Scottish Daily Mail
Dining room tells boss Clarke more about squad than the dressing room
IT says much about the impact Steve Clarke has made on Scotland that much of his time yesterday was spent reflecting on his first encounter with Cyprus almost four years ago.
The Mediterranean nation were his first opponent in the post — also on a Saturday at Hampden on June 8, 2019. Precious few international managers these days are afforded the luxury of a little nostalgia.
In one sense, Clarke has come full circle. In another, that 2-1 victory — courtesy of Oliver Burke’s late winner — feels like it belongs to a bygone age.
The evolution of the team and the progress from that point to this is beyond all debate. A desperate cycle of failure was ended by qualification for Euro 2020. A place in the World Cup was only denied in a delayed play-off by a Ukraine side with a cause like no other.
Everything about the environment now just feels different. Representing Scotland was in danger of becoming a burden before Clarke arrived. Players no longer pull out with minor knocks. Some even report for duty with them.
Talk of a united squad thriving
They enjoy each other’s company and they enjoy coming
in a club-like atmosphere no longer feels like the empty rhetoric it once did. It’s the reality.
‘One of my favourite places to watch the group is in the dining room because you see who’s sitting with who,’ Clarke said. ‘And it’s not always those five over there or those six that you’ve left out of the team sitting there saying: “The manager doesn’t know what he’s doing”.
‘You don’t have that. You look and they are changing all the time. They are sitting with different people and having the same conversations.
‘This table is laughing and, suddenly, that table is joining in. You see that camaraderie among them. It’s something that we try to encourage and we try to build.
‘But the biggest thing in any professional sport is, if you are winning, everybody feels that little bit better. So we have to keep winning.
‘We’ve had a couple of sequences of nine unbeaten, six unbeaten.
‘Currently, if you take out the friendly game, we are five unbeaten in competitive matches. So you build on that. They enjoy each other’s company and enjoy coming.’
Clarke would not have extended his commitment through to the World Cup in 2026 if he didn’t get a lot out of these camps on a personal level.
Having known nothing other than the hectic demands of the club game prior to taking the position, concerns about the change of pace day-to-day were only natural.
‘A lack of training time is one thing. You don’t get it,’ he explained. ‘So, you have to find a way to adapt and work with the players and find a different way to get your message across.
‘I don’t think I am a better coach, I think I am the same coach. But I think I have become a better manager.
‘I can deal better with team meetings, how to get the message across in a clear and concise way.
‘I deal better with the one-toones. I don’t see the boys for three months, so to have that personal moment when you do sit down with them and touch on their careers with their club is important. You try to find that connection. I feel that person-to-person I am better.’
Clarke (right) also has a better grasp on what engages the group and for how long he can hold their attention.
‘They know they are coming in (for a meeting) and it might only be ten minutes but there’s a purpose to that,’ he said.
‘We give them their leisure time that they need and for me not to be hanging over them and saying: “You should be in your room”.
‘You try to find that balance between being professional and being ready for the game. But the biggest thing is the results.’
Clarke has won 19 and drawn ten of his 41 matches in charge. A victory this afternoon will see him accrue more victories than any other Scotland manager this century.
Another statistic underscores the direction of travel under him.
There were just 31,277 supporters when Cyprus were last in town. Today’s game is heading for a sell-out.
‘We are doing something right. Maybe that’s why I got the new contract!’ he quipped.
‘I have said consistently, if Scotland are successful on the pitch and the Tartan Army can see a team that is organised and talented and prepared to do well for the country, then the Tartan Army will be there to back us, and that has proven to be true — because now we can sell out our home games.
‘I think that’s five consecutive sell-outs in a row now. That shows you where we are. And it shows you how much the supporters enjoy watching this team. It’s our job to make sure that continues.’
The advent of a new qualifying
campaign has required a change of routine.
Having made their feelings about the surface at the Oriam clear this week, the squad trained at Lesser Hampden and stayed at a Glasgow hotel.
John Carver, Clarke’s right-hand man, went as far as to describe the pitch at Heriot-Watt University as ‘a safety hazard’ and a ‘health risk’.
The manager was somewhat more diplomatic.
‘I think the point John was trying to make was how good it felt it was to be in the facilities at Lesser Hampden as they are really top-class,’ Clarke explained.
‘Obviously, we were the first group to get on the pitch and train on it and they have invested a lot of money.
‘I love John to bits. In his own way, he was trying to put across how good the facility is and it might have come across a little bit negative going the other way but that’s not fair. ‘Oriam was really good to us.’ Be that as it may, the fact remains that the facility was deemed to be inadequate by players who expect far better.
‘A lot of them are used to the best,’ Clarke added. ‘They are playing at the top level with English clubs and the facilities in the English Premier League are all top notch.
‘It’s important when they come away with us that we get them to as close as that as possible.
‘So the facility at Lesser is good. We try to improve all the time.
‘I’ve said to them that I think we’ve made big strides. To make the next step is much more difficult.
‘So, you are trying to improve all the little things, all the little details that can make the lads think when they come: “Yeah, they do like us — they want us to be better”.
‘We’re trying to push all the time to get better and better.
‘If that means different facilities at different times, then that’s what we’ll do.
‘We’ll keep looking to improve on and off the pitch.
‘If we can do that, hopefully, we can continue to qualify for tournaments.’