Calm before the storm: Steve Clarke is the coolest man in Belgrade as Scotland’s epic clash with Serbia for a place at Euro 2020 fast approaches
- Usually for Scotland, a play-off trip to Belgrade would feel like Bonfire Night
- This time, the Red Star Stadium will be empty, save for players, staff and media
- Steve Clarke is calm, despite Scotland being close to first major finals since 1998
- His side are unbeaten in over a year, and Clarke says they’re feeling positive
For Scotland’s football team, the sense of calm and reassurance pervading the ranks stems from a number of fronts.
Under normal circumstances, a trip to Belgrade for a Euro 2020 play-off with Serbia would feel like Bonfire Night on a feral housing estate. The pyrotechnics would ignite and the din would have family pets running for cover.
But, come kick-off this evening, the Red Star Stadium will be empty, save for players, team officials, stewards and the media. A Scotland side unbeaten in their last eight games stand 90 minutes from their first appearance in a major finals since 1998. And the weight of history will be shouldered by the calmest man in the whole of Serbia.
Steve Clarke leaves Scotland’s hotel as the team head to the airport and on to Serbia
The Red Star Stadium will be empty on Thursday night for a huge game in Scotland’s history
The portcullis guarding Steve Clarke’s emotions is kept tightly shut at the best of times. As Kilmarnock manager, he had his moments, but picked them almost as carefully as his words.
None of which implies that he doesn’t feel. It’s 22 years since Scotland’s national team graced the big stage and with every failure, every fresh agony, the desperation grows a little stronger.
Clarke knows all this. But tonight he can’t afford to acknowledge it. On the coach journey to the stadium, he will feel the nerves, he will know they exist. But his job as manager is to compartmentalise, park human emotion and project an air of serenity to his players.
With Scotland unbeaten in over a year, it won’t necessarily be an act. Clarke believes results and preparations have gone as well as they could have. And tonight the national team have a glorious chance to rid themselves of the chronic insecurity and epic failure of the last two decades.
‘I’ve never gone into a game of football where you don’t have that nervous feeling, whether you’re a player or a manager,’ said Clarke. ‘It’s always there on match day.
‘But before that you just have to prepare yourself properly and that’s what we’ve been doing this week.
Scotland captain Andrew Robertson enjoys himself in training before the team’s trip to Serbia
Scott McTominay (right) leaves the hotel as Scotland travel to Serbia on Wednesday afternoon
‘We’re trying to keep it business as usual. It’s difficult for me as a manager to get carried away with the hype.
‘Players see through you if you’re being false. If you are nervous and you don’t show it, they’ll see that you’re hiding it.
‘But, honestly, as we approach the game now, I’m perfectly calm. We have prepared as well as we can prepare.
‘We spoke about getting to this match in the best shape possible, with a good bit of positivity around us, and we’ve managed to do that.
‘You can see that with the public and the media — everyone’s really positive about it — and hopefully we do ourselves justice on the night.’
Clarke is the calmest man in Belgrade as he prepares his team for a huge play-off clash
Aleksandar Mitrovic is just one of the threats in the Serbia team that Scotland need to nullify
Serbia offer ample grounds for concern. Ljubisa Tumbakovic’s team beat a Norway side featuring Erling Haaland on their own turf. Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic is a big unit of a striker, Dusan Tadic of Ajax an outstanding playmaker. Half a dozen of their stars play in Serie A, including Lazio’s coveted midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
Yet Clarke’s ability to frustrate and confound good footballers is the reason he now manages Scotland.
Brendan Rodgers once accused his Killie side of having defended so deep they could have put 11 firemen on the pitch and still doused Celtic’s fire.
There is nothing glamorous or swashbuckling about the way a Clarke team plays. He prepares them and drills them to feel confident of dealing with anything. And he rarely does it by raising his voice.
Expanding on the need for calm on an SFA video this week, he said: ‘I think it’s imperative. Players can smell straight away if you’ve got a bit of tension or you’re a little bit worried about the opposition.
