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Conductor Steve Clarke hits positive note in game of musical chairs



Steve Clarke is an understated sort of fella and his players are a pretty humble bunch who have set themselves the modest ambition at Euro 2024 of being the first Scotland team to make it beyond the opening group stage at a tournament. Still, there is no prospect of them slipping quietly into Germany today. A welcoming committee has been organised with brass bands, alphorns, trumpets, tubas and bagpipes. If they can come through that, anything’s possible.

The message from the civic leaders and the citizens of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is clear — the warmest of welcomes to Scotland’s footballers on an occasion to celebrate; a meeting of the kilt and the lederhosen. The Bavarian skiing town of around 27,000 people close to the Austrian border is Scotland’s base for the duration of their stay at the tournament. Clarke and his squad and staff will arrive there early this evening. They are sure to enjoy the colour and attention; the affection and the enthusiasm. This will be different.

This is what happens when a team arrives for a tournament overseas. Scotland have not been fussed about quite like this since Craig Brown’s boys arrived in little St-Remy-de-Provence — their tournament base for France ’98.

There is a sense of resetting about Clarke now; about the clouds clearing and Scotland having an unobscured view of the tournament at last, 238 days after they actually qualified for it. The build-up has been troubled. Six players Clarke wished to take to Germany have been ruled out by injury and the loss of Aaron Hickey and Lyndon Dykes may have significant consequences in the Group A games against Germany, Switzerland and Hungary. Without Lewis Ferguson and Nathan Patterson the cover has thinned too.

The 2-0 win over Gibraltar on Monday was — because a two-goal lead was lost against Finland on Friday — the only Scottish victory in the past nine games. Scott McTominay did not play in either friendly after a knock in the FA Cup final, although Clarke has insisted he was fine. The players had been nervous about suffering injuries which cost them their squad place, he said. Seeing their team-mate and friend Dykes being cut down by a cruel injury in training had spooked them.

No-one is more sympathetic than Clarke to those who have missed out — including Craig Gordon and John Souttar, who he removed when the 28-strong provisional squad had to be reduced to 26. There had been emotional conversations with both of them about that. But now there is clarity, excitement and anticipation. The nervousness has lifted. Those boarding the plane have made it. They are on their way.

“The competitive edge will be back; the desire to not lose,” said Clarke. “We will be full-on 100 per cent. I’m not saying we went out against Finland to try and lose, but you go out and it’s always in the back of your mind [that you might get injured]. Especially with Lyndon Dykes. I think what happened with Lyndon spooked them a little bit. Now that they’re there, they’re in the competition, it’s full steam ahead.”

For two of the obvious problem issues, he talked up the potential solutions. That Anthony Ralston was preferred to Ross McCrorie for the Finland game — in which he picked a stronger team than against Gibraltar — suggested that Clarke sees the Celtic player as the answer to the loss of Hickey and Patterson at right wing-back. “He plays for a club side who pass the ball a lot so I imagine his training sessions will be pretty much possession-based,” he said. “He is good on the ball, keeps the ball, doesn’t give it away in dangerous areas.”

A narrative was building that Lawrence Shankland could not step up at international level. He missed a fine one-on-one chance against the Netherlands in March and could not impose himself against Gibraltar. There was a shot over the crossbar against the Finns, too, and then suddenly there he was — attacking a cross from Andy Robertson to hold off a defender and bury a close-range header for his 33rd goal of the season for club and country. “What would that goal do for him?” Clarke asked. “Quite a lot I think. He gave me a big smile when he came off. It’s important because, listen, strikers live on goals.” Another striker, Tommy Conway, was lively and eager as a late substitute. His debut was impressive and he deserves some game time in Germany.

Clarke has bristled a little about “Negative Normans” in the media — none of the reporters covering the team are actually called Norman — and stressed how special and memorable it is for Scotland to be at a major tournament again. For all the endless focus on casualties, Hickey is the only guaranteed starter who will be unavailable (some might argue Dykes is another). Clarke still has all his other pillars — McTominay; John McGinn; Kieran Tierney; Callum McGregor; Billy Gilmour and, slightly above them all, Robertson.

McGinn, McGregor, McTominay, Shankland and Kenny McLean are all regular or occasional captains for their clubs but Robertson is Scotland’s unequivocal leader. It is the Liverpool defender, for example, who organises special commemorative signed shirts for team-mates who reach a particular milestone for caps. After the Finland game Conway got one with “1” on the back; Grant Hanley’s read “50” and Gordon’s “75” to mark what is expected to be his last. Robertson had a landmark of his own — setting a Scottish record by captaining the team for the 49th time. “He didn’t get a special shirt, he’s definitely not finished,” said Clarke. ”That’s 49 games I think as captain and that’s now the record. You look at Andy and think, ‘Come on Andy, there are a few more to come’. He has been great for me. He came in and got the captaincy at a really young age but has really grown into the role. He’s a proper leader.

“These things [the shirts] come from the captain. It’s his idea; it’s his thought going into this saying, ‘This is what we’re about, let’s keep the group right and make sure we are always giving these little momentoes’.

“They get a silver medal [from the SFA] for 25 caps and a gold medal for 50. I don’t know what they get for 75. It always takes about a month before they actually get those medals so it’s nice on the night to actually give something out, and that’s the thinking behind that. He’s a proper captain for me.”

Full steam ahead, then. Bring on the alphorns, tubas and bagpipes. Let Scotland’s Euros begin.

Germany v Scotland

Euro 2024
Allianz Arena
Friday, kick-off 8pm

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