Scotland head coach Steve Clarke has revealed he cannot spend time with most of his family over Christmas following an extraordinary year on and off the pitch.
In a wide-ranging interview with Sky Sports News to mark Scotland’s first qualification to a major tournament since 1998, Clarke has spoken about:
- His emotional video to a dying Scotland fan
- Two weeks to read every text message of congratulations
- ‘Relief’ of first qualification in more than two decades
- Scott McTominay, Billy Gilmour and Che Adams
- Reduced number of supporters at Euro 2020
- Future as Scotland head coach
Like so many people around the UK, Clarke has been unable to spend the festive period with his children and grandchildren due to tighter restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The health of the nation is the most important,” Clarke said. “Football-wise for Scotland, it’s been a fantastic year. The biggest thing for me was just the satisfaction of getting us to a major final. At the first crack, I managed to do it. In such a difficult year, it was great for the country that we managed to qualify and give everybody a lift.
“Like most of the country, I’ve had a big blow. I’m not going to spend Christmas with my children and my grandchildren, which is a big disappointment for me and my wife. It is what it is, we’re not the only ones. Everyone’s going to have to suffer and sacrifice a little bit. I think the more we can sacrifice now, the better for everybody.”
Clarke guided Scotland to the first major tournament since the World Cup in 1998, and has reflected on a poignant video message to an elderly cancer patient last month.
“I did a little video message to a guy called Willie Thomson who was in Strathcarron Hospice,” said Clarke. “It was just a little message. He posted something on social media about how happy he was, and I sent him a little message back, thanking him for his support. That went down really well, it was really emotional. Sadly, Willie has passed away, and my condolences to Willie’s family.
“It was unbelievable to see his reaction. He was in tears, you could tell how much it meant to him, the fact he managed to see Scotland qualify for a major tournament. I think that summed up the moment.”
In his post-match interview in Serbia, Clarke told Sky Sports he ‘might shed a tear’ in his hotel room after Scotland’s dramatic win on penalty kicks.
“I didn’t shed any tears, I have to be honest,” he admitted. “I spoke to family and one or two friends. I got hundreds and hundreds of text messages. It took me about two weeks to go through all the messages and get back to people and just send a little thanks to them.
“I think I’ve learnt that I’m a half-decent manager, sometimes I know what I’m doing. It’s a difficult job, football manager, you don’t always get the credit you deserve. If you have two or three (good) results, you’re a genius. If you have two or three bad results, you’re an ‘idiot’, you ‘don’t know what you’re doing’. That’s the short-termism of the job.”
Scotland enjoyed back-to-back wins on penalties against Israel and Serbia, after the former Chelsea assistant coach was haunted by a shoot-out defeat in Moscow in 2008.
“One of my most memorable penalty shoot-outs was for the wrong reasons, in the Champions League final for Chelsea against Manchester United,” Clarke reflected. “We lost that one. I was hopeful that the footballing gods would smile on me and give me a positive result. We managed to do that.
“I was thinking, ‘I hope they do the same as they did at Hampden against Israel’. You never know how players are going to react on the night. If you go back to the Champions League final, John Terry slipped on what should have been the winning penalty. You never know what’s going to happen. All we told the boys was to make their mind up, hit the penalty true and then you’re hoping David (Marshall) can come up with a big save and that’s exactly how it turned out.
“The stadium in Belgrade, the tunnel behind the goal, it must be 70-80 yards long before you get back to the dressing rooms. I just remember I was walking at the front and I could hear all the lads coming up singing behind me. They sang all the way up the tunnel, it was a fantastic moment and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Clarke says he remains ‘very hopeful’ some fans will be allowed to attend the delayed Euro 2020 in the summer, but he concedes a reduced capacity is more likely for Scotland’s games against Czech Republic and Croatia at Hampden, and England at Wembley.
“It’s very difficult to predict,” he said. “It was great, there was a little chink of light, when we started getting small numbers, 2,000 people, into some matches, seemed like a step forward. Then, within a couple of weeks of that happening, we look as though we’re regressing again and no people at sporting events, which is a shame.
