The Herald on Sunday

Clarke loyalty costly but still grounds for optimism

- Gordon Smith Former SFA chief and Sunday columnist

THE younger generation of Scots fans have finally become aware of what it is like to follow our internatio­nal team at major tournament­s.

As I said last week, and I was trying to avoid being negative, we are very used to going into these tournament­s with real optimism. In many past cases our hopes were to get beyond the group stage and potentiall­y challenge for the trophy.

Once again we have fallen short by not winning either of our first two games but let’s look on the bright side of what occurred last week.

It was great to achieve qualificat­ion and have the excitement of actually having games at Hampden. During these bleak times, it was a blessing to have something positive to occupy us and especially so for the youngsters who really enjoy playing and watching football.

The Czech result was a major disappoint­ment as this was, on paper, the best chance we had of starting our campaign strongly and winning three crucial points. There were arguments after the match about the team selection and tactics but that always occurs when a defeat is suffered.

I understood why the manager went with some players who might have been left out on the day. Steve Clarke was influenced, as many managers are, by loyalty to the players who had been part of the group that got us to the finals. This has happened in almost every campaign and I fully expected it to occur again. It didn’t mean we were necessaril­y going to lose this game but it was always a potential threat to our chances.

If you consider that we had four players who were strong candidates to make the first team in Che Adams, Billy Gilmour, Nathan Patterson and David Turnbull, then you can understand why he didn’t consider any of them for the Czech game as none had participat­ed in any of the qualifying games. I believe if it wasn’t for this loyal mindset from Clarke, he would have considered at least two of them as starters.

These would have been Patterson and Adams with Gilmour the most

Steve Clarke is delighted with Che Adams after his Wembley performanc­e, but he did not start against the Czech Republic likely third candidate. I actually feel the three of them should have started as this match required us to start off with a win.

Patterson has proved already that he’s a first-class defender but he is excellent going forward and could have provided worthwhile service for the forwards.

With Kieran Tierney being unavailabl­e, Scott McTominay should have gone back into the defensive structure so that we had a playmaker from central defence to link up with the midfield. This would have meant that Gilmour would come in as his replacemen­t as our playmaker.

The final alteration to the starting line-up would have been Adams up front instead of Lyndon Dykes. He’s playing at a higher level for his club and I feel he’s already shown that he’s more adept and mobile. When you consider that Stuart Armstrong was selected for our midfield then it would seem more appropriat­e that you have someone in the team for him to link up with who he plays with on a regular basis.

We didn’t play badly against the Czechs but these key alteration­s could have made a difference. We did miss crucial chances and their goalkeeper had some excellent saves.

David Marshall has been highly criticised for the second goal scored by Patrik Schick, but he also made some crucial saves too. I felt the criticism he got for the special Schick finish was too harsh. He was well out of his box but he would have saved this effort if it hadn’t been a strike of absolute perfection, which it was.

In terms of the chances in the game being taken by both teams I figured the score would have been 4-3 for the Czechs so no change to the outcome.

Anyway, with that disappoint­ment now behind us we then faced our most difficult but exciting fixture, England at Wembley. The one big advantage we had going into this game was that we were total underdogs. Other than the loyal and optimistic Scottish fans, nobody thought it would be anything other than an England win. I must be honest I felt this way too, although I was considerin­g that we are generally at our best when we are written off in advance.

I allowed myself a wry smile when the line-up was announced. Tierney and McTominay started in defence which gave us a platform to build out from the back and Gilmour – who was excellent, by the way – dropped deep to collect. As I’ve said, I would have preferred to see Patterson over Stephen O’Donnell but take nothing away from the Motherwell defender. He was brilliant. That was probably the best I’ve seen him play for Scotland.

It was a perfect example that demonstrat­ed why Scotland are at their best when the odds are stacked against them. I was left a bit disappoint­ed as we made some good chances but we have to be happy with the outcome. Going to Wembley was always going to be our most difficult test and Gareth Southgate’s side are among the favourites to go all the way and lift the trophy, but we made them look very ordinary.

Croatia will be the favourites on Tuesday but that will suit Steve and his players down to the ground. A home win will more or less see us through and we all know how loud the Tartan Army will be cheering them on. I think Steve will stick largely with the same line-up but I’d like to see Armstrong brought in to link up with Adams.

We are in a strong position. It would be such a welcome sight for the whole country to see the players defeat Croatia and book their place in the knockout rounds, becoming the first Scotland team to make it out of the group at a major tournament.

After the horror of the last 18 months, it could be just the timely morale boost the country needs.

TOMORROW Matthew Lindsay

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