Clarke bears no grudges over Naismith’s double snub as he hails star’s commitment to Scotland cause on eve of 50th cap
STEVE CLARKE bears no grudge about twice being snubbed by Steven Naismith.
The fact he tried, unsuccessfully, to sign Naismith during his tenures at West Bromwich Albion and Kilmarnock says it all about his appreciation of the 33-year-old’s abilities in the club sphere.
That admiration has only intensified since Clarke took command of the national team. Hailing Naismith as a model of commitment to the cause, he would view the Hearts veteran as a most deserving recipient of a 50th cap in this afternoon’s encounter with Cyprus in Nicosia.
Providing there is no late reaction to training, Naismith is also set to wear the captain’s armband as he secures his place on Scotland’s roll of honour.
To Clarke, who amassed only half-a-dozen appearances in his own international career, that is a feat to be envied. But he is also keenly aware that Naismith will have done it the hard way.
Serious knee injuries have taken chunks of the forward’s career, while a hamstring complaint has limited his club games this term.
That means Naismith has been stuck on 49 caps since scoring in a 3-1 defeat to Portugal under Alex McLeish in October of last year.
‘The fact he’s coming up for his 50th cap, having had so many serious injury problems in his career, tells you everything about
Steven,’ enthused Clarke. ‘He loves being here, he’s fully committed.
‘In one of my early camps, he came with a little niggle but didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay and be part of it and that’s what you need around the place.
‘It’ll be a great achievement when he reaches the 50-cap mark. I sit here and moan about my six caps and I can only dream what it must be like for Steven.
‘It must be a great feeling to be approaching 50 caps.’
Naismith left Ibrox in the wake of the club’s financial meltdown in 2012, leading to the first of Clarke’s failed bids.
‘I tried to sign him for West Brom when he left Rangers — but he chose Everton,’ smiled the national team boss.
‘I spoke to him on the phone back then and I also tried to get him to Kilmarnock — but he chose Hearts. So he’s on the bench!’
Naismith’s deep desire to keep playing for Scotland was one reason why he decided to join Hearts rather than exploring options overseas that might have placed him out of sight.
His attitude stands as a rebuttal to accusations of apathy among players in another squad hit by call-offs. Captain Andy
Robertson, Scott McTominay, Ryan Fraser and Liam Cooper have all pulled out through injury, while Arsenal requested that Kieran Tierney be excluded. That’s four English Premier League stars and one Championship stalwart unavailable as Clarke seeks to create some momentum ahead of the Euro 2020 play-offs in March. It’s hardly ideal, and continues a recent trend, but the 56-year-old remains phlegmatic, saying: ‘Yeah, I’ve been that way even in my club management. When people have been out injured, I haven’t tended to be a manager who hangs around the treatment room and tries to drag people off the table.
‘If they are out, they are out. You just have to deal with the ones you’ve got.
‘We don’t have an unlimited amount (of elite players), but what we do have is a lot of boys who are desperate to play for their country. And those are the ones that I am concentrating on just now.’
Asked if it was wrong to suggest that modern players don’t see international football as the same honour that he once did, Clarke replied: ‘I’d like to think it’s wrong.
‘I say that because we’re potentially two games away from qualifying for a major tournament. So if people are staying away for the wrong reasons, then I’d say they’re being a little bit foolish.
‘But I have no doubts on that whatsoever. All the injuries are what they are.’
Pressure from clubs who see international football as a loathsome risk to prized assets is a slightly different issue. And one that seems to be intensifying year on year.
Tierney is now playing for Arsenal after summer hernia surgery but they asked that he be left out to address an ‘ongoing issue’ during the international break.
With Robertson subsequently sidelined by an ankle injury, Scotland are without either of their top-class left-backs. So could Clarke have done more to get Tierney to Cyprus?
‘There is nothing I can do,’ said
Clarke. ‘It is just the way it has panned out.
‘It is unfortunate you don’t have both of them at the same time but there is a chance for the boys who are here in the squad.’
Clarke has coached at Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United as well as managing West Brom, giving him an understanding of life on the other side of the fence.
Even so, he still refers back to the hurt of missing out on being picked for his country as a player at Stamford Bridge in the 1980s and ’90s.
‘I was at Chelsea when we were average,’ he grinned. ‘I was at Chelsea pre-Abramovich.
‘Listen, I used to sit when every international squad was picked and watch the telly. When I saw I wasn’t selected, I’d sigh and say to myself: “Missed out again”. That was how I felt.
‘Is it different now? It’s not for me to judge what happens, it’s for me to deal with what happens. Just deal with it.’
That means trying to follow up last month’s 6-0 victory over San Marino with two more wins against
12 Naismith made his debut for Scotland 12 years ago as an 83rd-minute substitute in a 2-0 friendly win over the Faroe Islands
I can only dream what it must be like for Steven to reach 50 caps
Cyprus and Kazakhstan as Group I shuffles to its conclusion.
Six points would obviously lift confidence ahead of the play-offs. But the absences mean Clarke may enter next spring’s pivotal games with a line-up he has never before fielded.
‘Maybe,’ he responded. ‘Every time you go to a camp, there are going to be one or two changes, one or two who aren’t available for whatever reason, normally injury.
‘We are at a stage of the season where injuries start to pile up, it is November.
‘Come March, I am sure there will be a few more injuries — it is four months from the end of the second game in this camp to the play-offs.
‘Maybe I will have the same squad, you never know. Maybe I will have one or two different players, maybe I will have four or five. I don’t know.
‘Like I said before, if we can put in a structure — this is how we play when a team play this way — tactically we can be clear about what we want to do. Personnel, we can then fit in and around that system.’
Heads you win: Naismith was on target against 11 Albania last October... his years after he made debut against the Faroe Islands (inset below)
Focused: Naismith is set to captain the Scots against Cyprus today