WATCHING Steve Clarke shuffle uncomfortably as a kids birthday party gatecrashed his quiet lunch on Friday afternoon might well be a portent of what is to come.

Sneaking in a quick bowl of soup in the Hampden cafe as he gets his feet under a new desk, a little band of kids couldn’t quite believe their luck was in as they badgered the new Scotland manager for selfies and autographs.

If it was a birthday that one kid won’t forget, there is a feeling that Clarke might just find himself front and centre of the biggest party of all if he can nab Scotland an invite to next year’s European Championships.

No-one needs to hear the stats again. We all know the decades in the wilderness as World Cups and Euros have come and gone with Scotland’s noses pressed to the glass.

Still, though, it is heartening that the SFA did not wilt under the Clarke glare.

The new Scotland manager has rarely been anything other than at loggerheads with his new employers since he returned to the country of his birth two years ago.

The assumption would be that the SFA have finally managed to spell his name correctly – Stephen and not Steven – since that first notice of complaint was issued to him last year. “Disrespectful” and “unprofessional” were the criticisms levelled from Clarke at the governing body when that particular letter dropped through the post but in an era when the SFA have called so little correct, they are to be commended this week on looking at the bigger picture.

That’s not to say that there may well have been a little awkwardness at some of those introductions this week. Or that they won’t be treading on eggshells at times; Clarke’s outspokenness has given him a particular allure to those who write headlines but his points have not been made simply for sensational reasons.

Still, though, the real glare from Clarke is not to be turned on his new employers – at least now yet – but rather on a rudderless and impotent Scotland squad.

If Clarke was capable of giving the kiss of life to Kilmarnock then the same alchemy is expected now with the national side. And with an acerbic tongue and beautifully dry sense of humour, the expectation is that for players as well as observers this could be the journey all have been waiting for.

As a team Scotland have not just lacked cohesion these last few years. There has been a collapse in organisation and in structure but even in camaraderie; in how many woefully inept performances have players worn a haunted look?

Which is where Clarke’s midas touch comes into the equation. If he could persuade an Ayrshire town that their team were worth turning out for and a team that their fate as perennial strugglers was not set in stone, then what might he do for Scotland?

His first job ahead of the games against Cyprus and Belgium next month might simply be to relax the players enough to believe they are capable of conjuring something.

There is not one player at Kilmarnock who did not improve under his tutelage. But the big difference now is that he will not have the same luxury of time on the training ground that comes with a daily beat. At Scotland he will be working with players for a week or two at a time and then not setting eyes on them again for months.

A former St Mirren and Chelsea full-back who played six times for Scotland, Clarke established his coaching credentials as an assistant to Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish.

Clarke had spells at West Bromwich Albion and Reading before he took over at struggling Kilmarnock in October 2017 and transformed them in the 19 months he spent in the post.

This season the unfancied Rugby Park side have qualified for Europe, have enjoyed their highest finish since 1966 and recorded a record points tally of 67. It earned Clarke both the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the Year awards, as well as a three-year contract from the SFA.

At Liverpool and Chelsea, Clarke’s training-ground days were spent working alongside some of football’s box-office players. If that in itself is an impressive indictment of his talents as a coach it is at Kilmarnock where he has really shown the qualities necessary to take on the Scotland job. And for all that Clarke will be asked to worked with a disparate group, there is talent there for him to work with. Ryan Fraser’s stellar season with Bournemouth has not gone unnoticed with Manchester United linked for a move for him this summer.

Andy Robertson will play in the Champions League final next Saturday and is arguably the best left-backs in the world at the minute. Kieran Tierney, when he is back from surgery, is another fabulous talent while Scott McKenna remains an uncompromising, old-fashioned defender who can be the lynchpin of the Scotland defence.

James Forrest was the best player in the country this season with Callum McGregor not too far behind.

If Clarke can make this Scotland team greater than the sum of their parts then the party hats will be on.


THERE can be few managers who have endured what Neil Lennon has. Not the bullets in the post or constant sectarian hassle, but rather the preparing for a domestic treble when worrying about still being in a job at the end of it.

Lennon’s reception at Celtic Park when the league trophy was paraded last Sunday was notable; lauded and celebrated for his part in this season, Lennon’s name rang out throughout the stadium. There was a warm embrace of appreciation from chief executive Peter Lawwell before he made his way to the podium for the pictures and confetti, all to the warm appreciation of a 60,000 home support.

At times like this one wonders whether social media is a true reflection of a body of opinion or whether it magnifies and amplifies minority opinions.

Certainly, whether the welcome was in thanks to what he has done and with a view that it could well have been his last game in the dugout at Celtic Park or whether it was an endorsement for the job on a full-time basis is difficult to determine.

But trying to organise his side for a game that will make it nine successive trophies out of nine and orchestrate a third domestic clean sweep against an incessant and frenzied backdrop of speculation about who could be the permanent appointment takes some doing.

The least Celtic will owe him is a debt of thanks. There were few who would have signed up for the job he took on in February after Brendan Rodgers left Celtic in the lurch.