“We’ve got to hope that we can get on top of the pandemic. We’ve still got six months to go until the summer, I’m very hopeful that we will get some people. If you’re asking me, ‘Do you think it will be a full house?’ then probably not, I think it’s going to take a little bit longer to get on top of the virus. But if we can get some people there, just to make it more of an occasion for the people involved, that would be great.”
Clarke has been impressed by the recent club form of Manchester United’s Scott McTominay, with Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville comparing him to Paul Scholes and Roy Keane after two goals in the first three minutes against Leeds in the Premier League.
“Scott’s been great, I’m actually playing him at the back, I’m probably wasting him playing him at centre-half,” Clarke laughed. “He’s so adaptable, he’s so positive. He’s got a confidence about him which I think rubs off on everybody. When I spoke to him about dropping back and playing as one of the back-three for me, it was almost like he was affronted that I’d asked him if he could do it! He was like, ‘Of course I can do it’.
“He proved that over the games, he gives us a ball carrier from the back. He gives us a little bit of composure on the ball and he’s a great athlete. He can break into midfield and he’s been really good for me. I was watching the game the other night against Leeds and I’m thinking, ‘I have to find a way to get that boy back into midfield’.
“I think Gary (Neville) was getting a little bit carried away with that one. Scott’s done really well, when you look at the competition for places he’s got at Manchester United. He’s more or less nailed down a starting spot in a very strong squad. For us, just to see one of the Scottish boys doing so well down there, is brilliant and long may it continue.
“Eventually I’d like to get Scott back into midfield, if I could do. But I won’t upset the balance of the team, or the shape of the team, just to do that. If I haven’t got the right personnel to play the three-at-the-back system, then maybe I will go back to a four. There will be plenty of matches where two central defenders will be enough and then there will be a chance for Scott to go back into midfield.”
Clarke is convinced Chelsea and Scotland U21 midfielder Billy Gilmour will have his chance to represent the senior national side for the first time, following his return from a long-term knee injury last month.
“It’s nice to see Billy back on the pitch a couple of weeks ago,” Clarke said. “It’s been a long time out. Leading up to the March games, he’d put himself into a very good position for selection. Obviously, the March games didn’t go ahead. Billy’s a good player, a really good player. The more minutes he gets on the pitch, the better he will become. I’m sure at some stage in the future Billy and I will work together for the national team and that will be great.”
Meanwhile, Clarke confirmed he is open to Southampton forward Che Adams, who has previously rebuffed approaches and qualifies through a maternal grandparent, declaring his allegiance to Scotland ahead of the Euros.
Clarke said: “I’m not having any conversations with Che. He’s been approached before about playing for the Scotland national team and I believe, I don’t know for a fact, but I believe he was approached before and decided that he was going to wait, he didn’t want to commit to Scotland. I’m a Scotsman, born and bred, and I think if people have been approached to play for Scotland and turned us down, then the onus should be on them to come back and say, ‘Listen, I’ve had a rethink, I want to be part of the Scotland national team.’ They could maybe come to us and ask if we’d consider him.
“I’ve got Stuart Armstrong at Southampton. I’m sure Stuart’s in his ear all the time telling him how good it is to be part of the Scotland national squad. If I can get one or two players to come in and help the squad, that would be great. But if I have to go with the squad of players that qualified us for the first time in 23 years, then that’s what I will do. Those players have been magnificent for me and I think it’s very, very, important that I show that loyalty.”
Clarke is more than halfway through a three-year contract with the Scottish Football Association but is relaxed about whether to hold talks over a new deal.
“I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest,” Clarke said. “I’m just happy in a job. It took me a little bit of time to get used to the pace of international management. You don’t get a lot of time with your players.
“Long-term, I haven’t thought too much about it. I’m comfortable in the position I’m in. If they want to come and offer me a new contract, fine. But if they don’t, fine. If something else comes up, I will deal with it as and when it comes up. At this moment in time, I’m just looking forward to the World Cup qualifiers in March. Hopefully, a really good start and the tournament in the summer will just take care of itself. You want to be as successful as you can, you want people to notice you’re doing a good job.”