Steve Clarke is the coach who makes grown-ups cry in Scotland. The national team will play in their first major tournament since 1998 this summer and that was enough to move even someone like Sir Alex Ferguson to tears.
So yes, Scotland owes Clarke a lot, even though some of the gratitude should be reserved for his wife Karen.
It was Karen who decided in 2017 that she had seen enough of her husband sitting on the sofa yelling at the TV. In his opinion, Clarke was retired. The mortgage has been paid. Life was comfortable.
Scotland boss Steve Clarke is the coach who makes grown-ups cry in his home country
The national team will play in their first major tournament since 1998 at the European Championship this summer, after beating Serbia with penalties in November
After 35 years in the game as a player, coach and manager, Clarke was delighted with his grandchildren, his golf and his fishing.
‘I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was chilling, ”Clarke tells Sportsmail. “But I think my wife saw that I was probably getting bored and frustrated. Probably when I watched games and swore on TV. She thought I was too young to retire. She persuaded me to go back to work. ‘
Initially, Clarke had something like the American MLS in mind. Maybe Karen did too. Florida or LA maybe. But the most interesting call came from Clarke’s big brother Paul.
“I spoke to a few teams in the MLS, but Paul played for Kilmarnock for many years and he called me and asked me on behalf of a contact if I would be interested in an interview there,” he explains. ‘I’ve talked to them. They were fair and people told me the players were decent, but below average.
Clarke returned to management with Kilmarnock, who he led to fifth and third place in his two years
So I took it, knowing that if things went wrong, I would soon be back on the couch. That had probably been my last attempt at management. ‘
It didn’t go wrong. Clarke, now 57, took Kilmarnock from the bottom of the Scottish Premier League to fifth place in October of that year with a record number of points for the club. The following season they finished third.
And then the Scottish FA called. “Small decisions can determine the way your life goes, can’t they?” Clarke says. ‘It is awesome. Mind you, Karen is from Kilmarnock and when I originally told her she said she didn’t want to go back. She actually stayed in England … ‘
Clarke has history on his mind, but won’t shout about it. Scotland are in England’s group for this summer’s European Championship, playing against them at Wembley on June 18.
“It’s a big game,” laughs Clarke, who lives in Berkshire. “It’s historic.”
The Scottish FA then called and he has now led Scotland to the euro this summer
But he wants his players to see the bigger picture. Clarke wants them to be the first team from Scotland to qualify for the knockout stages of a summer final. Being obsessed with Gareth Southgate’s England doesn’t help.
“I’ve lived in England for a bigger part of my life than in Scotland,” he says. ‘My two boys are English. My grandchildren are English. So in terms of all that nationalist stuff, you’re not going to hear much of that.
‘I have a very good relationship with Gareth. He’s a good guy and I wish him the best, just not when we play them. Same as always.
Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up well when he said we shouldn’t focus too much on the game in England and make sure all three games are treated equally. He is right. We spoke as a group before the play-off games about being the first Scottish men’s team to qualify in about twenty years. That worked.
Clarke insists he has a good relationship with Gareth Southgate and won’t be obsessed with them facing England
The next step in history is the knockout phase. And it is achievable. I don’t care where the points come from. ‘
The job in Scotland is known to do bad things to good men. Gordon Strachan still hasn’t returned to management and probably won’t. Alex McLeish appeared to be suffering at the post. For a while, Clarke looked like he might not be able to reverse the trend from relentless failure, the drift to irrelevance. He only won one of his first five games. Clarke described a 4-0 defeat in Russia in October 2019 as ‘terrible’.
But a change of formation to a back three and some time on the training pitch gradually brought about change. By the time David Marshall saved Aleksandar Mitrovic’s penalty on a shoot-out at Serbia’s Red Star stadium to qualify last November, Scotland was unbeaten in nine games – their best run since 1976.
“A lot of people told me not to take the job,” Clarke says. “It’s hard to turn down the job, but I could have it. I’m a bit perverse that when people say ‘don’t take it, don’t take it’, I’m going to think ‘why not?’.
Scotland was unbeaten in nine games after winning Serbia, their best run since 1976
‘If you look through Scotland’s history, some great people managed this country, but not many at the same time. So it was an opportunity to take a job that I thought I would never get. I looked at the squad and saw a number of talents and players that I could possibly influence. It took a while, but I did and we turned the corner. ‘
Clarke was a first-class full-back for Chelsea for over a decade, but his own career in Scotland only lasted six games. His debut came against Hungary in Hampden in 1987 in a very good team with Strachan, Ally McCoist, Roy Aitken, Richard Gough, Willie Miller, Steve Nicol and Mo Johnston.
“It must have been a big deal because I think my mom has come,” Clarke smiles.
He said not long ago that he was concerned that caps no longer meant so much to top players that thick club contracts now motivated them. Could the team’s recent success change that?
“When I was growing up, football was a good way to make a living, but after that you had to do something else, another job,” he explains. ‘If you get good contracts now, you are made for life. Young men come out as millionaires. But hopefully there is always room for the other side where playing well for your country should be high on your list.
Now he wants them to become the first Scottish team to qualify for the knockout stage
‘When I got into this job, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew the team was struggling. But I found that the players had the desire to be successful. I found that quite refreshing. ‘
Among those who advised Clarke not to take the job in Scotland was his own father, Eddie.
Previously, Clarke had led at West Brom and Reading, and some of his best work had been done as an assistant at Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Former Chelsea teammate Pat Nevin once joked that Clarke had surgery to ‘remove his ego’. Eddie was just worried about what the big job might do to his boy.
“We have put together a lot of hard yards together,” Clarke reflects. ‘My dad didn’t want me to take the job in Scotland because of the pressures and the way it can affect your life. But he knows that I am stubborn and determined. So it’s great for him that we’ve qualified.
He’s turning 90 this year and his mind is starting to wander a bit. But I know he is proud and in a good place. He is physically healthy and I am sure he will watch TV and criticize all my decisions when I get to the euro. ‘
Some of Clarke’s influences are on his resume, men like Jose Mourinho (L) at Chelsea
Some of Clarke’s influences are on his resume, men like Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. But others are not. His youth in football was formed by men like his first headmaster, JJ McCann, and Alex Tulloch, who coached him at the Saltcoats Star Boys Club in North Ayrshire.
“They are the people who shaped me,” says Clarke. The decisions we talked about earlier are shaped and influenced by the people around you. JJ McCann was a big influence on everyone at St Mary’s Primary. He was a formidable man but of great values. When you are a good teacher, you instill those values in your students.
Alex Tulloch is still coaching now, which is great at his age. Not that it was so much coaching at the time. It was more like popping up, getting the guys, giving them a strip, getting them on the field. Then you went out and played.
But without people like that you don’t have the platform to start playing, you just don’t have the journey in life that you have. Mine has been a good one thanks to all those people. ‘
Clarke’s journey is not over yet. The next stop is the first match of the European Championship, against the Czech Republic on June 14 in Hampden. A nation will watch and no doubt more tears will be shed.
Scotland’s qualification was enough to move someone like Sir Alex Ferguson (above) to tears
Ferguson came when he saw Celtic’s Ryan Christie cry during an interview after that night’s game in Belgrade last November.
“It was good to see that it could even move someone with Alex’s experience,” says Clarke. But anyone who saw that and didn’t have a tear in their eye should be a very hard person.
‘That shows how football can catch you. It was the emotion of probably every Scottish person and what it meant for the country to qualify.
“Yes, I’m proud of that, but in my head we’re not done yet.”