"My contract runs out when our interest in Euro 2024 runs out, so it's probably a good idea to qualify for Euro 2024,” Steve Clarke’s pre-match comments ahead of the 2-0 win over Armenia, were said more in jest that complete certainty, but he knows the task of the job at hand.
Today also marked three years to the day since he took the job. Ending a 22-year wait to play in a major tournament was a huge success story, but after the heartbreaking defeat to Ukraine ended Scotland’s World Cup dreams, thoughts have quickly turned to the future.
If Clarke’s men are to succeed in reaching back-to-back European Championships, then a forward-thinking plan of action is needed, including a refresh of the squad that failed this time around.
This win, even if it only came against Armenia, was a positive sign for the future. Anthony Ralston, just 23, became the youngest player to score on his first start for Scotland since Jordan Rhodes versus Australia in August 2012.
Meanwhile Scott McKenna, who will shine in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest next term, scored his first Scotland goal with a powerful header and had another disallowed for offside. He’s already got 25 appearances to his name but is part of this new generation of defenders that could lead Scotland into a new period of success.
There’s more on the production line as well at a great age to hit their peak in two years time. John Souttar who played tonight is also 25, while there are several others already performing at a high level in the Championship, who could get Premier League moves in the next 12 months.
Coventry City’s central defenders Dom Hyam and Michael Rose have impressed with their high ceilings and at 26, both are capable of playing for the national side in this two year cycle ahead of Germany 2024.
It’s not just the defenders that are of a ripe age. Rangers wide-man Scott Wright is 24, Ross Stewart, Che Adams, Scott McTominay and Kieran Tierney are all 25. In two years time, the aforementioned players will be at the peak of their powers, with enough experience and physicality to genuinely improve this Scotland team.
But it isn’t just about those players approaching their peak, Clarke also has a host of youngsters coming through that just need a little bit more experience before they can make a bigger contribution to the national team.
Lewis Ferguson and David Turnbull are 22, Nathan Patterson and Josh Doig are only 20, Billy Gimour is the same age and Aaron Hickey is just 19, playing week in week out in Serie A. Left-back is hardly a position of weakness for Scotland with Andy Robertson and Tierney, but Hickey’s development points to a bright future for the nation.
Of that bunch, Gilmour has been the standout so far. He did well at Euro 2020 but perhaps needs expectations around his talent to lessen before he fulfils his true potential. With more talent emerging in the ranks, the pressure of being Scotland’s golden boy should be released from his shoulders, and the nation can begin to progress.
They made it to Euro 2024 through the play-offs and the 24 team tournament should give them another great opportunity to make it to a major tournament. The World Cup wasn’t meant to be this time around but this 2-0 win points to a positive qualification campaign.
"Hopefully we can look forward to better times," Clarke said ahead of tonight’s match. The better times have just begun.