When Steve Clarke took charge at Kilmarnock, he asked every player to come to his office. No date or times were set; it was up to each player to make the effort to knock on his door.
“Everyone was a nervous wreck,” says midfielder Gary Dicker. “You don’t want to be first in and you don’t want to be last, so people were sneaking in saying they hadn’t been in when they had.”
Dicker’s walk to the office was filled with trepidation, but reflecting on his chat with Clarke, the Dubliner is clear what his boss’ intentions were. “He was trying to gauge who was going to be first and last in. It was a little test in a way. I went in and he knew all about me.”
Clarke’s ability to leave impressions on players has been the cornerstone of his managerial work, which has peaked – for now – by becoming the first man to lead Scotland to a major tournament in more than two decades.
A quiet, reserved character, the 57-year-old from Saltcoats in Ayrshire has succeeded where six before him failed. Here, BBC Scotland asks some of those who know him well what kind of man he is.
‘A man of few words’ is how Clarke is often generally described, which can lead to an air of mystery.
After five years at St Mirren, he played 421 times for Chelsea – only seven players have made more appearances – and won an FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in the 1990s.
A right-back who could play in the centre of defence or midfield, Clarke’s intelligence allowed him to adapt, which made him invaluable to a succession of managers, and he out-lasted many more glamorous contemporaries.
“He was utterly dependable,” friend and former Chelsea and Scotland team-mate Pat Nevin explains. “There are very few players that are like that, that can not just do a job, but be just as good in any position.”
While the football intelligence was clear, the ability to lead developed in time. His interventions were few, but valuable. “When he said something everyone shut up and listened,” Nevin added.
After playing he was enlisted by former team-mate Ruud Gullit to coach at Newcastle, then worked as assistant to Jose Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish and Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham United respectively. He was widely respected by players and his peers for his work on the training ground.
“You don’t keep on working for people like Mourinho, or under Kenny at Liverpool unless you’re very good indeed,” says Nevin. “Because you’re out on that training ground with top players, and you cannot get away with it. You can’t BS that, it’s impossible.”
Dicker talks of an instant impact at struggling Kilmarnock, thanks to a hands-on Clarke, while current Scotland assistant Steven Reid described watching his boss at Reading move a cone he had just placed by a matter of inches to prepare for a specific training drill.
“I’m a guy who likes his boots on, tracksuit, little whistle round his neck, and probably some coaching notes. That’s what I’m most comfortable doing,” Clarke told BBC Scotland last year.
Despite the attention to detail, coaching ability and playing pedigree, Clarke’s first managerial job did not come until the age of 48, when West Bromwich Albion named him as their head coach.
In a recent interview with The Times, Clarke put his late start down to a desire to wait until other parts of his life were stable before putting himself into the firing line. It speaks of a cautious approach, but also of a man who finds the limelight uncomfortable.
“When he was young, I think he went in for an operation and had his ego removed,” Nevin laughs. “It has massive positives and massive negatives in football.
“The positives are you just go and do your job. But if you haven’t got that ego, you’re not going to try to look sharp on the TV, or impress everybody with smart one-liners all the time. Forget about all the peripheral stuff, it’s about doing the job. I think Clarkey’s a bit more like that.”
The knock-on effect of the lack of self-promotion was a year out of the game after an initially successful, but ultimately brutally short, spell at West Brom. After leading the Midlands side to their highest Premier League finish, he had a season at Reading before a brief stint as assistant at Aston Villa.
Nevin explains that, while he encouraged his friend to get back into management – even touting him for the Hibernian job in the wake of Alan Stubbs’ departure in 2016 – Clarke was more relaxed. His love of football was undimmed, but it did not mean desperation to jump in to the wrong club.
When the opportunity came to coach a Kilmarnock side rooted to the foot of the Scottish Premiership, Clarke did not exactly fall off his seat with excitement. Mind you, you suspect not even the Barcelona job could do that to him.
“I remember saying: ‘Are you really up for this?’ And he’s going: ‘Yeah, kind of’,” Nevin recalls. “But I thought, once he gets in, he won’t have a choice because I know what he’s like. He will do it right.”
Dicker, then injured, remembers watching his team-mates being put through their paces at Rugby Park as Clarke began his work at the club on 15 October, 2017. The previous day, he had watched from the Firhill stands as they recorded their first win in 10 matches.
“There were no grey areas,” the former Republic of Ireland Under-21 player explained as Clarke’s immediate impact saw them earn draws at Ibrox and Celtic Park in his first two games.
“For the first six months I don’t think he spoke to anyone an awful lot,” Dicker added. “He only spoke when he needed to but I think he was scanning and picking up everything he needed to and getting to know the place and the players.”
