Steve Clarke: The Tartan Army chief bringing hope and a little glory back to Scotland

John Nicholson
Steve Clarke celebrates after Scott McTominay scores for Scotland against Spain.

Scotland have a team to believe in again, thanks to the understated leadership of Steve Clarke. Jose Mourinho’s former sidekick is right up John Nicholson’s street.

Here’s ‘What’s so Great About…’ the Scotland boss…

Who’s this then?
Stephen Clarke is a 59-year-old, 5’10” Saltcoats-born former defender for St Mirren and Chelsea who currently manages Scotland rather well and beat Spain 2-0 this week.

He started playing football for Beith Juniors in North Ayrshire, one of Scotland’s many hundreds of amateur clubs with a history going back to before the war. A robust right-back – you had to be – he was scouted by St Mirren in 1982, aged 19 and initially signed on a part-time contract. This allowed him to complete an apprenticeship as an instrument engineer, which may yet come in useful. Maybe he could engineer a top-notch striker for Scotland.

Eventually he signed on as a professional and completed 200 games for the Buddies between 1982 and 1987. At which point a struggling Chelsea signed him for £442,000. They finished 18th in his first season and had to play Division Two side Middlesbrough in a two-legged play-off to decide if Boro went up or Chelsea went down. Boro won the home first leg 2-0 and lost the away tie – a game marred by hooliganism – 1-0. Boro went up because they didn’t lose by enough, which is a very Boro thing to do.

So Stevie found himself in the second division for a season. But they stormed it, losing just five times and amassing 99 points to get promoted. In total he played 422 times for the Blues, initially as an attacking right-back, but latterly in less progressive roles, sometimes filling in at centre-half.  He was named Player Of The Year in 1993-94, won the FA Cup in 1996, the League Cup in 1998 and in the same season, in the last game of his career, in true legendary style, won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup under Gianluca Vialli, beating Stuttgart 1-0 in Stockholm. He remains something of Chelsea legend because he was such a solid, dependable performer for 11 years. However, he only played six times for Scotland.

Immediately on retiring he joined Newcastle United as assistant to former boss Ruud Gullit, getting them to the cup final, losing to Manchester United. Of course, Ruud was soon dismissed and Stevie took charge for one game, a 5- defeat to Manchester United.

From there he went to work with the youth academy at Chelsea and was so well-regarded that he moved up to be Jose Mourinho’s assistant. He was effectively the bridge between the old school Chelsea and the new-monied creation. He won two FA Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups over three seasons, was kept on after Jose left but eventually left to be Gianfranco Zola’s assistant at West Ham for a couple of seasons. From there he was recruited by Kenny Dalglish to be his assistant at Liverpool. That didn’t go too well and his next move in 2012 was to be the boss of WBA, had one good season, one bad and was removed.

Next came Reading. He got them to their first cup semi-final in 88 years but was sacked after a year in charge. There were four months at Villa assisting Roberto Di Matteo, which we shall draw a veil over. After all these ups and downs, he took a year out before taking the ever glamorous Kilmarnock job in 2017. They were bottom of the league but ended up fifth with a record points total for the club. The following campaign he took them to third (their highest position since 1966) and into Europe beating Celtic once and Rangers twice along the way and another record points total. This was a quite remarkable achievement for a club the size of Kilmarnock. In two seasons he won SFWA Manager of the Year twice and PFA Manager of the Year once.

At which point he took the Scotland job. It was a bit of a dodgy start as he began to apply his methods but he got them to the Euros for the first time, narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification via a play-off but won their Nations League Group which means they have an automatic play-off place for the next Euros even if they don’t finish in the top two of the group.

In the last week they got six points from games against Cyprus and Spain and Stevie almost smiled.

Steve Clarke

Steve Clarke

Why the love?
Often said to be ‘dour’ but this is nonsense. He’s just self-contained and sees no reason to talk in an overly effusive manner. He’s a little old-fashioned in that he doesn’t go in for self-promotion and no doubt looks with some cynicism on those who do. He knows football can turn today’s hero into tomorrow’s zero in a heartbeat, so it’s best not to get too up or too down. He is in the perfect job for him and at the perfect time.

He has given Scotland fans hope. Hope, not of winning anything, but just of qualifying and being in the mix and that’s all that is currently desired. For years Scotland has performed poorly on the international stage while other small countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark did far better. It was a source of much mystery and even research to find out why the country wasn’t producing more top-rank players. And while it is always a work in progress, it turns out that a manager can achieve quite a lot if he organises a team well, understands where players should play, and motivates what players he does have.

They went on a nine-game unbeaten run a couple of years ago and are currently eight unbeaten, if they go 10, it’ll be their best since 1924. This might not sound like much but it is historically exceptional for glorious Scotia.

Stevie has improved the team in every single department. He has turned Scott McTominay into a goal machine – with four in the last two games. Erik Ten Hag might want to note that Stevie deploys him further forward and he is so much more effective. John McGinn has scored 16 goals in the last four years and under Clarke has turned deploying his meaty arse as a kind of extra player into a real asset.

In recent times Scotland had found scoring goals very difficult, but Clarke has cured them of that too, despite not really having a good centre forward. Anyone who has to play Che Adams or Lyndon Dykes in international football, deserves sympathy. But Stevie has made it work.

The squad now has depth and in Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney and McGinn, three real game-changers.

However, it is how he’s managed to turn players like Grant Hanley and Liam Cooper into successful international players where his remarkable work is best seen. His greatest virtue is to put together a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

His assistant manager is Geordie John Carver, who sounds and even looks like Brian Johnson of AC/DC; Austin MacPhee, whose nickname must surely be ‘Nanny’; and Steven Naismith; with Chris Woods doing the goalkeeping coaching gig.

So everyone loves Clarky for the results and for the quality of football he has inculcated into the national team, but it also must be said that he has done so in the least demonstrative way possible.

He is a plain-speaking, straightforward fella, who almost seems a man out of time in these days of bling and banter. Anyone who thinks he’s some sort of miserablist is very wide of the mark. Indeed, it’s a relief to have a national manager who is calm and understands the value of understatement.

 

Three great moments
After a great win against Spain, there’s absolutely no grandstanding…

As a player he wasnae half bad….

This post-match speech tells you all you need to know about him…

Future days?
Everyone is delighted that he signed a new contract to take him up to 2026. Just having a very good chance at qualifying for the 2024 Euros is success in itself at this point. Beating Spain for the first time since 1984 means this squad of players will go down in history. If they get to Germany, the next big aim must be to get out of the group stage, something they have never done.

He has injected self-belief into the team, a belief that only grows with every win. Their next two games are away in Norway and home to Georgia in June. Win those and qualification is all but guaranteed. Even winning one and losing one will likely be enough.

After that, there’s the little matter of trying to qualify for the World Cup. Steve will take it all in his stride. Though it isn’t always apparent, he is deeply passionate about his job and there is no evidence that his methods are not going to take Scotland into uncharted territory again.