Kieran Tierney (left) and Leigh Griffiths train on Wednesday in preparation for the huge clash
Ryan Fraser is missing for Scotland and Clarke admits that he has had to change his thinking
‘The players will get information from all the coaching staff and they’ll see we’re all onside. And they’ll see we’re confident. We don’t go around shouting about it, but we’re quietly confident.
‘We have worked hard as a management team and as a group of players.
‘We were always being told to make sure we were ready for the play-off final. And I don’t think we could be better prepared.
‘The process to get here has been a little bit rocky at times. When it’s up and down you’re always going to get some stick and criticism. But we stayed on the same path. And we’ve given ourselves as good a chance as we possibly could have done, which is great.’
A star turn in last month’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic, Ryan Fraser looked to have the makings of a promising front pairing with Lyndon Dykes. His loss to injury has impacted on the preparations and yet, before boarding a flight on Wednesday, Clarke felt he had ’90 per cent’ of his starting XI worked out in his head.
QPR striker Dykes remains a relative novice at this level, but looks odds on to start ahead of Leigh Griffiths or Oli McBurnie.
Lyndon Dykes (right) is expected to start ahead of Griffiths and Oli McBurnie in Belgrade
The team can make history and end 23 years of hurt for the Tartan Army on Thursday night
The Scots will stick with three at the back. Yet the return of Scott McKenna and Kieran Tierney offers no guarantees that the three who were so solid last month will start tonight. With Fraser out, Dykes could lead the line with two attacking midfielders in support in a 3-4-2-1 formation.
‘Losing Ryan Fraser caused me to rethink a little, but I’ve got really good options in the squad,’ said Clarke. ‘I’ve always had half an idea about how I was going to go into these matches but, obviously when you lose a player who had done well for us last month, it means you have to make a change.
‘We know what Serbia’s strengths are. I have to make sure the team I pick can nullify those but also exploit their weaknesses.
‘Lyndon will be fine if he is selected to start the game. He is a confident person and he has adapted really well to his move to London.
Tottenham have played at the Red Star Stadium in the Europa League earlier this season
Clarke is looking to go where plenty of previous Scotland managers have failed to go
‘He is in a good place and has been a good player for us in recent matches, so I have no worries with Lyndon on that front. His mentality is good and I think he will become a big-game player. I think we will see that tomorrow night.’
For a man hellbent on masking any anxiety, the game itself is just one source of grief.
First comes the task of telling players who deserve to start that they’re not in the team. Calmly, of course.
‘That’s the job,’ shrugged Clarke. ‘The players are all professional enough to realise that.
‘If I have to make the tough calls, then I will be judged on the result of the game and not the team that I pick. That’s normal.’
IT’S 8,433 DAYS SINCE SCOTLAND REACHED A MAJOR FINALS…
Scotland will end a wait of 8,433 days since last celebrating qualification for a major tournament if they win in Belgrade tonight.
The last time the Scots reached a finals was the 1998 World Cup in France — and Craig Brown’s side made it through in the last game of their qualifiers with a 2-0 win against Latvia on October 11, 1997.
Since then, the Tartan Army will have waited 23 years, one month and one day for another qualification party should Steve Clarke’s side triumph this evening. That amounts to 12,143,520 minutes or 202,392 hours.
Scotland have since gone through TEN qualifying campaigns — and varying degrees of misery — since the night they beat the Latvians at Celtic Park. Here is that road to nowhere…
A draw pitting Scotland with the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Faroe Islands was not unfavourable.
But it started with a goalless draw in Vilnius, with narrow home wins over Estonia and the Faroes preceding a home defeat to the Czechs.
By the time they’d returned from Toftir with just a point and Prague with none, Scotland were playing for second place. Two wins against Bosnia, a draw in Estonia and a home victory against Lithuania secured that much.
The play-off against England was the epitome of glorious failure with a 1-0 win at Wembley just not enough to overturn a 2-0 loss at Hampden.
WORLD CUP 2002
Two goals up to ten-man Belgium after 27 minutes at Hampden in game four, Scotland were well on their way to South Korea and Japan.
But after being pegged back through Daniel Van Buyten’s goal in stoppage time, the campaign suddenly felt ill-fated.
