Scotland face a play-off to reach the World Cup in Qatar; Euro 2020 was Scotland's first appearance at major men's tournament since 1998; Steve Clarke believes his team will continue to improve; head coach highlights the bond between the players and fans
Monday 2 May 2022 12:03, UK
Steve Clarke has been reflecting on an incredible 12 months that saw his Scotland side become history makers.
The team played at their first major finals in over 20 years at the Euros and despite failing to progress from their group the Tartan Army were able to enjoy an impressive draw with eventual runners-up England at Wembley.
Attention now turns to what could be an exciting 2022 thanks to a remarkable run of six consecutive wins that helped secure a World Cup play-off place.
Scotland face Ukraine at Hampden Park in the first of those play-off ties with the winner taking on Wales for a spot at the tournament in Qatar.
Clarke sat down with Sky Sports News to reflect on 2021 and discuss what he expects from the national side going forward...
How do you look back on 2021?
It was a good year for the national team and for the game in Scotland. Obviously playing in a tournament after so long was a big thing for the county and then finishing the World Cup qualifying campaign in the manner we did. Six consecutive victories is a difficult thing to do at any level, but to do it at international level was a great achievement for the players.
You must be incredibly proud of the last 12 months?
I think the biggest thing for me has been the connection between the team and the support again. You feel that, especially in the last two home games at Hampden. The full house against Israel, last-minute winner where everyone goes mental, then a really polished performance against an admittedly weakened Danish side.
We put on a great performance that night and the supporters enjoyed it. You can feel that connection between the fans and the players. There's a new generation of Scotland fans that we've now got on board after getting the chance to see us play at a tournament. Ok, it didn't quite work out the way we wanted it to, but it was still an achievement to be there and that should never be forgotten.
Do you have one stand-out moment?
Just the gradual improvement over the year. I could see it coming in the team right from when we qualified against Serbia. So November 2020 was a big month for us. Unfortunately, we lost the next two games after that in the Nations League which meant we stayed in the B section, which is fine. We had a team that was trying to improve. For me just the gradual improvement over the year, the evolution of the squad.
There have been a lot of changes to my coaching staff too which has been great. It's always difficult to find good coaches, especially when you lose good ones, but I've managed to replace them. John Carver has been a really good addition and I've brought Austin (McPhee) in and Chris Woods has come in and helped out as well. Thanks to the boys who worked with me before, but on with the new team!
A late John McGinn goal against Austria at Hampden - how do you look back on that as a start to this year?
It was important to get off to a good start in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Probably you look at the first game, a home draw against Austria, for me wasn't a disaster. We then went to Israel, a tough game away against a team we knew well and managed to get a 1-1 draw. We were actually criticised a little for that as well. I said at the time it was a good point and it turned out to be a good point. Then we managed to win the third game. So to come out of the first set of three games with five points wasn't ideal. We knew we had to make up points later in their section. I knew with the tournament (Euros) coming up we'd spend a lot of time together and we'd be able to work on a lot of things over the summer and we'd come out as a better team in the second half of the section. I think that proved to be the case.
What do so many late goals say about the character you have in the team?
There's resilience now in the group. It's something we've spoken about often, the more international caps they get the more they realise what they have to do to get games at this level. They've shown that right throughout the year which meant we could get some good results and good performances. If you've got to score late then that's what you've got to do.
How important has John McGinn been?
As important as everyone else in the squad. I always go on about the strength in depth and I think we've evolved and we've shown that we can bring players in. Take John's brother, Paul McGinn comes off the bench in Austria when we needed him to dig in and get an important result. Lewis Ferguson, David Turnbull, the younger element that are there in the squad, those boys are just as important as they do the work on the training pitch when I ask them to play as opposition and shape up against them. If they don't do that properly then the team don't prepare well.
So yes John McGinn, Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, all the big names that you want to mention, Che Adams, Lyndon Dykes, they're important but everyone else is important. I think people outside the game probably don't realise just how important those other players are.
Are there any players you think don't get the public credit they deserve?
Anybody that we pick and play does well for us. The two young boys have come in, Nathan Patterson and Billy Gilmour, and they get a lot of the headlines which they deserve for their performances and what they do. But I look at their understudy Stephen O'Donnell, any time he's asked to play for us he never lets his country down. He's always a good steady performer for us.
I think in midfield, you look at Callum McGregor. He sometimes maybe gets overlooked because Billy gets the headlines, but Callum McGregor's had a really good year with the international team. He was a standout, him and Ryan Jack, against Serbia. Callum has continued on a really good level for the national team. Obviously now he's captain of Celtic and he's got that responsibility and the more captains you've got on the pitch the better.
How much pride do you take from leading Scotland to the Euros?
I think it brought on board a new generation of Scotland supporters. There's a generation who had never seen Scotland at a major tournament. I've got some young nieces and nephews who live up here in Scotland and they're coming to me and telling me they loved the tournament. The moment when Callum McGregor equalised against Croatia was one of those moments they'll never forget.
Those little snippets of conversation you get with the younger people. They've bought into this team and so they should because it's a good team and a good group of players. They want to be successful and if you look at the last two home games at Hampden, the reaction of the crowd and the way the crowd are on board I believe we have a new generation of Tartan Army supporters who will hopefully stick with us.
How special was that night at Wembley?
It was a good result, we played well on the night. Obviously, we didn't get the win that we wanted but it was a decent draw against a really good England team that got to the final and were unlucky not to win the tournament if you're honest. For us it was just a part of growing and learning. I think we expended so much energy in that game that it maybe affected us in the last game, but the consequence of not winning the first game is what catches you up in a major tournament. It was important for us to put on a good performance at Wembley. Only a small section of the Tartan Army there, but I know they enjoyed it. It was a good night for us.
