|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Wednesday June 1st Time: 19:45 CET|
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Two and a half years ago, Steve Clarke’s tenure in Scotland was seriously threatened after just five games.
His side looked solid and structured for 55 minutes against an efficient if unspectacular Russian side in Moscow before conceding four goals in 27 minutes and suffering a notable collapse.
Awkward. Folded like a deck of cards. Miles away from what is needed on an international scale. These were just some of the statements made by experts after the 4-0 defeat.
Clarke himself was shaken by the ad, saying “We have to make sure this is the lowest of the low.”
Luckily for the Tartan Army, it was. Clarke transformed, rebuilt and strengthened a national team previously riddled with failure and doubt.
Scotland are two games away from a first World Cup since 1998, which would be a second consecutive major tournament after ending the 23-year hiatus at Euro 2020 last year.
The defeat in Moscow seems like a lifetime ago and while it was a night to remember, it proved to be the moment from which the relatively successful last 30 months were born.
“That hurt me,” Clarke said of the loss High Performance Podcast earlier this year. “I started questioning myself a little bit and I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'”
change of system
After watching the last three games of that failed EURO qualifying campaign in November 2019, Clarke had until March of the following year to put things together ahead of the play-off semi-final against Israel, secured under his predecessor Alex McLeish in to bring order to the Nations League.
As it turns out, Covid-19 shut down the country and delayed the game by eight months, but as soon as the previous campaign ended Clarke worked on solutions.
Top priority was to shore up a leaky defense. The former Chelsea full-back had already used four different back four combinations in his five games, conceding 14 goals.
Clarke told the High Performance Podcast, “I called my coaches and said, ‘We can’t go back four.’ I had never trained a back three in my life so it was a change for me.
“We had two of the best left-backs in world football [Kieran] Tierney and [Andy] Robertson. We have to get them both in the same team, it’s not easy.
“My idea was to play Tierney as one of them [centre-backs] and I had this crazy idea that Scott McTominay could play someone else.”
The 3-4-2-1 formation has been the basis of Scotland’s resurgence ever since, but Clarke had to convince some players to play in unnatural positions and Tierney held the key to success.
“I had a really good conversation to tell him he was going to be the best left centre-back Scotland has ever had,” said Clarke.
“He thought he was a better left-back than Andy Robertson. There’s no rolling paper between them, they’re both fantastic players.
“I trusted Kieran to play centre-back. But I had to sell it to him. He asked a lot of really good questions. I told him I love him and I wanted him to play that position. That was a big part of moving the team forward.”
Tierney wasn’t the only player Clarke needed to talk to. Unconvinced of his offensive options, he wanted to bring Australian Lyndon Dykes, whose parents are Scottish, on board.
He explained: “I said to Lyndon, ‘I don’t know if you feel Scottish or Australian. Only you can decide. I’m telling you, that’s what we have in the national team, that’s your competition.
“‘But you have to decide whether you want to play for Scotland or Australia. I can’t see inside your head’.
“He called me back and said, ‘I’m Scottish. My wife is Scottish, my daughter is Scottish. I want to play’.”
Since then, Dykes has scored six times in 21 internationals, including four in World Cup qualifiers to ensure Scotland secured a play-off spot against Ukraine. Clarke’s powers of persuasion proved to be a masterstroke.
But not everything was smooth. The switch to a chain of three had teething problems.
The unconvincing 2-1 Nations League win away against the Czech Republic, who were unable to play against any of their best players due to Covid, was the second time Scotland had used the new system and Clarke was concerned enough to look after this Game to consult some experienced players about it.
“I wasn’t convinced that they would go for it,” he said. “And every one of them said to me, ‘Nah, we like it. We feel good, it’s the most comfortable thing we’ve felt on the pitch in a long time.’ And we stuck to it.
“It was their identity and now that’s their team system and form. I think the little success we had grew from there.”
But even then, there was another major psychological barrier to overcome.
Changing a loser mentality
Scotland’s two-decade wait for a major tournament had become a millstone for every player.
Fatalism was something Clarke underestimated and after following defeat by Russia with a 6-0 win over San Marino, he sought to turn things around in the last two games of the failed European qualifying campaign.
“It’s only when you go through that first series of games that you realize there’s a problem,” he said.
“We had to find a way to change that loser mentality where we just show up, get beaten, get knocked out and go to the next tournament and the manager gets fired.”
Narrow victories against Cyprus and Kazakhstan followed, but it was that Test win over the badly weary Czechs the following year that gave Clarke courage.
“[We won] 2:1, lucky, stayed tuned in the end. We came in after that game and everyone was in the dressing room like pffff. I say, ‘Guys, we won the game’.
“And the character that we’ve been showing for the last 10 minutes, making saves, blocking shots, ducking back for their mate. Everyone really wanted us to achieve this result.
“I said, ‘This is how you build a team.’ And captain Andy Robertson was on the same page. That’s how you build a team effort.”
How far the team’s self-confidence has developed was shown in the play-off final against Serbia.
To concede an equalizer in the 90th minute after an impressive performance was a classic kick in the stomach and a well-known history of brave losers developed.
“After that we get together as a group and you worry about her,” Clarke admitted.
“But I’m starting to hear the voices – the Robertsons, the McGinns, Ryan Jack, Callum McGregor, and there was a determination, ‘Guys, we’re not out. We still have a chance to go through, sure to give it our all on the pitch in the next 30 minutes and get there.
“I didn’t have to say much. They did it. We have so many good people in the squad. It was a process – attracting good people and selling the idea that we can be successful.”
The rest is history as Scotland triumphed on penalties to reach the Euros and while the tournament itself was underwhelming, the momentum continued into the World Cup qualifying campaign.
An away win in Austria, a last-minute triumph against Israel and a brilliant 2-0 win over runaway group winners Denmark were all part of an eight-game unbeaten run.
The task of going to Qatar is still considerable with Ukraine and then Wales standing in the way, but Scotland are a team that has changed. And when they reach the World Cup, few will remember that horrible night in Moscow.
The night everything changed.