You couldn’t squeeze a cigarette paper between Craig Gordon and David Marshall right now, so tight is the competition between Scotland’s goalkeepers ahead of the impending European Championship.
That’s before you factor in a more-than-able third choice in Jon McLaughlin. Only one can play when the national team kick-off against Czech Republic next month in their first major tournament for 23 years. Clarke has the daunting responsibility of choosing.
The decision will be scrutinised and analysed across the country with strong goalkeeping displays likely to be crucial to Scotland’s fate. England and Croatia are the other teams in Group D and the Scots find themselves as underdogs.
Gordon and Marshall are close friends and will train together at Edinburgh’s Oriam complex to maintain fitness before joining the squad for pre-tournament friendlies against Netherlands and Luxembourg.
At 38, the Hearts No.1 remains a vibrant, confident keeper in fine form. He played 29 times for the Tynecastle club as they won this season’s Scottish Championship and is nominated for the league’s player of the year award.
He finished the campaign with a run of eight successive clean sheets, including one for Scotland in March’s World Cup qualifying win over the Faroe Islands. Those performances have been duly noted by Clarke.
Tartan Army hero
Marshall is slightly younger at 36. He will forever remain a Tartan Army hero for that save in Belgrade last November, however he fell out of the Derby County team towards the end of the English Championship campaign.
Four successive defeats cost him his place as manager Wayne Rooney promoted the Dutchman Kelle Roos to help his side narrowly escape relegation in the final three matches. Nevertheless, he has been Scotland No.1 since Clarke took charge in May 2019.
McLaughin has managed 13 appearances for Rangers so far this term, but only three since the turn of the year. He isn’t likely to usurp Marshall and Gordon at this late stage, so the choice appears to be a straightforward case of one or the other.
Christophe Berra has played in front of all three Scotland goalkeepers can fully appreciate the quandary the national coach faces. Clarke is known as a fiercely loyal individual who favours a pragmatic approach and will be reluctant to leave Marshall out given his pivotal role in Scotland’s qualification for this competition.
“If you’re looking at it like that then he will probably go with Marshall, but who knows? It’s a very tight call. Even the third keeper is top quality, Jon McLaughlin. It’s not a bad position to be in with three really good keepers,” said the former Hearts centre-back, who will join Raith Rovers this summer.
“It may come down to loyalty. There will also be the friendlies before the tournament. It is a dilemma. Does Steve Clarke stick with the players who got him there? Or does he go with players who played regularly for their teams? Goalkeepers is a bit different from outfield players so I don’t think it would be a big worry either way.”
Even Berra finds it difficult to split Gordon and Marshall. “When I was involved with Scotland, Marsh was always in the squad but never played. It was either Craigy or Allan McGregor in goal and Marsh was second or third choice. It must have been really frustrating for him.
“Any other player might have chucked it or not bothered coming, thinking: ‘What’s the point?’ He stuck at it and in the end got his opportunity. He was a big part of the squad that qualified for the Euros and, of course, he was on the back pages after saving that penalty.
“He is quite a quiet guy but a top professional. He has played at a high level throughout his career.
“I started out with Craig at Hearts and finished with him there. He hasn’t changed. If anything, he’s got better. He will pull off wonder saves from nowhere that keep you in games, but Marsh is capable of that as well. It’s going to be a toss of the coin between them.”
Some suggest that the simple solution to the situation would be to call up Rangers’ Allan McGregor and reinstate him as Scotland No.1 for the Euros. His form at Ibrox is driving such calls but Berra is against the idea.
“Greegsy is a top keeper but if you did that I don’t think it bodes well for the players, how they’d react and their feeling towards the manager,” he said. “For team morale, especially since Greegsy has retired, I think you need to close that chapter. I don’t think Steve Clarke would do that.”
Whichever way he leans, Scotland’s fortunes will rest heavily on the shoulders of their goalkeeper. Berra pointed out that there is sufficient quality to cause the Czechs, England and Croatia problems at the same time.
“You’ve seen from the way Steve Clarke sets up that we can be very hard to beat,” he stated. “We also have players who can create problems – John McGinn, Ryan Christie, Ryan Fraser, Stuart Armstrong. People like that can be match-winners.
“We are going to be underdogs against these teams but I don’t think we will be massive underdogs. It will be very tight. How we perform in both penalty areas will have a big bearing on the outcome.
“At international level, you need to take your chances and be clinical. I know we have lost a few games and had a few draws, but there hasn’t been much in the games. We’ve always created chances and, in most matches, we don’t give too many opportunities away.”