'We play better with a bit of fear' - Scotland boss Clarke will test players before Euro 2024 bow
National team stars shine brightest under pressure, says gaffer
Steve Clarke is confident that the “fear factor” of playing for high stakes at a major finals will bring out the best in his Scotland team.
And, having qualified for next summer’s European Championships with two games to spare, he’s planning to throw a series of tough tests at his “humble” stars between now and the big kick-off.
The Scots failed to sign off on their spectacular Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with a pair of victories in their closing two Group A fixtures, drawing 2-2 away to Georgia and then conceding late to let Norway off the hook in a barmy six-goal shoot-out at Hampden on Sunday night.
Even the notoriously demanding Clarke was willing to cut his players some slack as they finished second to multiple Euro champions Spain.
And he says the unique situation of having a place in the finals sewn up in double-quick time had definitely affected performance levels in the latest international break.
“You have to find that extra motivation where you go out onto the pitch with the fear of losing,” said Clarke. “I don’t think we had that in the last two games.
“You need to play with the fear of losing matches, that just gives you that little bit extra edge.
“We’re very humble. We want to be competitive every time we go on to the pitch. But we know that we have to be 100 per cent.
“Maybe in the last two games, because we had qualified, we weren’t. We had never been in that situation before. It would be fantastic to be in this situation again, don’t get me wrong, but we had never been in this situation before. I had never been in that situation before.
“That is maybe why we started so flat – we were maybe savouring the atmosphere too much. We are Scotland, we have to go into every game determined to be competitive.”
In a campaign that saw Scotland win their first five games, including beating Spain 2-0 at Hampden and scoring two late, late goals to break Norwegian hearts with a 2-1 win in Oslo, Clarke was given plenty of reason to feel proud of his team.
“Listen, I am not going to be too hard on this group of players because they have been fantastic for us,” he said.
“Don’t forget that Norway were the next closest seed to us. We took four points off them, we took four points off Georgia, we took six off the bottom team.
“And the qualification game was the night here at Hampden when we beat Spain 2-0. Don’t forget how good they were that night and how good the performance was.
“We capitalised well on the fact we had three out of four home games early.
“Then obviously going to Norway and giving them a bloody nose with the two late goals was crucial.
“Yeah, it would have been nice to finish with a flourish instead of conceding a late equaliser just as we were about to put on another centre half and shore the game up. We conceded, but fortunately that hasn’t happened too much during the course of the campaign.”
Having taken on France and England in recent months, Clarke is adamant that he’ll continue to seek out proper opposition for his players during the international windows between now and Scotland’s opening fixture in Germany next June.
“I will be looking for Pot 1, Pot 2, Pot 3, Pot 4 teams,” he said, adding: “It would be better if it was teams that aren’t going to the Euros.
“We will go away, we will wait for the draw, we will see who is around, we will see who wants to play us.
“But I would like competitive matches because I think, like I said before, that you need that competitive edge, we need that competitive edge. Hopefully I will pick four decent friendlies. I don’t think you learn enough from playing a Pot 5 or Pot 6 team or whatever.”
Clarke also said he reverted to a back four against Georgia and Norway in order to see his “Plan B” shape tested in a competitive environment.
Speaking after a defence without the talents of Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and Aaron Hickey shipped three goals, the head coach said: “Obviously we are missing key defenders. We had still to play with a back four.
“I was looking more at the combinations in midfield, the attacking combinations, to see what we could do. I have shown before that I can change in game.
“When we have to chase the game, we can go from a five to a four. The Norway game was a match where, if I had been a little bit more reactive, we could have gone from a four to a five.
“We have to find different ways to win matches. That was the thinking behind these two back four performances.”