Steve Clarke seemed slightly irked at entering Hampden Park’s auditorium to strains of laughter. Scotland’s World Cup push had, after all, just been comprehensively halted by the outstanding players of Ukraine. What had been pointed out among journalists was that the sides must meet again on Nations League business. “I forgot about that,” said one. “That’s another couple of humpings to look forward to.” Dark humour used to be essential when following Scotland.
It is to Clarke’s credit that the mood music has changed so significantly, and that the reaction to Scotland’s showing against the Ukrainians has consequently been so scathing. With higher standards comes higher expectations. There is nothing wrong with that. There is, however, always a danger in Scotland that exaggeration of language – in positive and negative contexts – distorts the truth.
Clarke does not subscribe to the theory that Ukraine rode a wave of emotion when winning in Glasgow. Scotland’s manager explained the loss in strictly football terms. He was entitled to; there were fundamental reasons not at all linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine why his team failed to shine on their big night.
While Ukraine’s players were in the midst of a training camp, Grant Hanley was part of a Norwich defence that conceded 84 Premier League goals. Billy Gilmour’s loan spell at the same club was disastrous. Negativity around Manchester United was so unrelenting that Scott McTominay had to be affected. John McGinn’s form at Aston Villa has split opinion. Lyndon Dykes last scored for Queens Park Rangers on 29 January. Scott McKenna was man of the match as Nottingham Forest earned promotion via the playoff final, but his delayed arrival in Scotland on account of those exploits meant the centre-back could not be considered for a start.
You needn’t be a puritan to find images of Andy Robertson with beer in hand on an open-top bus, days before arguably his country’s biggest fixture in a generation, was not a great look. More pertinent, though, is the fact the Ukraine fixture marked Robertson’s 120th appearance in two seasons. There must be a physical and psychological toll.
Clarke erred by partnering Dykes with Ché Adams in attack from the outset. There is a reason so few leading international sides play with a front two. Scotland’s defence bypassed Gilmour and Callum McGregor far too often when firing aimless balls at Dykes, which were duly returned with interest. Clarke’s approach was curious given the panache and fluidity with which Denmark were swatted aside at Hampden in November.
In that game, Ryan Christie supported Adams. Not only does Christie have craft and guile, he can assist in midfield when Scotland are out of possession. Against Ukraine, Gilmour and McGregor were swamped. The wing-backs, Robertson and Aaron Hickey, had no adequate protection. Hickey became a soft target for criticism when so many more experienced players around him toiled.
The absence of Kieran Tierney was hugely significant. He dictates so much of how Scotland play by driving with the ball from central defence. The Arsenal man is a left centre-half who has key involvement in Scottish attacks. Nobody else in Clarke’s squad can replicate Tierney’s style. With all of this noted, it is far from a disaster that Scotland were eliminated by a side full of technically and physically impressive footballers. This episode would not feature in a top 100 of clanger moments for those in navy blue.
In 2019, Scotland were being humbled in Kazakhstan. Three years ago this week, a trip to face Peru and Mexico in friendlies involved a cast list resembling international football’s equivalent of the Dog & Duck’s Sunday morning team. At that point, there was a clear disconnect between squad and public.
Clarke has changed that. Only those who have never taken to the manager would ignore tangible progress when assessing where it all went wrong on Wednesday. Scotland should be better than receiving pats on the head for competing well but the reality is they were an international irrelevance for years. Now they are not, but the talent available to Clarke is nowhere near as strong as many would insist, especially in areas which can make a fundamental difference at this level.
When Craig Gordon, now 39, eventually retires Scotland will find themselves in an almighty goalkeeping pickle. Gordon was one player who could leave the Hampden pitch with head held high, though he will be stung by the absence of a World Cup from his CV. Too many others fell short of the level required to impose themselves on Ukraine. That is no laughing matter; nor is it a disgrace.