After two games in charge of Scotland, a scratchy win against Cyprus and a comprehensive beating by Russia, Steve Clarke did an interview in the Hampden Hall of Fame.
Surrounded by one totemic figure after another in the nation’s glorious football past, he glanced around the room. “Some amount of legends in here,” he said, deadpan.
By way of an ice-breaker, he was told that one day his picture would be up on those walls, that as soon as he led Scotland to a major championship, space would be found among the immortals. There was a hint of a smile, quickly followed by gallows humour. “Rogues gallery, more like…” he muttered.
Clarke was surrounded by negativity – and he felt it. There’d been 32,432 fans at that Russia game in September 2019. The next three home attendances would see 25,524, then 20,699, then 19,515. There were numerous factors, but the absence of hope was central.
More and more Scotland fans inoculated themselves against disappointment by trying to trick their mind into thinking that international football was a bit of a busted flush, that the national team no longer had the power to move them the way it once did.
One of the points that Clarke made in the Hall of Fame was that the support was dormant, not extinct. He said that his job was to bring organisation and consistency to the set-up and that when he did – and he was sure he would – then the fans would return and the passion would reignite.
He sounded like somebody from Field of Dreams. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the reference – “if you build it, he will come…” They will come.
He built it and he’s been proven right. The national team’s capacity to lift national spirits is alive and well. The raw emotion that came tumbling out when David Marshall saved that final penalty was immensely powerful. It reached all corners. Even those who have no great love of football could feel it.
In hard times, it wasn’t just a Scottish football moment, it was a moment for all of Scotland.
Clarke has driven it. He never complained about injuries, never bemoaned a lack of talent, never sought refuge in bogus excuses about genetics, never got ground down by the doubters on the outside. He created a culture and within that environment some remarkable things happened.
The cast-offs & misfits who made history
The greatest renaissance story in all of this is the fact that Scotland will be at the Euros next summer, but contained within the triumph are breakout renaissance stories – and not just one or two.
Clarke himself is one of them. Fired by West Brom in cruel circumstances six-and-a-half years ago, then sacked by Reading, then not retained as a coach at Aston Villa. He was a forgotten man until he came again at Kilmarnock.
Their vision in going for him and their persuasive powers in getting him are key to all of this. Had Clarke not come back to Scotland to do such a wonderful job at Rugby Park, he wouldn’t have been on the Scottish FA’s radar. When Clarke said yes to Killie, that was the origin of Thursday night in Belgrade.
His goalkeeper, and now national treasure, is another comeback story. Released by Hull in July last year, then relegated with Wigan who sank into administration, Marshall joined Derby in the summer.
Derby are bottom of the Championship. Marshall has one win in 10 games for his club. He’s lost to Reading and Luton, Blackburn and Barnsley, but in Belgrade he was a giant. Those images of him at the end – from dread to jubilation – are among the great ones in the modern history of the national team.
Stephen O’Donnell didn’t have a club when this season began. Lyndon Dykes was a Livingston player, utterly unknown as a footballer outside Scotland’s and Australia’s borders.
Five years ago, Declan Gallagher was in jail. The Motherwell defender has been an absolute rock. His resurrection is not just a football tale, but a life tale. He was in a bad place, he came back stronger.
For all the glamour and excellence of Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, John McGinn, Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie, it’s Gallagher who, in many ways, represents Scotland’s renewal in microcosm. He almost goes beyond the game. He’s the example to youngsters whose lives have gone down the wrong road. He’s the living proof of redemption.
Oli McBurnie is another one. To say that he has a bit to do to win over the Scotland fans is an understatement.
McBurnie replaced the outstanding Dykes and almost immediately things started to go wrong. He didn’t win headers as Dykes had done, didn’t hustle and harry, didn’t get on the ball, didn’t even run about with much conviction.
The minute he stepped up to take penalty number four, the temptation was to look away. If you didn’t fear the worst, then your faith is strong. McBurnie hit a sumptuous penalty. Whatever you think about him and his place in the squad, he showed incredible composure when Scotland really needed him.
‘Clarke has given Scotland reason to believe’
The journey to this point has been emotional. Not that long ago, many were barking at Clarke for persisting with three at the back, for stubbornly going with a midfielder – Scott McTominay – as one of the three. “Abandon ship, Steve. Go back to the four.” He didn’t listen, thank goodness.
All the noise surrounding Robertson and Tierney and what to do with them. He came up with a solution.
All the understandable fretting about the state of the defence. He fixed it to such an extent that a back three of McTominay, Gallagher and Andrew Considine kept back-to-back clean sheets against the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
That’s a natural midfielder, a Motherwell centre-half and a previously uncapped 33-year-old Aberdeen defender forming a solid international unit almost overnight.
That’s huge credit to the players, of course, but it’s also reflective of the positivity and clarity of the environment they’re working in. Clarke is a coach and a manager, but he’s also an alchemist.
He has given Scotland an identity, a reason to believe after years of scepticism that long since travelled into hard-bitten cynicism. That frustration was a fierce adversary that Clarke and his players had to overcome. And now they’ve done it.
They didn’t win one match on Thursday, they won two. They saw off Serbia and defeated the doubt that had built up for more than two decades.
Good riddance to false dawns. Hello bright new world.