Scotland rise to be that nation again as League A promotion reveals rare Steve Clarke emotion
Emotion doesn’t exactly pour out of Steve Clarke. He prefers a more understated, reserved approach in the public domain.
Watching him celebrate against Ukraine and Ireland during the last week therefore underlined the sense of achievement felt by the Scotland manager. At 59, he might well be peaking in his chosen profession.
Rewind not so long ago to the 2016 European Championship qualifying draw. Scotland were Pot 4 seeds alongside a collection of footballing also-rans including Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Armenia.
Failure to qualify for that tournament and the 2018 World Cup brought the end for Gordon Strachan. Following Alex McLeish’s brief second tenure at Hampden Park, Clarke arrived from Kilmarnock in June 2019 to initiate a gradual but captivating renaissance of the national team.
They are now Pot 2 seeds for the 2024 European Championship qualifying draw on October 9. That comes after gaining promotion from League C to League B and now League A of the UEFA Nations League. They will be the highest ranked UK team when it restarts in 2024. It is fast becoming the Tartan Army’s new favourite competition.
McLeish started the process before Clarke transformed a relatively mediocre Scotland squad into a proper force.
Clarke oversaw Euro 2020 qualification via that nerve-shredding penalty shootout in Serbia – thus ending Scotland’s 23-year absence from major finals. Now he has guided his country to new heights after victories over Ukraine and Ireland at Hampden, plus Tuesday’s gutsy 0-0 draw against the Ukrainians in Kraków.
He has every right to celebrate. The often-deadpan expression indicates a man serious about his work, yet there was unbridled satisfaction at winning League B1.
Clarke punched the air and released an emphatic roar after Jack Hendry’s equaliser in the 2-1 win against the Irish. At the final whilst on Tuesday, he stood with arms aloft and a huge grin etched across his face as coaching staff arrived for a group hug in the technical area. Those moments reveal everything about this passionate Scotsman.
Whether you like a back three or back four, Lyndon Dykes or Ché Adams up front, Ryan Christie or Ryan Fraser out wide, Clarke gets far more decisions right than wrong.
Ryan Porteous is a case in point. Social media was populated by dread-filled posts on Tuesday evening after the Hibs defender was named in Scotland’s team for a match they could not afford to lose against Ukraine. He delivered an imperious display on a memorable international debut, justifying his manager’s faith and silencing critics in the process.
The 0-0 result sets Scotland up for a potentially-prosperous future. A Pot 2 seeding increases chances of finishing first or second in the Euro 2024 qualifying section, both of which carry automatic passage to the finals in Germany. A play-off place is there if needed.
Scotland routinely qualified for international tournaments in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Might those days be about to return?
“Now we’ve reached Pot 2, we’re in League A of the Nations League, we don’t want to stop,” said Clarke. “We want to keep getting better. The play-off is secure just in case. I don’t think, with this group of players, that we’ll need it. That’s my honest opinion.”
The Tartan Army are hanging on his every word as Scotland rise to be that nation again.