Steve Clarke – the man to make a nation smile. In a sense this sums up the addictively ridiculous nature of football. Clarke plays on this to a heavy degree yet it is impossible to imagine this canny, dour Ayrshireman as the life and soul of any party. But in Belgrade on Thursday, Clarke has it in his gift to send Scotland supporters back to the major championship blowout they could once set their calendars by.
Those days are past now. Little could the Scots have known before the opening game of the 1998 World Cup that a subsequent hiatus from finals would stretch to at least 23 years. Until now, the expansion of the European Championship has done nothing to help Scotland, who last featured on that stage in England 24 years ago. At international level, Scotland regressed into one of the “diddy nations” they once derided. There has been only self-deprecating humour and chuckling at the shortcomings of England to pass the time, both of which seemed to lose comedy value long ago. Euro 2016 served as an especially bruising experience as Northern Ireland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland qualified (as did Albania) while Scotland were confined to barracks. The delayed 2020 version, which is due to include games in Glasgow and a group stage match against England, would be a better place for Scotland’s involvement. They are close to something significant. Beat Serbia and that long, painful wait is over.
Scotland gave up bothering about the how years ago; it’s just about getting there. Since Craig Brown left the managerial post, in 2002, Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish – twice – George Burley, Craig Levein and Gordon Strachan have felt the backlash from the frustrations of a nation. Levein labels it widespread dismay, the routine when they do not emerge from a qualifying campaign and no one – from the Scottish Football Association boardroom to the dugout – is spared. Scotland managers have endured ferocious personal criticism as the team discovered all manner of ways to fall short. The manager limps on until his sacking and the cycle is repeated.
If Clarke breaks the mould he will not only double his salary by way of a bonus. He will also remind Scotland supporters what it is like to sample tournament involvement again. Brown, whose reputation as Scotland manager has blossomed with each subsequently faltering run, has always insisted nothing does more for the development of football in a nation than national team qualification. International football doesn’t matter? Try that one if Scotland are at the top table. This time, the Scottish FA’s perilous finances form a backdrop.
Clarke’s tenure has already proved fascinating. A run of four defeats – albeit against Russia and Belgium – after a sticky debut win over Cyprus triggered the not unreasonable notion that the 57-year-old had landed in the wrong movie. Clarke was, to many, a club coach unable to replicate the efficiency of his overperforming Kilmarnock during the brief international windows. A not insignificant subplot was that Rangers supporters – no fans of Clarke during his time at Rugby Park – were loudest when highlighting supposed flaws in the regime. He seemed uneasy in his role and (a recurring theme with Scotland managers) riled by a perceived shortage of media patience.
Clarke’s team were functional rather than swaggering during a subsequent run of six matches undefeated. Had supporters been allowed into Hampden Park for the Nations League semi-final against Israel, audible grumbling would have been the order of the day long before penalty shootout glory.
That win instantly altered the narrative. Scotland saw off Slovakia and the Czech Republic for good measure in that last international spell to stretch the unbeaten sequence to eight. Clarke is far from the all-conquering hero but has produced that improbable – and maybe dangerous – trick of letting people dream. Success against Israel and the Czechs implied Clarke may carry that crucial managerial commodity of luck. Scotland are rightly underdogs against Serbia but the defensive drilling of a team where the sum is considerably stronger than the individual parts is a key strength. They could quite conceivably frustrate Aleksandar Mitrovic and his chums.
Wider societal issues cannot be ignored. Scotland is far from alone in suffering the effects of Covid-19, yet the loss of a vibe in Glasgow and Edinburgh, such wonderful cities, has been depressingly noticeable in recent months. A lifting of the mood, provided by an unlikely source, can do no harm at all. There would then, inevitably, be the intriguing element of whether or not the all-powerful Scottish National Party could somehow use a wave of football patriotism to further fuel its chase for independence. The topics aren’t as separate as naysayers claim.
Should Scotland fall short in Belgrade there is already sufficient evidence Clarke has dragged them on to the right track. The 2022 World Cup is a legitimate target. If they succeed the scale of widespread – if restricted – celebration promises to be quite the sight. The notion that international football is an irrelevance would have been comprehensively dismissed; albeit long, long overdue.