Steve Clarke takes pressure off Oliver Burke after young winger's last-minute heroics against Cyprus

Roddy Forsyth
Oliver Burke celebrates scoring Scotland's winning goal against Cyprus - UEFA

A couple of hours before kick-off at Hampden on Saturday, with the stadium still virtually empty, a group of fans emerged from a corporate box and serenaded the stewards with a boisterous rendering of 'Flower of Scotland'.

The choir, it turned out, consisted of Steve Clarke’s relatives who had assembled to witness his first game as Scotland manager. “Aye, 16 of them,” said Clarke.

When the final whistle sounded on the Scots’ Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus, around 31,000 Tartan Army foot soldiers boomed out the anthem and supplemented it with chants of “There’s only one Steve Clarke”.

It was, in more ways than one, music to the manager’s ears, because it signified a precious victory on his debut even if, as the Duke of Wellington observed after Waterloo, it had been a damned close-run thing.

The 2-1 win, sealed only by Oliver Burke’s first international goal in the dying seconds, represented a typically anxious evening for everyone connected with the Scottish cause, but the outcome permitted the supporters to depart in good spirits, to Clarke’s manifest satisfaction. “I am just glad we were able to send them home with a smile on their face,” he said.

Steve Clark celebrates after Andrew Robertson's opening goal for Scotland Credit: Action Images

Now, like the Iron Duke, Clarke must lead his men into an intimidating encounter in Belgium, where the host country are expected to confirm their status as No 1 in the Fifa rankings with a fourth successive victory in Group I, when the teams meet in the King Baudouin Stadium on Tuesday night. In one respect, it could be said that Clarke merely supervised an extension of more than one version of the status quo.

Scotland had beaten the Cypriots in all five prior fixtures between the sides and they were unbeaten in eight consecutive competitive games coming into this tie. On paper, Andrew Robertson’s spectacular strike for the opening goal might seem like a similar extension of form for a player who had lifted the Champions League trophy with Liverpool a week previously.

The Scots, though, are usually good for a self-inflicted fright, a tendency that did not exclude even as accomplished a performer as Robertson, who inexplicably allowed Ioannis Kousoulos to drift off him for a headed equaliser four minutes from time. As the Omonia Nicosia defender ran to accept the salutes of the small group of Cypriot fans, the TV cameras panned across a vista of stunned Scottish visages elsewhere in the stands.

Andrew Robertson fires in Scotland's opener Credit: Getty Images

Clarke stood impassive, but he had already taken the action that would secure redemption. Having watched Eamonn Brophy toil to reach Ryan Fraser’s crosses from the left against three taller and more physically assertive Cypriot defenders, Clarke replaced the Kilmarnock striker with Burke for the final quarter-hour.

The ploy paid a handsome dividend in the last minute, when Burke got his head to an incisive delivery from Fraser and, when the ball rebounded from a post, reacted decisively to turn it across the line for what proved to be the winner, despite the purgatory of a five-minute stoppage addition.

Burke, said Clarke, would remember that moment and gain confidence from his contribution. It would certainly help the 22-year-old’s cause if – after four years of senior football and £28million in transfer fees – he could swell his average of 10 starts per season.

“He is a young man who has fantastic attributes, but he’s a young man who has to learn the game,” Clarke said. “His impact on Saturday night was there for everyone to see. What he has to do is learn that on a consistent basis.

“You can’t immediately, because he scored the winning goal against Cyprus, put all the pressure on to Oli to be the goalscorer going forward. It has probably been difficult for him to have that expectation on his shoulders. As a young man to move for two combined fees of £28m is a big pressure to take with you.”

Burke scores Scotland's winning goal Credit: PA

Other aspects of the Scottish performance pleased Clarke, who employed a trusted strategy with his new charges, allowing Cyprus to have the ball in their own territory while squeezing their approach routes and seeking to counter on the flanks, a tactic which worked better on the left – where Robertson, Fraser and Callum McGregor combined to effect – than on the right side.

The manager also deserves credit for canny selection for a tie which he and his players approached under pressure. “I felt that David Marshall’s experience in goal would be good for us and that is also why I put Charlie Mulgrew in at centre-back,” he said.

“The team that played on Saturday was almost 100 caps more experienced than the team that played in San Marino and Kazakhstan and I think it made a difference.”

It did indeed. Scotland’s chances are still slim in a group that also includes Russia – who beat San Marino 9-0 earlier in the day – but, crucially, they are alive. Now they can measure themselves against Belgium who, Clarke might remind his players, also scored two goals against Cyprus when the teams met in March.

Match details

Scotland (4-3-3): Marshall (Hull); O’Donnell (Kilmarnock), Mulgrew (Blackburn), McKenna (Aberdeen), Robertson (Liverpool); McGinn (Aston Villa), McLean (Aberdeen), McGregor (Celtic); Forrest (Celtic), Brophy (Kilmarnock), Fraser (Bournemouth). Subs: Burke (West Brom) for Brophy 73, McTominay (Manchester Utd) for McGinn 79, Armstrong (Southampton) for McGregor 88. Booked McGregor.

Cyprus (4-3-3): Pardo (Alki Oroklini); Kousoulos (Omonia), N Ioannou (Apoel), Laifis (Standard Liege), Margaca (Nea Salamina); Spoljaric (Apollon Limassol), Artymatas (Apoel), Makris (Apoel); Efrem (Apoel), Sotiriou (FC Copenhagen), M Ioannou (Anorthosis). Subs: Georgiou (Levante) for M Ioannou 66, Costi (Nea Salamina) for Spoljaric 70, Pittas (Apollon Limassol) for Makris 80. Booked N Ioannou, Artymatas.

Referee: Ola Habber Nilsen (Norway).