Steve Clarke embraces Che Adams at the final whistle
During Steve Clarke’s first full season as a manager, at West Bromwich Albion in 2012, their Hungarian midfielder, Zoltan Gera, was asked what had impressed him most about the man in charge at the Hawthorns. Gera, who had played under Gary Megson, Bryan Robson, Tony Mowbray and Roy Hodgson, said of Clarke: “The one thing he never does is panic. Some managers do – but he always trusts in the players.
“He says the right things in the dressing room before kick-off, at half-time and after matches.”
The theme of trust was taken up by John McGinn when the Aston Villa and Scotland midfielder offered a vivid description of the seemingly lugubrious Clarke earlier this week. “You don’t know how to take him because he always looks angry,” McGinn said. “You’re thinking, ‘Is he gonna be mental?’ But he’s not, he’s just calm. That’s just his resting face, looking angry all the time. He lets us enjoy it, have a laugh, and most importantly he’s a good coach, so we’re well drilled.
“And he trusts us.”
Clarke’s deadpan demeanour by the side of the pitch is a manifestation of his instruction to the players before they take the field – ‘Play with fire in your belly and ice in your brain’.
With Clarke, trust works both ways. When the balloon of hype about Scotland’s 23-year absence from a men’s senior tournament was deflated by the Czech Republic’s 2-0 victory in the opener at Hampden Park last Monday – with the added indignity of Patrik Shick’s lob from the halfway line over the stranded David Marshall – the manager refused to leave his goalkeeper stranded as the striker had done.
Instead, Clarke pointed out that, but for Marshall’s performance in the Euro play-off penalty decider against Serbia in Belgrade last November, the Scots would not be in these finals. He also highlighted the Derby County man’s big saves against the Czechs.
Scotland keeper David Marshall (right) ensure there's no way through
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Even so, there were calls from commentators, pundits and social media contributors for Marshall to be dumped for the collision with England. Stephen O’Donnell, too, was the target of critics for his somewhat nervy display in the opening game.
Clarke’s emphatic act of faith was to keep both players in place at Wembley. O’Donnell was largely comfortable in the face of menace from Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling on the English left and, when able to get upfield, delivered an eye-catching volley to force Jordan Pickford into a crucial block. Marshall, too, produced a decisive save from a fierce Mount shot which skipped off the slick surface and was netbound.
Marshall’s contribution preserved a memorable draw in which, by common consent, Scotland were the better team. “I trust my players implicitly and they paid me back tonight,” Clarke said. “I should have started this interview with two words – Stephen O’Donnell. He was outstanding.
“David Marshall – clean sheet. Come on, you’ve got to give those lads some respect. I keep saying that they were unfairly criticised after the game on Monday. I’ve got a great group of players. I’m happy for them and for my backroom staff.
“We worked ever so hard without the ball but the most pleasing aspect for me was that, when we had the ball, we played and had one or two good chances. On another night we might have nicked it, but England had chances, too, so a draw was a fair result.”
Gareth Southgate may also stick with his tried and tested players, but he cannot resist the urge to tinker – Friday night was the 32nd consecutive match in which the England manager has changed his starting line-up. And yet, with Jack Grealish only seeing 27 minutes of action so far and both Jadon Sancho and Dominic Calvert-Lewin yet to feature, there remains questions over whether he has complete faith in his squad quite like his Scottish counterpart does.
Jadon Sancho (centre) was an unused substitute against Scotland
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Clarke’s acts of faith also included a first start for the Chelsea wunderkind, Billy Gilmour, who was voted man of the match a week after his 20th birthday. Afterwards, the manager, while acknowledging Gilmour’s fine play, again used the opportunity to bolster O’Donnell.
“I thought Stephen was exceptional – and Billy was just behind him,” he said. “It was nice for Billy to get that start – big platform, big stage, big player. We’ve said for a long time he was part of the future of Scottish football.
“We know what we’ve got in the camp and we will try to manage him properly and keep a lid on things. Performances like that will do him no harm whatsoever.”
Scotland need a victory over Croatia at Hampden on Tuesday to give them a decent chance of progress from Group D. England, meanwhile, are almost certainly through, but it would hearten their supporters if Gareth Southgate can oversee a win to see them top the section decisively.
With the outcome almost assured, it would be an ideal occasion to give game time to Sancho and Calvert-Lewin – even if only to remind them that they are, in fact, trusted to deliver the goods.