Soccer

Clarke won't be getting nationalistic about facing England at Euros

‘I wish England well… just not when we play them!’: Scotland boss Steve Clarke on why he won’t be getting nationalistic about facing the Three Lions at the Euros, moving Sir Alex Ferguson to tears and how his wife got him back into football

  • Steve Clarke’s Scotland will play their first major tournament since 1998 
  • His wife had enough of him sitting on the sofa and pushed him back into work
  • He finished fifth and third with Kilmarnock before the Scottish FA came calling
  • They will now be in a Euros group with England, Croatia and Czech Republic 
  • But with family born in England, Clarke won’t be getting nationalistic

Steve Clarke is the coach making grown folk cry in Scotland. The national team will play in their first major tournament since 1998 this summer and that has been enough to move even someone like Sir Alex Ferguson to tears.

So yes, Scotland has much to thank Clarke for, even if some of the gratitude should be reserved for his wife Karen.

It was Karen who in 2017 decided she had seen enough of her husband sitting on the sofa shouting at the TV. In his own mind, Clarke was retired. The mortgage was paid. Life was comfortable.

Scotland boss Steve Clarke is the coach making grown folk cry in his home country

The national team will play in their first major tournament since 1998 this summer at the Euros after beating Serbia on penalties in November

After 35 years in the game as player, coach and manager, Clarke was happy with his grandkids, his golf and his fishing.

‘I was quite enjoying myself. I was chilling out,’ Clarke tells Sportsmail. ‘But I think my wife recognised I was probably getting bored and frustrated. Probably when I was watching matches and swearing at the television. She felt I was too young to retire. She persuaded me to get back to work.’

Initially Clarke had somewhere like the American MLS in mind. Maybe Karen did, too. Florida or LA maybe. But the most interesting call came from Clarke’s big brother Paul.

‘I spoke to a few teams in the MLS but Paul played many years for Kilmarnock and he called me and asked me on behalf of a contact if I would be interested in an interview there,’ he explains. ‘I spoke to them. They were honest and people told me the players were decent but underachieving.

Clarke returned to management with Kilmarnock, who he led to fifth and third in his two years

‘So I took it, knowing that if it went wrong I would soon be back on the couch. That probably would have been my last stab at management.’

It did not go wrong. Clarke, 57 now, took Kilmarnock from the bottom of the Scottish Premier League in October that year to fifth with a record points tally for the club. The following season they finished third.

And then the Scottish FA called. ‘Small decisions can shape the way your life goes, can’t they?’ says Clarke. ‘It’s amazing. Mind you, Karen is from Kilmarnock and when I originally told her she said she didn’t want to go back. She actually stayed in England…’

Clarke has history on his mind but will not be shouting about it. Scotland are in England’s group for this summer’s European Championship and will play them at Wembley on June 18.

‘It’s a big game,’ smiles Clarke, who lives in Berkshire. ‘It’s historic.’

The Scottish FA then came calling, and he has now led Scotland to this summer’s Euros

But he is keen that his players see the bigger picture. Clarke wants them to become the first team from Scotland to qualify for the knockout phase of a summer finals. Obsessing about Gareth Southgate’s England will not help with that.

‘I have spent more of my life living in England than I have in Scotland,’ he says. ‘My two boys are English. My grandkids are English. So in terms of all that nationalistic stuff, you won’t be hearing much of that from me.

‘I have a very good relationship with Gareth. He is a good guy and I wish him well, just not when we play them. Same as always.

‘Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up well when he said we should not focus too much on the England game and make sure all three games are treated equally. He is right. We spoke as a group before the play-off games about being the first Scottish men’s team to qualify in 20 years or so. We managed to do that.

Clarke insists he has a good relationship with Gareth Southgate and will not become obsessed with the fact they are facing England 

‘The next step in the history is the knockout stage. And it’s achievable. It doesn’t matter to me where the points come from.’

The Scotland job has been known to do bad things to good men. Gordon Strachan has still not returned to management and probably will not. Alex McLeish seemed to suffer when in the post. For a while, Clarke looked as though he might not be able to reverse the trend of unrelenting failure, the slide towards irrelevance. He won only one of his first five games. Clarke described a 4-0 defeat in Russia in October 2019 as ‘dreadful’.

