PA­TRIOT GAMES

Clarke bears no grudges over Nai­smith’s dou­ble snub as he hails star’s com­mit­ment to Scot­land cause on eve of 50th cap

Scottish Daily Mail - - Footballsc­otland Special - by MARK WIL­SON

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

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