Steve Clarke sets target for Scotland to qualify for Euro 2020 without needing safety net of play-offs

Roddy Forsyth
Clarke has been rewarded for fine work at Kilmarnock with the Scotland job - Getty Images Europe

To be in Europe without a backstop - that was the manifesto target proclaimed by Scotland’s new leader. Refreshingly, the statement had nothing to do with the farrago of Brexit but was a declaration of intent by Steve Clarke, on his first public appearance as the man tasked with getting the Scots’ Euro 2020 campaign back on target.

Clarke’s appointment has generated a surge of enthusiasm amongst Tartan Army foot soldiers who had become accustomed to long years of failure to reach the finals of a major tournament and whose decreasing willingness to sign up to lost causes was evident in the decline in attendances for Scotland’s home games.

The poor beginning to the current campaign – a 3-0 defeat in Kazakhstan - guaranteed the departure of Alex McLeish, despite the fact that he had steered the side to a Nations League play-off semi-final against Finland.

That route to the European finals was not cited as a comfort by Clarke in his inaugural address. “It is really important that we qualify from the group and don’t rely on the play-off games as a fallback, as those games will be really difficult and will have a lot of pressure,” he said.

Mind you, the situation as it stands is scarcely a stress-free alternative. Only San Marino, the Group 1 makeweights, separate the Scots from the foot of the table. When Clarke was asked if this represented a tougher proposition than he faced in October 2017, when he took over a Kilmarnock side who were bottom of the Scottish Premiership, he replied: “Scotland are second bottom, so it’s a good start.”

Clarke's predecessor McLeish paid the price for a disastrous defeat in Kazakhstan Credit: REUTERS

The first indicator of Clarke’s effectiveness will be the turnout for the squad he will announce next week for the Euro qualifiers at home to Cyprus on June 8 and away to Belgium three days later. McLeish’s tenure was blighted by call-offs by players including Matt Ritchie, Robert Snodgrass, David Marshall, Tom Cairney, Steven Fletcher and Barry Bannan, while the Rangers goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, called time on his international career on the eve of a previous squad announcement.

“It’s important to stress if someone has retired from international football, fine, we will respect that decision,” Clarke said.

“If they want to un-retire themselves, they have to come back to me or someone else at the SFA to say that they want to be considered having previously indicated they don’t want to be considered.

“Then you have the grey area where some are not quite sure – those are the ones you have to speak to. If they are not committed I would rather they were just honest and said so.

“Look, whatever stage of their career they are at, whatever reasons they have for not wanting to be involved, then don’t come. Come if you want to be part of what we are doing. Anyone who comes to the squad now, I am expecting them to be fully committed, at least until the end of the qualifying for Euro 2020. After that it’s the World Cup campaign, but I need players committed to qualifying for this tournament.”

Asked how he could induce commitment from the waverers, Clarke said: “Come and play for us. We can hopefully give them a way of playing that will help them to qualify. If you are a serious professional footballer surely you want to play for your country at a major tournament.

Clarke won just six caps for Scotland despite a long top-flight career with Chelsea Credit: ACTION IMAGES

“The biggest regret I have got in my career is only having six caps – I feel I deserved more. I was in the pre-squad for Italia 90 and Andy Roxburgh took 26 players to Genoa for a camp in the February but I was one of the ones that missed out and it still hurts me now. I have a chance to put that right with this job and hopefully lead my country to a major tournament.”

Clarke himself, of course, was not a certainty to commit to Scotland when Kilmarnock’s league season ended with their first European qualification since 2001 and a record points total. “The decision I was going to make at the end of this season was to go back to England and hopefully pick up a job there, either over the summer, or unfortunately into the next sacking season when there was going to be jobs available,” he said.

“I was sidling towards that, although having seen the reception I got after the game on Sunday, it would have made it a very difficult decision to actually leave Kilmarnock under those circumstances.

“To be honest, the Scotland thing came on to the scene and just complicated it even more.

Suddenly I was weighing it up - I was thinking, ‘I could do this, I could do that, I could have more time at home.’

“I think it’s really important for me to emphasise the home bit will take care of itself. I will be able to spend more time at my house, more time with my wife, my children and my grandchildren.

“I’m fully committed to the job. I’m not going to training camp, then home for a three- week holiday, then the next training camp.

“I’m going to try and meet the players, so that when they do come to us, it’s not the case they haven’t seen me for three months.

“They know my face, they know how I operate, and hopefully we can find a way to be successful. That’s the most important thing.”