On Saturday afternoon, Steve Clarke will have come full circle. When he took the Scotland job in May 2019, following the exit of Alex Mcleish, his first game and win came against this weekend’s opposition, Cyprus. Nearly four years ago, Oliver Burke scored a last minute winner in a crucial 2-1 success as Scotland finished third and qualified for the play-offs. Fast forward to 2023 and he has just signed a new deal that will see him stay on as Scotland manager until 2026.
Those play-offs are without a doubt the defining moment of Clarke’s tenure so far. Their Nations League performance put them into the four-team tournament where a penalty shootout win over Israel after a 0-0 draw sent them into the play-off final against Serbia. Then, in the most dramatic circumstances, David Marshall saved Aleksandar Mitrovic’s spot-kick to send Scotland to Euro 2020 - their first major tournament this century.
Clarke delivered one of his major goals way ahead of schedule, of that there is no doubt. But his side also gave a decent account of themselves in the tournament, with a famous draw at Wembley and the two special occasions at Hampden Park. A group stage exit was expected, but his side did themselves proud.
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Since then, things haven’t been quite as easy for Clarke and Scotland, even if they impressed for the majority of World Cup qualifying. They finished second behind Denmark, a side they beat at Hampden on the final day, and then lost to Ukraine at home in the play-offs. As Wales beat Ukraine to reach Qatar, it truly felt like a missed opportunity for Scotland to reach their first World Cup since 1998.
And so we come to the eve of the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. One question Clarke will have to answer - who is the new number one? Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor or David Marshall have been trusted since the mid-200s, amassing over 160 caps between them. But with Gordon now 40 and McGregor and Marshall recently retired, there’s a new vacancy between the sticks.
Norwich City’s Angus Gunn is in the best form for his club and could be given the nod over Zander Clark or Motherwell’s Liam Kelly. Despite playing for England’s U21s, Gunn recently declared for Scotland, with hopes of following in his father’s footsteps.
It’s perhaps the most obvious change to the squad since that first game against Cyprus. Clarke selected the likes of Burke, Charlie Mulgrew and Eamonn Brophy (remember him!), while the likes of Andy Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, Scott McTominay, John McGinn have remained key pillars of this team that Clarke can rely on.
Jack Hendry has emerged as a pivotal figure, although Clarke will be without the man who has started Scotland’s last seven fixtures this month. It’s clear Scotland have developed over the last four years. They are a slightly stronger outfit, even if there have been some murmurings of discontent in the lack of new young players being given opportunities.
Hayden Hackney at Middlesbrough is enjoying a breakthrough season and has played for the U21 side but many fans felt this was the chance to tie him down the national team, rather than risking losing him to England - whom he represented at u15 level. Ben Doak and Elliot Anderson are two others that could represent the future of Scottish football but instead Clarke has gone for his tried and tested - which fans have labelled ‘predictable’.
But these are players that have won his trust, even if some are lacking gametime for their clubs. It's a similar situation south of the border too. But they need to get off to a winning start when they host Cyprus, as the draw hasn’t been kind to Clarke. With the top two from each five-team group automatically reaching the finals, Scotland will have to either finish above Spain or Erling Haaland’s Norway to guarantee a place in Germany next summer.
Reaching Euro 2024 from this starting point may be his greatest achievement to date.
*18+ | BeGambleAware