Tidings of comfort and joy

The right manager, the right players, the right mentality. Steve Clarke’s men did not just end 22 years of longing, they raised hopes of proper showings at Wembley and Hampden in the summer.

By Hugh MacDonald

This article first appeared in Issue 18 which was published in December 2020.

quotation mark
The journey to Euro 2020 has been long. But it has been simple too: the adherence to certain basic principles paid a dividend. Good coach, good players, good work ethic.

The Year of the Plague has culminated in The Second Ending of the Drought. As someone who staggered down the terracing at Hampden to greet The First Ending of the Drought, I feel blessed to have survived Covid, ageing, and being Scottish to witness the heavens opening in Belgrade and the Elysian fields of the European Championships beckoning our lads.

Much has been made of the 22-year absence from a major finals but the drought from 1958 to 1974 was felt keenly by all who lived through it. It is astonishing that an era which produced Celtic and Rangers teams capable of winning European trophies, and exports to England in the shape of Ian St John, Denis Law, Billy Bremner and the rest could not manage to produce a team capable of playing in the World Cups of 1962, 1966 and 1970 and be absent from the European Championships stretching back to its inception in 1960. That night in 1973, when Joe Jordan stooped to conquer against Czechoslovakia, was a game-changer rather than another night of routine celebration.

The reasons for sustained failure then, of course, were easy to list: poor management, more difficult qualification for finals with fewer teams and, ahem, a more ambivalent attitude by players to turning up for squads.

The First Drought was ended by having a manager in Willie Ormond who was content to let the good players play (though he made serious mistakes once the finals were reached); a team that negotiated tough qualifying games with verve and style; and a determined commitment to the team that was only occasionally diluted by alcohol.

The ending of the Second Drought will be examined closely for factors that can be used to ensure future success. This may be somewhat tedious to those of us content merely to live in the unexpected moment of glorious success but it fair beats another working party on the state of the game, an Icelandic saga about how other countries do it better and a bout of self-flagellation not seen since that night when the stag party took a wrong turning into a basement on the Reeperbahn.

Instead, one can reflect on the three eternal truths and their influence on qualification for Europe 2020:

1. Red card to poor management

Steve Clarke is a proper coach with, crucially, the experience of working with high quality players (Chelsea, Liverpool) and those with more limited ability (Kilmarnock). He thus had the CV to ensure respect among the EPL players but also the ability to lay down realistic targets for players of more modest abilities. In international football, outside the big beasts, the reality is that a coach has to work with players of varying capabilities.

The best appraisal of Clarke’s powers is that he can motivate and gain the respect of both an Andy Robertson (world champion at club level) and a Stephen O’Donnell (not a world champion at club level). He also persuaded a holding midfielder for Manchester United to play in a back three, a position that led to Scott McTominay enduring criticism. It is a credit to the character of coach and player that both persisted with the strategy when it might have been easier to bin it after one outing.

All successful managers, too, will whisper about luck. Clarke had time to bed in his system without the mayhem of a nervous crowd. The acquisition of Lyndon Dykes, who is as Australian as a rift after a slug of lager, was fortunate. Clarke also reached the promised land, with help from Alex McLeish, by merely beating a team he should have beaten and then one he shouldn’t.

The latter match was a perfect example of his clever coaching. He placed Scotland on the front foot, disconcerting the Serbs. There was luck, too, in extra time when Clarke’s premature substitutions left Scotland largely impotent in an attacking sense. There was no element of luck, however, in the penalty shoot-out. The Scots’ penalties were converted with confidence. That decisive save was the result of good goalkeeping and detailed planning over how to meet each Serbian taker.

Clarke, then, was the very acme of what is needed to lead a smaller, lower-ranked nation to a finals.

2. A team of verve and style

Right, I hear you laughing at the back. But my long-held opinion is that Scotland had the players to qualify for a major tournament. Scotland can call on those who earn their living at Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Southampton. They also have seasoned Champions League players on the domestic scene in Ryan Christie, James Forrest and Callum McGregor. Ryan Jack, too, has proved his worth in European competition. The goalkeeper is excellent.

The challenge for Clarke was to find a way of disguising weakness. He did this by changing his preferred system. More relevantly, he did this by believing in and improving players who would find international football – largely a level below Champions League and the EPL – a significant step up. The most conspicuous triumph of this aspect of coaching was the vindicated selection of O’Donnell and Declan Gallagher, who went from being half the Motherwell defence that lost four goals to Celtic to being part of a Scotland defence that lost just the one in Belgrade in two hours against a team so bristling in offensive talent that their £60m Real Madrid striker could only come on as a substitute.

The most overlooked aspect of that night in Belgrade, though, was the visiting team’s style and its verve. I predicted a Serbian win. I could only foresee a Scotland success if their backs were put to the wall and a head was put on a set-piece. Yet Scotland should have won more comfortably. Clarke’s team was assertive, with the technique of players such as Christie and McGregor allied to the verve of Dykes, John McGinn and Robertson. Jack was a reliable, diligent shield, the back three were excellent, and an enterprising game-plan yielded a wholly justifiable reward.

Scotland were assured. And they will become more accomplished as a result of what they achieved.

3. A determined commitment to the team

This is an intangible. It can only be divined in images, impressions and half-formed words in emotional interviews. But the judgment is that Scotland certainly have this team spirit, a cliched phrase but one that neatly sums up the significance of uniting disparate egos, abilities and motivations in a single purpose.

I call three witnesses, m’Lud. First, David Marshall, who flirted with the first industrial injury case of chronic haemorrhoids by travelling all over the world just to sit on a bench. Repeatedly. Those around the Scotland camp insist he was always a dedicated trainer, helpful to his rivals, when he was destined to spend an evening watching rather than participating on the field. His success brings a glow to the heart not felt since that morning when a traditional all-day Scottish breakfast was followed by a pint of ice-cold Irn-Bru.

The second witness is Ryan Christie. He could barely testify to his joy at achieving something of substance with the national team. He recorded an interview that now belongs in the “Where Were You When Ryan Had a Greet” category. He could hardly form the words but, ironically, his attempt to do so spoke of a more profound truth. This is a team that cares. That is sometimes not enough to gain success, but no triumph at the elite level can be obtained without it.

The third and final witness (and there could have been many more) is Andy Robertson. A meeting with him in Doha a year ago was hugely instructive for this writer. Robertson was by then a Champions League winner and about to become part of the team that brought a Liverpool title drought to an end. He was also preparing to win a World Club championship in a few days.

Yet his desire to lead Scotland to the finals of the European Championships was palpable. Decades of interviewing the elite in various disciplines has provided me with a reliable gauge as to a subject’s insincerity or inclination merely to say what is expected. Robertson’s commitment could not be denied.

He showed this in Belgrade, he shows it in training, he shows it in his acceptance of the responsibilities of captaincy, some of them tedious to the focused sportsman.

There are more reasons to be cheerful, some even to be hopeful for Wembley, Hampden and beyond. The journey to Euro 2020 has been long. But it has been simple too: the adherence to certain basic principles paid a dividend. Good coach, good players, good work ethic. This mixture has provided a blessed cocktail of relief and joy. It has been intoxicating. But there is also a sober truth. The best may be yet to come.

This article first appeared in Issue 18 which was published in December 2020.

Buy
Issue 24

Here

Subscribe here Buy a gift Back copies