WHEN Alex McLeish was removed from his post as Scotland manager last month, it was a certainty that his successor was going to be a Scot. After the reign of Berti Vogts, the thought of another foreign manager was never going to be accepted by a short sighted SFA and media.
That approach meant that there was only one candidate suitable for the job at this moment in time – Steve Clarke!
At 55 and with over 20 years as a first team coach, Assistant Manager and Manager behind him, Clarke is well placed to take the daunting step into International management and face the unenviable task of breaking the 21 year wait for qualification for a major tournament. Having overseen a remarkable transformation at hometown club Kilmarnock, Clarke’s stalk is high and the SFA deserve credit, for once, for moving quickly to convince him to become McLeish’s successor.
Clarke served his coaching apprenticeship at some of England’s top clubs in Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool, working with top players every day and building up a reputation as one of the best coaches in the game before trying his hand at management at West Brom and Reading. He came to Killie with a point to prove after his ridiculous sacking by West Brom, six months after he guided them to their highest ever Premier League finish, and harsh removal from the Reading job after steering them to the FA Cup Semi Finals.
His work at Killie is what has, ultimately, landed him the job. When he took over at Rugby Park, they were joint bottom of the table with Partick Thistle and their sole aim had become merely to survive as a Premiership club. On Sunday, they secured third place and qualified for Europe for the first time since 2001.
All that was done despite having the eighth highest budget in the twelve team top flight and, largely, working with the same squad he inherited. This is evidence that he can pick up a team low in confidence and mould them into an efficient side that is difficult to beat and pick up big results, like beating Celtic and Rangers on five occasions during his tenure. To finish above Aberdeen, who’ve been runners up in each of the previous four seasons, Hibs and Hearts is a terrific achievement given the gulf in finances and resources available and he, along with Chairman Billy Bowie, have helped reconnect the club with the fans after years of suffering under Michael Johnston.
The only blot on his copybook was not delivering a trophy, something he spoke about in his now farewell speech on Sunday, but he more than made up for that by achieving the clubs record points tally in consecutive seasons to clinch a Europa League spot. It’s a remarkable story when you take into account where Kilmarnock were, and the job is more lucrative than before his surprise appointment in October 2017.
It is that transformation in such a short space of time that has attracted the attention of Ian Maxwell and co at the SFA to lure him to fulfil a dream of managing his country. After a difficult 13 months in McLeish’s second tenure, Scotland needed someone capable of picking up morale quickly to get our Euro 2020 qualification hopes back on track. Clarke fits the bill in that respect with his man management skills, discipline and organisation, three key factors required for International management.
Even if Scotland don’t do enough to qualify automatically through the conventional route, they have the fall back of the playoffs in March after topping their Nations League section. The worry was that we could’ve went into the Semi Final at Hampden, currently against Finland, with little confidence had things carried on the way they were going. Clarke at least has a chance to get disillusioned fans on side by building momentum over the next eight qualifiers to bring us properly into contention for an automatic qualification spot, or go into those playoffs with confidence.
It’s not just on the pitch where the appointment of Steve Clarke is crucial. Maxwell knows that there is an apathy with the National Team just now with disappointing results and low attendances. With Cyprus at home looming in a fortnights time, the SFA ran the risk of a less than half full Hampden on a Saturday match had they not acted on McLeish, or appointed someone like Scott Gemmill. No disrespect to Gemmill, who has built up a good reputation with our Youth level sides, but appointing him would’ve been uninspiring and seen as “job for the boys”, added to the fact he isn’t ready as he has a lot of work to do with to end the Under 21’s wait for a major tournament.
Clarke was by far the most popular Scottish candidate for the job, and it’s a credit to both parties that any feuds between them caused by refereeing issues were put aside for the sake of their respective ambitions. Scotland want to qualify for a major tournament again, particularly one where Hampden is a host venue, and Clarke wants to manage his country.
Now that he’s been confirmed, Steve Clarke does have his work cut out trying to restore faith in the National side that has been lost by many over the last few years of frustration. He inherits a squad that is young but has potential to qualify for a first major Finals since the France ’98 World Cup. Whilst the Scotland Women’s team are preparing to head there for their historic inaugural World Cup Finals appearance this summer, Clarke has already said he wants to emulate them by ensuring the men’s side qualify for next summers European Championships and build for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Steve Clarke worked wonders at Kilmarnock for 19 short months at Rugby Park, taking them from relegation contenders to the best side outside the Old Firm. If he manages to transform a beleaguered Scotland side into Euro 2020, it would be an even bigger transformation and he’d become an instant national hero.