Defenders Scott McKenna and Nathan Patterson are poised to step into the starting line-up as the UEFA Nations League begins. Forward Ryan Christie may also feature. After Ukraine extinguished hopes of a place at Qatar 2022 last week, Clarke fully understands the craving for victory at Hampden Park.
Whether some players are tired after long seasons at club level is a matter for debate. Clarke’s view is that, mentally, they need to be alert. He will rest anyone he feels needs a reprieve with two further Nations League ties to come in the next week – Ireland and Armenia again, both away from home.
“We need to win,” said of tonight’s match. “The gap from Ukraine to Armenia is probably enough that you don’t have to worry so much about putting people back on the pitch for another game. The thing I have to manage is the three games in six days.
“We travel to Ireland, we travel to Armenia, which is particularly long, and we will be finishing on a particularly warm note if you look at the temperatures Ireland had to play in. We kick off a little bit later but it’s going to be a shift, so I have to get the balance right for those games.”
Asked whether demanding international fixtures are fair on players right after 11 months of club duties, Clarke responded carefully. “I don’t like to talk about it going into such a run of matches because maybe the players read it and think they are tired.
“They are not tired. We have to make sure they are not tired, and certainly remind them. I think most of them are pretty keen to get started again and get back on the pitch.
“Guys who played against Ukraine are ready to go again. Obviously we’ve lost Lyndon [Dykes]. They are ready to go if I have to select them, but I also have to bear in mind that after this game there is another one quickly. There’s two days recovery and a game, two days recovery and a game, and that can have a bearing.
“There will be some changes to the starting XI, but the team I pick is team I expect and hope – expect is a better word than hope – but I expect them to beat Armenia at home.”
Flak will fly if they don’t. Criticism from some quarters was aimed at Clarke following the 3-1 Ukraine loss. A tame performance on the night prompted knee-jerk reactions despite it being Scotland’s first defeat in nine matches. At 58, the manager is sufficiently wily and experienced to cope. He feels he is good at blocking out external noise.
“Really good,” he stated. “I go to my wee happy place. I’m not telling you where it is! But it’s in my head.” His private life contains more than enough distractions. “I went to see my dad [after the Ukraine game], he’s in hospital and not very well. That puts everything into perspective.
“He’s brilliant but he doesn’t know what’s happening, he doesn’t know the game, he doesn’t know we played, he doesn’t know we got beat. That’s just the way it is. It’s tough, it was tough, but it puts everything into perspective for me.”
The vast majority of the Tartan Army remain behind Clarke and the team. “I don’t really see a reason for them not to stick with the team. It was one defeat in nine,” he said. “Okay, it was a big game and we’re all suffering. We’re all hurt, but we have to move on. There is no point in going back and going back and going back.
“The next campaign is upon us and we want to do well in the Nations League. We know it’s important to us, we want to improve our ranking and win the group to get into the A Group.
“That would mean we’re playing against better teams and that can only improve us. The Nations League is important. The World Cup is gone and we have to let it go.”
He isn’t short on motivational techniques for anyone feeling slightly fatigued and needing a boost. Part of his speech delivered on that famous night in Belgrade in November 2020 was re-enacted ahead of Nottingham Forest’s play-off success as they gained promotion to England’s Premier League just ten days ago.
The link is Steven Reid, the former Scotland coach now working at Forest. As Scotland prepared to face Serbia in the Euro 2020 play-off final aiming to end a 23-year absence from major tournaments, Clarke told his players: “Don’t play with the fear of failure, play with the anticipation of success.”
Reid repeated it to help Forest end their own 23-year wait to return to England’s top flight. “Nottingham Forest stole the motivational line that I used in Serbia. So it obviously worked well for Forest. It worked for us in Serbia as well,” smiled Clarke.
McKenna, the Forest centre-back, explained the impact of those words in his club’s changing room having been part of the Scotland squad in Belgrade. “Obviously with a play-off game there is a different atmosphere. I didn’t play in the play-off games that got us to the Euros but I was part of the squad and saw how the boys prepared,” he said.
“Steven Reid actually stole a couple of Steve Clarke’s quotes when we were having team meetings heading into the play-off semi-final and final. It was actually one a lot of the lads bought into. I think having that sort of bond and that sort of experience helped us get over the line.”