How special a talent do we have in Billy Gilmour?
He's not bad the little fella. That's what happened when you come from Ayrshire, we breed them well down there. Obviously he needed to get out of Chelsea just to get some game time and he's getting that at Norwich now. He can only improve, it's the same with young Nathan Patterson, Lewis Ferguson will improve, David Turnbull will improve. If they're the next generation then we're already started working on the back up to the more senior players just now that maybe get all headlines that are paying away week in week out in the Premier League. We have a good core of young players so there's a lot to be pleased about and a lot to look forward to with this national team.
What is it about Billy that makes the Tartan Army love him so much?
I think the connection between Callum McGregor and Billy has been good for us. You've got two ball-playing midfielders in there who can play off each other. The balance has worked out well with John McGinn giving us a little bit of midfield presence higher up the pitch with John's ability to score goals. The mix of the team has been good and Billy as the young player as the next great hope is they one who will get all the headlines. Everyone is important but it's good to see Billy on the pitch. He gets on the ball and he makes us play and that's important.
Just how important has the experience of the Euros been for the Scotland players?
I think the end of the year probably showed how much we benefitted from being in that tournament. I know the lads were desperate to become the first team to qualify out the group section, but sometimes in football the results don't go your way. It wasn't for lack of effort, it wasn't for lack of belief, it was just football. Sometimes you do everything you can to win and you don't get the points you require. We learn from it and I believe we improved towards the end of the year. If we can continue to see that improvement into 2022 then hopefully we're going to another tournament.
Lyndon Dykes impressed in the World Cup qualifiers. How important is it to find players who are eligible to play for Scotland and bringing new players in?
The key is finding players who want to play for your country and that was the case with Lyndon. Obviously he had a choice between ourselves and Australia. I had a good chat with him about it and I left the decision down to Lyndon. He had to make the choice. I can tell them what my thoughts are and how we're maybe going to use him as a team, but then Lyndon has to make that choice.
It was the same conversation with Che Adams when we invited Che to come and join us. Those boys have to say they want to commit to the country and I think both have shown with their performances this year that they're both committed. It's great to have both of them on board and scoring vital goals for us.
How did you feel when Scott McTominay scored against Israel to secure a World Cup play-off place?
My first thought was get Liam Cooper on the pitch and make sure we don't concede a third! It was one of those crazy games. It's a game you prepare for and you don't read that type of game because every game we'd played Israel before was always quite cagey and cautious, both teams knowing too much about each other. That game it opened up quite early when Israel got the goal off the free kick, that meant the game plan for both teams probably changed a bit. They sort of sat in and knew they could counter-attack us, which was a big danger, and we had to take the shackles off and have a go. And that's what we did.
Was the performance against Denmark at Hampden Park the best of the year?
I could point out a few more. The friendly match against the Dutch, I thought we played ever so well in Portugal before the Euros. I thought we played really well at Wembley. The game I liked a lot was when we went to Moldova and it was a game that we had to win to make sure we were going to get second place. There was a bit of pressure in the game, I thought we went there and we controlled that game really well. We created a lot of chances and managed to score two goals.
I thought that was a good away performance, one that was maybe an untypical away performance when you think going away to a place like that normally is a nervy night. It wasn't a nervous night, it was quite a controlled and professional night. I enjoyed that one. The Danish game we played really well against a team who had already qualified. We knew a win would get us a seeded spot and a home game in the pay-off final which was important to us. We managed to play well and the crowd enjoyed that one as well. The two home games to finish the campaign were good.
We're back in between internationals - is their scope for players to play their way into the next squad?
It's the twilight zone. From the November camp to the March camp is four months. Loss of form and unfortunately injuries can have a big effect. I think you only have to look back at the Denmark game without Grant Hanley. I had to call someone up, I called up John Souttar who had been out in the international wilderness. John had suffered injuries over the year, suddenly gets the chance to come in and gets the chance to play at Hampden in front of a full house and he goes on to write his own fairy tale by scoring the first goal in the game.
That shows you that the door is always open to someone, the door never closes on international football. What the players have to do is maintain a really high level of performance and keep putting performances that gives me a difficult choice in March. That's what I want. I want to sit down two weeks before the squad announcement and think how am I got to narrow this squad of 30 odd players down to 24. That's their job. My job is to watch them and try and pick the right squad.
What is the aim for 2022?
The aim is to be as successful as possible. That would mean getting ourselves through the play-offs and making sure we're involved in the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. That's the ultimate goal, that's what we've been working for since we qualified for the Euros. The next one was to qualify for another tournament. We've managed to get ourselves into a play-off position, we need to win two more games to get there and that's what we'll try and do.
How much are you already thinking about those play-offs?
Over the winter months I've got plenty of time to sit down and watch Ukraine, Wales, Austria and prepare for whichever opponents we may have to face. Obviously Ukraine we know we're facing, so we can tie that one down. We know the Austrians well from the World Cup qualifying campaign and the Welsh would give us something different to look at. There's plenty for me to do over the winter months and make sure we're prepared for the games in March.
Do you feel like you're building something special here?
I think it's for other people to judge what we're building. My job is just to make sure we win games and keep improving. I think since the start of my tenure to now we have improved, I think that's quite measurable and you can see that. I'm a hard taskmaster, I want to improve again. I want to get better and better and hopefully this group of players can do that.