Steve Clarke hoping Liverpool best man Andy Robertson can use Champions League win to propel Scotland to Qatar
HAVING limited time, on a few occasions no time at all, with his players on the training ground before important games has been a persistent problem for Steve Clarke during his reign as Scotland manager.
But not being able to work with his captain Andy Robertson until the day before the Qatar 2022 play-off semi-final against Ukraine at Hampden next Wednesday – one of the biggest matches of his three year tenure - will not cause him any sleepless nights.
Robertson is currently preparing to play for Liverpool in the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Paris on Saturday night and will only join up with the national squad early next week as a result.
It will be asking a lot of the left back, who has already been involved in no fewer than 54 matches to date in the 2021/22 season, to perform at his very best so soon after the meeting with Real in the Stade De France and with so little preparation.
Yet, Clarke can recall how his skipper netted a stunning long-range strike in a Euro 2020 qualifying win over Cyprus in his first game in charge back in 2019 just seven days after helping the Anfield club to lift European club football’s greatest prize.
He is hoping the defender will arrive with another winner’s medal hanging proudly around his neck and can inspire his country to victory.
“Logistically, it’s different,” he said at Oriam outside Edinburgh after naming a 28 man squad for the matches Scotland will play next month. “Andy probably won’t report, and certainly won’t be able to train, until the Monday, maybe even the Tuesday.
“But the lads who play at the top clubs understand what is required mentally and physically to go from big game to big game to big game.
“Andy has been involved in every game with the Liverpool lads to the death - every tournament, cup final, big league games.
“They understand the level required and how to get up mentally and physically for their next game. Hopefully he comes in with a smile on his face and they have another Champions League in the bag. That would certainly aid his recovery for our game.”
Robertson’s fellow full-back Kieran Tierney was a noticeable omission from the Scotland squad that Clarke announced yesterday; the Arsenal man had a knee operation last month and could not be considered.
Tierney was arguably the national team’s most consistent performer during their Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign and is a huge loss. However, Clarke is confident he has the personnel he needs to reach the World Cup finals.
“It’s probably a disappointment for everybody, the fans, the media,” he said. “But we’ve known for a few weeks that Kieran wasn’t going to make it. And he himself has known the same.
“He has got his head around it now and is working on his rehab to be ready for his pre-season with Arsenal. It’s disappointing, disappointing for Kieran and for us, but it’s a chance for someone else.
“We have a good squad and we’re in a good moment. Since the Euros last summer, the team’s improved. We’re on an eight-game unbeaten run and we want to go as long as possible unbeaten.
“The squad’s in a good place. That’s why it’s easy to keep the continuity of the group and not to pick other players. They’re not doing anything wrong so let’s hope they keep doing things right.”
Nathan Patterson, the Everton right back who has not played since having surgery on his ankle last month, was not expected to be involved with Scotland during this international window. However, his manager conceded that he may not be ready to play in the play-off semi-final.
“Nathan is slightly different to Kieran,” he said. “He’s on schedule. If you’re looking at it sensibly he will probably return to train with a group for the first time when he comes to join us.
“The Ukraine game is probably just going to come too soon for him, but you never know. He’s a young man, he might hit the ground running. We won’t rule him out completely.”
Billy Gilmour, another who has excelled in dark blue in the past nine months, has endured a difficult season at club level. The Chelsea midfielder has been on loan at Norwich City, who were relegated to the Championship on Sunday, and has been heavily criticised by some Carrow Road fans. However, Clarke feels the youngster will have matured because of the experience.
“He hasn’t had any stick from me, nor from the Tartan Army,” he said. “He has done well for us. He enjoys coming away to the camp, he enjoys the way we play and the way we utilise him in the team.
“The club business is all part of the learning process for Billy. He has to learn football is not always sunshine and roses. You have difficult moments. If he’s had a tough season, he will be all the better for it next season.”
Clarke, whose team will play Wales in the play-off final in Cardiff on Sunday week if they beat Ukraine and then Armenia twice and the Republic of Ireland in the Nations League, revealed his preparations have been complicated by non-football matters.
“I think the group is big enough,” he said. “I’ve tried to cover all eventualities. There are other factors in it.
“Because you have to book your wedding so far in advance, more than one or two of the lads didn’t know there were going to be play-off games in June and didn’t know the window was going to stretch.
“So there are one or two who have little issues with leaving the camp for a day to go to a wedding and then come back in. There is that sort of thing that you don’t really think about too much. But the size of the squad is fine to cover it all.
“I’m not going to name and shame the ones who are going to weddings! Some have got to go to a wedding because they are the best man and some have to go to their own wedding.
“Andy’s is just after the camp, which is sensible planning by the captain.”