock, has taken the job of assistant manager and former Republic of Ireland international Steven Reid has joined them as a coach. Goalkeeping coach Stevie Woods remains in that position. While Dyer and Woods are logical appointments, Reid could be considered something of a wildcard. We have to trust the manager though, he will be very familiar with what Reid can bring to his role as the Irishman worked as a coach while Clarke was in charge of Reading.
On the same day Clarke revealed his coaching team he also announced his first squad. As just about everyone with an interest suspected, most of the players chosen were also selected in recent squads by the previous manager. A couple of players who may have been in contention are unavailable due to having summer wedding plans (John Fleck and Robert Snodgrass) and reports suggested that Steven Fletcher once again asked not to be included. He should just make it official and retire from international football. Kieran Tierney and Oliver McBurnie are injured.
In order to fill the gaps Clarke went with what he knew. Kilmarnock players Stuart Findlay, Greg Taylor and Eamonn Brophy earned callups to the Scotland squad for the first time. This didn't surprise me at all, although Clarke found himself fielding questions on their selection from the media. Welcome to managing your country where every decision will be seriously scrutinised. The only player missing who I though may have been called up is 19-year-old David Turnbull of Motherwell. The young midfielder had a sparkling second half of the season for his club but perhaps Clarke thought his development would be better served continuing in the under-21 team.
The most intriguing aspect of the squad for me is the inclusion of four goalkeepers. That indicates the position is very much up for grabs. Scott Bain, Liam Kelly, David Marshall and Jon McLaughlin all look to be starting off with equal status so it will be interesting to see who dons the gloves against Cyprus.
Now for a look at the upcoming games....
Scotland v Cyprus - June 8, Hampden Park, Glasgow, 1945 BST.
It is often said that there are no easy games in international football and for Scotland this is certainly the case. I've lost count of the number of times we have slipped up against teams who may be regarded as minnows by other nations. Scotland can't afford to overlook this game and I'm sure that they won't.
For any country looking to qualify for tournaments a basic must is to beat lower ranked teams when playing them at home. The Cypriots come to Glasgow currently ranked 89 by FIFA (Scotland are 44th). Most of their squad play in the Cypriot league and they are added to by a sprinkling of colleagues who ply their trade elsewhere in Europe - none in any of the highest regarded leagues. 21-year-old midfielder Grigoris Kastanos is signed to Juventus but he has yet to make the breakthrough into their first team.
Cyprus finished second bottom of their qualifying group for last year's World Cup. Their ten games yielded ten points - two wins over Gibraltar as well as a home triumph against Bosnia and a draw with Estonia. Not exactly a scorching run of recent form. So far in Group I Cyprus defeated San Marino 5-0 before going down 2-0 to Belgium. The trip to Glasgow will be their first away match of this campaign.
While I think Cyprus will put up a stubborn fight I am expecting Scotland to eventually overcome their Mediterranean opponents. I'll go with 2-0 as a final score to send the team off to Belgium with a bit of confidence.
Belgium v Scotland - June 11, King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels, 1945 BST.
From being expected to prevail at home against a lower ranked opponent to travelling to the FIFA ranked number one team in the world. What a difference a few days makes. Tuesday's assignment looks too difficult for this group of Scottish players. While we are delighted to have Steve Clarke in charge it is doubtful whether even a prime Arrigo Sacchi could engineer a Scottish win, or even a draw against a team packed full of world class players.
As good as Belgium are I think they must be disappointed in themselves that they haven't pushed on and won an international tournament with this current crop of players. Euro 2020 could be when they achieve this therefore it is not exactly being bold stating that they will absolutely walk this qualifying group. Maximum points is a realistic target for them.
So is there any point in Scotland travelling to Brussels then? Of course, anything can happen! I may be clutching at straws here but this is probably the best time to be facing the Belgians. Most of their players play at the highest level of European football and, after reaching the semi-finals of Russia 2018, have been playing football for almost a full year with no break. Some of them must be reaching breaking point and this could allow Scotland to spring a surprise.
That would require a tremendous performance from the players selected as even with tired bodies many of the Belgian players are several levels above those who will be out there representing Scotland. Under the previous regime this fixture had a heavy beating written all over it. Hopefully Steve Clarke has had enough time to ensure an organised showing from Scotland and that if it does end in defeat it is one that can be built upon rather than looked back at in shame.
So two very different challenges coming up for Scotland in the next few days. Steve Clarke isn't a magician and hasn't had long to work with the players but based on his reputation and past achievements it is reasonable to expect a much higher level of performance from Scotland in these games.
It's almost time for the Steve Clarke era to begin. The hope is this is the starting point for Scotland fans to once again have a team to be proud of.