Steve Clarke removes shackles in 'top-loaded' Scotland squad - how Cyprus win could seal Euro 2024 qualification

Scotland manager Steve Clarke on the touchline during the 2-0 win over Georgia at Hampden Park in June. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Scotland manager Steve Clarke on the touchline during the 2-0 win over Georgia at Hampden Park in June. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

The Scotland manager has often been portrayed as safe and perhaps cautious to a fault. While it would be overstating it to say he is changing the habit of a lifetime - and why should he, since his methods are clearly working - there was a distinct impression he was cutting loose a little bit on the eve of his big day.

Other significant dates await, with the most pressing of all being next Friday’s Euro 2024 Group A qualifier against Cyprus in Larnaca. Unusually, it overshadows a clash against England four days later.

The latter game is not a qualifier but how in-form Scotland will wish it was. They will hope to have all but booked their ticket to Germany next summer by the time they kick-off against Gareth Southgate’s side in a game to mark the 150th anniversary of the Scottish Football Association.

Indeed, if Norway v Georgia ends in a draw on the same evening, providing both Scotland and Spain already collected three points in Cyprus and Georgia respectively, there will be a party in the southside of Glasgow – all over the country in fact – whatever the outcome against England.

The Scots can only concentrate on what they can do, which is beat Temuri Ketsbaia’s Cyprus in Larnaca in the first instance. They need goals, hence the announcement of what Clarke described as a “top-loaded” squad.

There are five strikers, including the returning Che Adams. In addition to this, attacking midfielder Elliot Anderson was named in the senior squad for the first time having decided against switching allegiance to England. According to Clarke, the 20-year-old Newcastle United player felt "valued" by Scotland.

Also providing a goal threat from midfield is Lewis Ferguson, who scored for Bologna against Juventus on Sunday night, and John McGinn. Stuart Armstrong is someone else with the ability to hurt teams in the last third.

Let us also not forget about Scott McTominay, who according to reports is currently on Bayern Munich’s radar. He has turned into the equivalent of Ally McCoist in recent times and has five goals to his name in his last four international outings, including a match-winning brace against Spain.

A bold(er) Clarke has chosen to bolster the attacking areas, which is one reason why Celtic left back Greg Taylor does not feature. The manager named 11 defenders in his last squad for the games against Norway and Georgia. He considers only eight are required this time around. Dominic Hyam, Ross McCrorie and the injured Liam Cooper are also absent.

On the subject of Taylor, Clarke was adamant that current form was not a factor in his decision. "If you notice, I’ve probably gone a little bit top heavy with more forwards than I normally do because I want to go to Cyprus and win the game," he said.

“So I’ve gone top heavy. But I always have good cover in the left back area. Obviously I’ve got Kieran (Tierney), Andy (Robertson) while Aaron Hickey can go there if required.

"I spoke to Greg, he’s fine," he added. "He’s not too far away from selection. If I pick up an injury in one of those defensive positions then he can be in the squad before we meet up.”

Clarke’s squad announcements usually take place on a Tuesday but in recognition of the manager turning 60, the press conference was brought forward 24 hours to allow him to have some time at home. Some cake was even served.

Understated might be his middle name, so it’s no surprise to hear that Clarke isn’t planning an extravagant party to mark reaching such a milestone. “It will just be me and the wife having a quiet meal, nothing special," he said. His wife, Karen, turns 60 next month.

Clarke is simply happy to still be working in what is an unstable occupation. Managers come and go. One was sacked yesterday by Charlton Athletic. Lee Johnson, the Hibs manager, has not even lasted long enough to lead his side into the second leg of a glamour European tie against Aston Villa.

Appointed in May 2019, Clarke has signed a new contract taking him to the World Cup finals in 2026, when he will be 62. But we are getting too far ahead of ourselves.

"Can you not just let me enjoy my last day in my 50s?" smiled Clarke yesterday. "I really don’t want to be 60!

"I always plan to leave reflections for when I retire," he added. "Or, if you are Roy (Hodgson), if you retire. Some managers just keep going. Turning 60 is obviously a milestone, but it’s one I would rather not be reaching if I’m being honest.”

In modern times, only Jock Stein, Craig Brown and Gordon Strachan have turned 60 while Scotland manager. It is certainly noteworthy, whatever Clarke’s distaste for making a fuss.

There must be times when he contemplates this most recent chapter of his life, whatever he claims otherwise. He surely permits himself some pride at being at the helm of the national side amid such optimism, much of it created by his own prudent management. Maybe later today he might allow himself this indulgence, perhaps while clutching a dram.

Two wins next month would make it six-in-a-row and would mean having taken the Auld Enemy’s scalp. Not bad for someone who suffered four defeats in his opening five games, two of them by 4-0 margins, and who perhaps feared being out on his ear long before turning 60.

“Listen, I have no complaints about where I am at the moment,” he said. “But I also understand football very well and it can change very quickly. I will just stay focused and try to pick up the points and try to make the country as successful as I can.”