Clarke’s impact was remarkable, as Kilmarnock went from bottom in October to fifth by the end of the season. And the best was yet to come as they pipped Aberdeen to third the following campaign, regularly taking points from Celtic and Rangers along the way.
Clarke’s emotional intelligence underpinned his coaching ability, and Dicker describes an environment in which every single player wanted to impress, despite the manager keeping his distance. He didn’t speak much after games, but kept players on their toes constantly.
When Dicker was sent off in a 1-0 defeat against Hearts in August 2018, Clarke immediately defended him, confidently predicting the decision would be overturned on appeal. When it wasn’t, he was scathing in his appraisal of the disciplinary process and was given a suspended two-game ban.
Despite that public backing, though, Dicker was dropped for seven games and was “run into the ground”.
“I couldn’t get into the team,” he says. “Then we were playing Hamilton and he just walked past and said: ‘You’re not playing tomorrow, but you’re playing against Rangers on Tuesday’. And just walked off.
“He knew how to get inside your head to make you want it even more. Even though I played all the time, you never knew where you stood or if you were doing well because he never really said it. That was the key, he had everyone like that.”
Testament to Clarke’s hold over the Kilmarnock squad was when he appeared as a pundit for Sky Sports at Rugby Park for a game against Celtic in January last season, having left to take charge of Scotland.
Dicker and a few team-mates went to speak to him after the game but midfielder Rory McKenzie was too nervous. “Rory came over and said: ‘God I’m so nervous I don’t know what to say to him’. But not in a bad way, it was more out of respect and wanting to say the right things all the time and impress.”
There is more to Clarke than the stern, dead-pan exterior. Those who know him speak of a warmth and razor-sharp sense of humour, which emerges the more you get to know him.
His assistant at Kilmarnock, Alex Dyer, has described his as “an outstanding human being”, having been brought back into the game by Clarke after 15 months out.
“He always said to me ‘Al, if I get a chance back in football we will work together’,” said Dyer.
“He rang me up and said he had a job. I asked him ‘Where you going?’ and he said ‘err… Scotland. It’s a bit far, though…’ and I went ‘Ah, that’s alright. No problem man, I’m coming with you’. I learned so much and he took me to another level.”
The wit sometimes flickered in news conferences and interviews, and the Kilmarnock squad got to see the humour as time went on.
As the 2018/19 season approached its final quarter, Clarke took the team away to Tenerife for a training camp but set no rules about nights out. The squad were unsure of the boundaries after initially being allowed to hit the town on their arrival.
The next night, they bumped into Clarke and some staff on their way out of the hotel at nine o’clock, with the manager asking where they were off to. Dicker recalls trying to swiftly make an excuse, while Clarke laughed having enjoyed making them squirm for a moment.
The team carried on, enjoyed their week, and went on to finish third with a record points total, qualifying for the Europa League.
In an emotional Rugby Park speech on the final day of the campaign after a win against Rangers, Clarke, ever the perfectionist, apologised for not delivering the club a trophy, but claimed the three full stands – two of which lay sparse before his time – as a victory.
Reviving an ailing club devoid of hope was the perfect warm-up for what lay ahead. Clarke took charge of Scotland with popular opinion behind him, and with another unenviable task to tackle. Ending the nation’s more than two-decade wait for a major finals had become the most poisoned of chalices.
How do you restore belief and confidence into a set-up so beaten down by failure that the wailing and gnashing that used to follow failed campaigns was becoming a mere shrug of the shoulders?
But Clarke had the blueprint, and he stuck to his methods. Bringing in trusted coaches – Reid and Dyer, plus laterally John Carver when Dyer relinquished his duties to focus on Kilmarnock. He had worked with all three before and laid faith in them again.
First order of the day, was making Scotland tough to beat again. Clarke was said to be taken aback at some of the criticism that came his way initially after early beatings by Belgium and Russia, and then again at his use of aback three – even when narrow victories were starting to become the norm.
But what Nevin describes as the “quiet belief” Clarke has in himself saw him through the baptism of fire. He used the September Nations League matches to introduce the system and never waivered.
The results kept coming, the back three looked increasingly solid, and the play-off semi-final secured under previous boss Alex McLeish became a shot at history after a shootout win against Israel.
Asked how he would feel on Friday morning if Scotland had beaten Serbia to reach Euro 2020, Clarke replied: “I might enjoy my breakfast, and then immediately I’ll be thinking about the next game…”
With Clarke that was not just a cop-out answer, but a perfect example of his personality. Serious, focussed, determined, but delivered with a hint of humour. Hopefully he enjoyed his porridge on Friday morning.