Scotland took care of Latvia and San Marino and drew twice with group winners Croatia. But a defeat in Brussels compounded what had gone before and the play-offs went up in smoke.
It was the end of the Craig Brown era.
Now with Berti Vogts at the helm, Scotland’s opener in the Faroes was a fiasco as they were forced to come back from two goals down to claim a draw.
The return at Hampden was less problematic, as were two games with Iceland. But although Vogts’ side managed a spirited home draw with Germany, they lost in Dortmund and Kaunas — and needed Darren Fletcher’s first Scotland goal to reach the play-offs.
James McFadden’s goal against the Dutch at Hampden sent them off to Amsterdam believing but a 6-0 hiding was the stuff of nightmares.
WORLD CUP 2006
This one was pretty much over before it started. A goalless draw with Slovenia and a loss to Norway — both at home — arrived before a draw in Moldova, a result which spelled the end for Vogts’ time in charge.
Walter Smith lost his first game, in Italy, but there was an upturn in results with wins over Moldova, Norway, Slovenia and a home draw with the Italians.
But five points shipped to Belarus meant Norway took the play-off spot.
A tale of two managers and an extraordinary sense of injustice that still lingers. Drawn with Italy and France — the nations who had contested the last World Cup final — Scotland were up against it.
Yet when Gary Caldwell’s goal defeated the French at Hampden, a nation believed.
Even a loss in Ukraine and Smith returning to Rangers at the start of 2007 didn’t derail the campaign.
Alex McLeish masterminded an unforgettable victory in Paris, with James McFadden’s screamer completing the double over the French.
Alas, a loss in Georgia made the final match with Italy at Hampden decisive. The controversial foul against Alan Hutton which led to Christian Panucci breaking hearts in stoppage time is as hard to stomach now as then.
WORLD CUP 2010
With McLeish now at Birmingham City, George Burley was tasked with leading the nation to South Africa but the appointment would prove disastrous.
An opening defeat in Macedonia was compounded by just one point being taken from Norway and none from Holland. Beating Iceland twice and Macedonia at Hampden was academic.
Scotland finished behind both the Dutch and the Norwegians. Burley was shown the door.
Craig Levein’s arrival prompted a wave of fresh optimism that lasted as long as a goalless draw in Lithuania and a stoppage-time victory over Liechtenstein.
If back-to-back defeats against the Czechs and Spain had hopes hanging by a thread — the former coming in the infamous ‘no strikers’ game — a 2-2 draw with the Czechs at Hampden just about killed them off.
Dreams of a miracle were sustained by single-goal victories over Lithuania and Liechtenstein, but a 3-1 loss in the final match in Alicante confirmed another fruitless campaign.
WORLD CUP 2014
The wisdom in granting Levein another campaign was up for question after home draws with Serbia and Macedonia. Defeats in Wales and Belgium saw the SFA pull the trigger.
Gordon Strachan didn’t witness much of a bounce with a home loss to Wales and a defeat in Serbia.
His side at least showed signs of improvement thereafter, beating Croatia twice, winning in Macedonia and losing only to the Belgians.
A campaign that was not without its highs ended in crushing disappointment.
Strachan’s men took much from a narrow opening defeat to Germany in Dortmund, would draw in Poland, memorably defeat the Republic of Ireland at Celtic Park and bounce back to take a point in Dublin. But a loss in Georgia was crippling and cranked up the heat for the game with the Germans at Hampden. Scotland were good but still lost, with a draw against the Poles rendering the win in Gibraltar largely irrelevant as they finished fourth.
WORLD CUP 2018
Strachan’s second full campaign was a rollercoaster ride. A trouncing of Malta came before an alarming slump encompassing a home draw with Lithuania and heavy losses away to Slovakia and England. Then came the bounce back. Victory over Slovenia preceded an extraordinary 2-2 draw with England then victories over Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia.
Needing a win in Slovenia to make the play-offs, Scotland led, trailed, then drew level, but could not get the winner which would have pipped the Slovaks to second spot. Strachan was sacked, with McLeish hired for a second spell.