Large mercies first. Steve Clarke’s Scotland players and their followers have the finals of a major tournament to plan for next summer, a state of affairs not known to a generation of the Tartan Army unless they were among the retinue of Shelley Kerr’s team at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
The unaccustomed glow of Euro 2020 qualification success against Serbia last week was bound to highlight the subsequent disappointment of 1-0 defeats in Slovakia and Israel. From a utilitarian point of view, however, the Scots’ failure to consolidate a strong position at the top of their Nations League group and secure promotion to League A provided Clarke with timely and valuable reminders of what has to be accomplished before they begin their Euro finals campaign against the Czech Republic at Hampden Park next June.
Clarke supervised home and away victories over the Czechs in the Nations League qualifiers, which make its all the more galling that Jaroslav Šilhavý and his team ended as winners of Group B2. Nevertheless, the paradox had been flagged beforehand in these pages when it was pointed out that the Scots had scored only three goals in seven hours of open play in the two home Nations League qualifiers against the Slovaks and Czechs, plus the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Israel and the final against Serbia.
Against both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Scotland scored with their only chance of the game and they had none at all on the mark in the play-off semi-final against Israel. Oddly, the frequency of attempts on target rose notably in the three fixtures just played on the road, with four apiece against Serbia and Israel and five against Slovakia, but the yield dropped to only a single goal by Ryan Christie in the 1-1 draw in Belgrade.
On the eve of the tie in Slovakia this correspondent suggested to Clarke that a greater rate of conversion would be necessary to extend the momentum of the Euro 2020 qualification success. “If we keep winning, if we keep getting through, if we keep being successful, I’m not sure why we should spend so much time worrying about the number of goals scored,” Clarke replied.
Well, to cite the old Calvinist adage, he kens noo. To be fair, Clarke’s response was meant to deflect any perceived negativity in the wake of the Belgrade celebrations and, when the subject was raised again as the manager reflected on the setback in Israel, he acknowledged its status as a work in hand. “The picture can change a lot in five months. It’s all about gaining experience, maybe relaxing a little bit more in the final third,” he said.
“We had much better chances than Israel and it was similar in Slovakia. We are creating opportunities. We had 30-odd shots on goal in two games. We are getting there.
“The players will realise it’s so important to get the goal that puts you in front. It’s always difficult to chase the game at this level and you maybe snatch at chances but I’m looking at the positivity. The effort and endeavour we saw from the players over the three games was there and we just needed a bit of quality and execution in the final third.”
With a hectic burst of games behind him, Clarke confessed that he and his staff and players had not fully grasped the impact in Scotland of the accomplishment in qualifying for a first tournament finals since 1998. “I don’t think we really appreciated the feeling back home,” he said.
“Being such a long way away the whole time, we’d only get little snippets of it but we know we achieved something big last Thursday. “It’s been a very intense 10 days. I’ll go home and probably sleep for three days.
“I’ll take the time to relax, reintroduce myself to my wife, children and grandchildren.
When I came in, I spoke about the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup in 1990 as a player. Does this make up for it?
“It’s a different kind of feeling as a manager. Maybe ask me again after the World Cup draw in December and I might have an answer by then."