This doesn’t feel like a time for learning curves, even if Steve Clarke concedes that is precisely what he is in the midst of. Scotland’s meek capitulation against Belgium on Monday means Clarke now presides over a team who sit fifth in their European Championship qualifying section. San Marino spare the Scots from last place: hardly a promising scenario.
To say Clarke is now in a different movie to the one he was recently starring in is a gross understatement. Having guided Kilmarnock to third place in last season’s top flight, there was a perception the 56-year-old had the Midas touch as he swapped Rugby Park for international football in May. Belgium’s 4-0 canter means Clarke has lost three of his first four matches in charge of Scotland, with the fact that the opposition has been stern doing little to dispel criticism. For Clarke, a coach previously immersed in club football, the month until Scotland’s next match will be a test.
“This is the bit I have to get my head around,” he said. “I have to get used to international management. The players will go back to their clubs, they will all be playing at the weekend, they will all be thinking about other things. My job is to stew on this, analyse the two performances [Scotland also lost to Russia on Friday] and try to improve us for the next game.
“I have to deal with the players that I have got, the players who are available. It is my job to work with the players we have and try to improve them as a team and move the country forward.”
A trait Clarke has inherited from previous Scottish regimes is the loss of soft goals. Successful Scotland teams of the – now distant – past were highly effective at being hard to beat. “You have to find the balance,” Clarke said. “It is a different level of football. With a club team you do get to work with them day in, day out, for weeks. You have training sessions where you can really drill them into this mentality.
“You have players here who want to be attacking. You have to get the balance right. Yeah, we want to be difficult to beat, but that doesn’t mean that we go to every game and sit in and defend. You have to remember that the games coming up, with the exception of Russia, who were in the last eight of the last World Cup, will not be as difficult.”
Clarke also defended the Scotland support, who have been noticeably flat in recent times. “In terms of apathy I have always said that if we show the fans something – and obviously it is very difficult for them to believe having lost 4-0 at home – over the next four games they will be there in their numbers and will be right behind the team,” he said.