But a change of formation to a back three and some time on the training field gradually brought about change. By the time David Marshall saved Aleksandar Mitrovic’s penalty in a shoot-out in Serbia’s Red Star Stadium to ensure qualification last November, Scotland were unbeaten in nine matches — their best run since 1976.

‘A lot of people told me not to take the job,’ Clarke says. ‘It’s hard to turn the job down but I could have. I am a bit perverse in my mind in that if people are saying ‘don’t take it, don’t take it’, then I will think, ‘Why not?’.

Scotland were unbeaten in nine matches after winning in Serbia, their best run since 1976

‘If you look through the history of Scotland, some great people have managed this country but at the same time not a lot of people have. So it was a chance to take a job I thought I would never get the opportunity to do. I looked at the squad and saw some talent and players I might be able to have an effect on. It took a while but I did and we turned a corner.’

Clarke was a first-rate full back for Chelsea for more than a decade but his own Scotland career lasted only six matches. His debut came against Hungary at Hampden in 1987 in a very good team including Strachan, Ally McCoist, Roy Aitken, Richard Gough, Willie Miller, Steve Nicol and Mo Johnston.

‘It must have been a big deal because I think my mum came,’ smiles Clarke.

He said not long ago he worried that caps no longer meant as much to top players, that fat club contracts were what motivated them now. Can the team’s recent success change that?

‘When I was growing up football was a good way to make a living but then you had to do something else, another job,’ he explains. ‘Now if you get good contracts you are made for life. Young men are coming out as millionaires. But hopefully there is always room for the other side where playing well for your country should be high on your list.

Now he wants them to become the first Scotland side to qualify for the knockout phase

‘When I came into this job I didn’t know what I was coming into. I knew the team was struggling. But I found the players had a desire to be successful. I found that quite refreshing.’

Among those advising Clarke not to take the Scotland job had been his own father, Eddie.

Previously, Clarke had managed at West Brom and Reading, and some of his best work had been done as an assistant at Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Former Chelsea team-mate Pat Nevin once joked that Clarke had undergone surgery to ‘remove his ego’. Eddie simply worried what the big job might do to his boy.

‘We have put in a lot of hard yards together,’ reflects Clarke. ‘My dad didn’t want me to take the Scotland job because of the pressure and the way it can affect your life. But he knows I am pig-headed and determined. So it’s great for him that we qualified.

‘He is coming up to 90 this year and his mind is starting to wander a little bit. But I know he is proud and he’s in a good place. He is physically healthy and I am sure he will be watching the television and criticising all my decisions when I get to the Euros.’

Some of Clarke’s influences are there on his c.v., men such as Jose Mourinho (L) at Chelsea

Some of Clarke’s influences are there on his c.v., men such as Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. But others are not. His childhood in football was shaped by men such as his first head teacher, JJ McCann, and Alex Tulloch, who coached him at the Saltcoats Star boys club in North Ayrshire.

‘They are the people who formed me,’ Clarke says. ‘The decisions we talked about earlier are shaped and influenced by the people who surround you. JJ McCann was a big influence on everyone at St Mary’s Primary. He was a fearsome man but with great values. If you are a good teacher you instil those values in your pupils.

‘Alex Tulloch is still coaching now which is great at his age. Not that it was so much coaching in those days. It was more turning up, getting the boys, giving them a strip, getting them on the pitch. Then you went out and played.

‘But without people like these you don’t have the platform to go and play, you just don’t have the journey in life that you have. Mine has been a good one thanks to all those people.’

Clarke’s journey is not over. Next stop is European Championship game one, against the Czech Republic on June 14 at Hampden. A nation will be watching and doubtless more tears will be shed.

Scotland’s qualification was enough to move someone like Sir Alex Ferguson (above) to tears

Ferguson’s came while watching Celtic’s Ryan Christie cry during a post-match interview that night in Belgrade last November.

‘It was good to see it could move someone even of Alex’s experience,’ says Clarke. ‘But anyone who saw that and didn’t have a tear in their eye would have to be a really hard person.

‘That shows how football can get you. It was the emotion of probably every Scottish person and what it meant to the country to qualify.

‘Yeah, I am proud of that but in my mind we are not finished yet.’




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