This isn’t Cyprus, where John Carver spent an interesting spell amid rocket-wielding supporters as manager of Omonia Nicosia a few years ago, and where Scotland are due on Friday in a vital Euro 2024 qualifier. No, this was closer to home. Carver was reflecting on Sunday’s emotion-packed Old Firm derby, when fans turned on Rangers manager Michael Beale and their own players at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Celtic. Even someone who grew up on Newcastle's Cruddas Park estate, and who knows how to look after himself, seemed to find it a little eye-opening.
Unusually, Carver stayed until the end. Often scouts and coaches of other teams sent on watching brief missions hurry away long before the final whistle to beat the traffic. But because Carver was staying in Glasgow anyway ahead of this week’s international window, he opted to stay on. It was that kind of game. Difficult to tear one’s attention from. That said, Carver might have been regretting the decision to linger on as the chaotic scenes developed at the end. Some Rangers fans were spotted fighting amongst themselves. Things were almost as crazy where he was in the main stand. Anger and dismay were the dominant emotions all around the ground, where the absence of away fans seemed to turn everything even more toxic.
“I couldn’t wait to get out because they were coming over the top of the directors’ box!” said Carver on Tuesday. “Normally I leave before the end of games to get back down the road but because I was staying up here, I stayed. Walking out there were disgruntled fans trying to come through the front doors as well. It was a difficult situation. But it was interesting seeing the atmosphere. The banners coming up at the start … I’m coming from St James’, where the atmosphere at Newcastle is fantastic. But that was incredible what they did with the banners. It’s a great occasion. Obviously one team had to win, and it was Celtic.”
Although only four Scots featured in the game, the outcome impacts on the Scotland national side, with the squad having gathered in Glasgow this week for the forthcoming games against Cyprus and England. It meant Callum McGregor, who was back to his best against Rangers, had a skip in his step on Monday when the players met up ahead of their first training session on Tuesday. Ryan Jack and John Souttar, meanwhile, will have been treated with a little more tenderness after the dispiriting weekend experience. It’s not often players arrive at a Scotland camp having been waved away and abused by their own supporters while circling the pitch at the end of a home game.
“I was there, and it is tough,” said Carver. “You have to put that disappointment behind you. I look at Jacko, and he is such a good professional. Yes, he’ll be hurting and is disappointed, but he realises he has another job to do and when he walks through the door of the national team, he has to re-focus and be right on it. He has to be that way to get in the team and take us to the Euros.”
In some respects, there’s no better place for Jack and Souttar to be. They are part of a squad charged with the immediate task of further strengthening Scotland’s Euro 2024 prospects. Rangers' struggles are not the struggles of a group of players who are now eight competitive matches unbeaten under the Scotland banner they temporarily hold aloft over the coming days. “Sometimes it’s like a breath of fresh air for them,” said Carver. A trusted ally of Steve Clarke, he has an especially helpful role to play ahead of Friday’s fixture in Larnaca, one of several footballing hotspots in Cyprus.
Carver’s time in the country was certainly eventful. Even when it ended, following a Cyprus Cup quarter-final defeat against Apollon, which had to be abandoned due to Omonia fans firing rockets onto the pitch, he decided to remain living on the island for a spell – who wouldn’t? “There wasn’t any issues for me,” he said. “I stayed on the island for another two or three months and went all over. I go back all the time. I have got so many friends there.” He was offered another job there after Scotland qualified for Euro 2020. “I had to turn it down because I wanted to get involved in the Euros,” he recalled. “It is a place I would definitely go back to and work.”
He was on holiday in Las Vegas when he became aware of Omonia’s interest. Carver received a call from Nikos Dabizas, who he knew from Newcastle United days and who was then director of football at Omonia. “He said, ‘Do you fancy coming out?’" recalled Carver. "I knew nothing about the league. I jumped on an aeroplane, met them for pre-season, signed a contract and started working out there. Believe it or not, the standard of football is very, very good. They have had a lot of investment from foreign owners. So they have improved the standard.
“We had a couple of issues when I was there, which is one of the reasons why I came away from it. We were playing a cup game and our fans were protesting against the owners. They were firing rockets onto the pitch. The referee stopped and then abandoned the game. It was a cup tie, a quarter-final. We lost it 3-0 because it got abandoned. The fans were waiting for the players when we got back to Nicosia. So it was pretty lively – but right up my street!”