Not since the hiring of Walter Smith over a decade ago had the appointment of a Scotland manager been so universally popular. Indeed, Steve Clarke looked to be the perfect candidate to rescue the struggling national team. Jose Mourinho’s former assistant was fresh from performing miracles at Kilmarnock and Scotland needed another one.
Since then, however, Scotland have lost four of their five games under Clarke. Their hopes of qualifying for next summer’s European Championships through Group I were ended by the home defeat to Russia last month and back-to-back 4-0 defeats to the same opponents and Belgium have underlined just how far away Scotland are from the required level.
This run of form, the country’s worst since 2004, has sparked a fierce discussion over Scotland’s future as a football nation. In years gone by the national team’s failures have been explained away by a lack of talent. Now, however, there is a core of talent that is much better than they have shown since Clarke took charge.
In Andy Robertson, Scott McTominay, Ryan Fraser, Callum McGregor, Kieran Tierney and James Forrest, Scotland have a generation of young talent capable of playing at the top level. Clarke has a stronger squad than most of his immediate predecessors ever had, so what’s the explanation behind the national team’s recent disastrous form?
Scotland’s problems are deep-rooted. A malaise has bubbled under the surface for a long, long time and that is manifesting itself in the performances of the team on the pitch. “I have to put it down to fragile confidence,” Clarke attempted to explain after Thursday’s embarrassing defeat to Russia in Moscow. “The players seemed to lose heart very quickly, which is unfortunate because we had done OK up to that point.
“Hard work, maybe one or two different selections in terms of the squad as well as starting 11. It's something I have to look at. We can't keep conceding goals. But for us, it's trying to make sure this is the very, very bottom of the lowest and then build from here and make sure come March we are able to be very, very competitive and get through the play-offs and give ourselves the chance to be in the same championships.”
Many will point to poor governance of the sport in Scotland for the reason behind the national team’s failures. That has indeed been a factor, but Scotland have the talent to at least compete for qualification to major tournaments.