Steve Clarke keeps his calm amid a storm

Steve Clarke looks on during a Scotland training session at OriamSteve Clarke looks on during a Scotland training session at Oriam
Steve Clarke looks on during a Scotland training session at Oriam
One positive aspect of playing two games in four days after three months without any matches at all is having a swift opportunity to atone.

But there’s a flip side, all the more relevant since it is a factor in the attendance expected at Hampden Park for this evening’s clash with star-studded Belgium. If the first outing of a doubleheader has not gone to plan there’s an attendant gloom that risks infecting preparations for the ‘second leg’.

And apart from the opening 15 minutes or so, Friday night against Russia certainly did not go to plan. Steve Clarke has revealed the forlorn mood was proving hard to shift as late as yesterday morning. Unusually, it was the opposing manager doing his best to lift spirits at Hampden yesterday. Roberto Martinez stressed Scotland were nowhere near as poor as was being made out following the 2-1 defeat. In fact, he claimed they had played as well as he had seen Scotland perform in the first part of the match, when John McGinn put the Scots one up to briefly breathe life back into their campaign.

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With 15 points already banked and the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne to call upon, Martinez can afford to be generous. The reality is Scotland are once again playing catch-up.

Normally the visit of such an attractive team as Belgium will stimulate interest but, reflecting the sense of mid-campaign malaise, it’s likely a smaller crowd than attended Friday night’s defeat to Russia will watch the top ranked team in world football.

It’s not you, it’s us, Roberto. Clarke senses the nation’s pain and has assured it’s no different inside the camp following defeat in what most asserted was a must-win game.

“It registers because you understand it was a big game for us,” he said. “We felt we prepared properly for the game. I think that is where the biggest disappointment is for us. We had a great week’s training – we thought we were in really good shape going in. We started the game the way I expected us to play the game and then it ran away from us.

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“It is something I am going to have to get used to with the quick turnaround – the deep disappointment of losing and then suddenly you have to stay level-headed, you have to stay positive. Listen, the mood was flat. On Friday night after the game it was quiet, Saturday morning was really quiet and it was still a little bit flat this morning.

“But by the time we finished training and done the work I had a better feel about the players. Tomorrow night, after another good night’s sleep, we will be ready to go.”

Clarke’s plan to devise a system both he and the players are comfortable with is being ill-served by a run of tricky games that is compounding the stresses involved.

“It’s every bit as big as I thought it was but then I knew it was a big job before I started,” he said. “It’s a big challenge for us because we haven’t qualified for a long, long time so there’s a lot of pressure on us to do it this time.

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“The reality of modern-day life in football is that everyone wants a quick fix. If you win three games you’re a genius, if you lose three games you’re an idiot. That’s basically where we are at just now.

“I just need to stay calm, look at the situation, try to prepare the team properly and work with the players to build a rapport and a relationship with them and keep working towards the end goal, which is qualification. Come April next year, that’s the time when you’ll see whether we’ve done good work or bad work.”

This is the first time recently that Clarke has publicly acknowledged the play-off place banked under Alex McLeish, with these games - in the hope there is more than one - scheduled for late March. On the day of his unveiling he was adamant: he’s not even thinking about this alternative route to the Euro 2020 finals. Results since have meant automatic qualification is becoming ever less likely. Clarke is potentially on the brink of a third straight defeat, with an ominous trip to Moscow to come next month.

He has encountered all the problems he expected and tallied up the number of sessions in which he’s been able to work with the players tactically during this latest camp: just six. Nevertheless, he has retained his optimism and is confident better times are around the corner, even if that means relying on a play-off place earned by his predecessor.

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“Because I am the manager and I have to believe in my players and I have to believe in my team,” he said.

“I believe we will click. I believe we will be good tomorrow night. The boys are really disappointed and hopefully you see a good reaction in this game. They (Belgium) have a really good squad, they’re in a good place and the number one team in the world for a reason.

“It’s a good challenge for us so let’s relish it. Let’s not worry about getting a hiding.”