CONSIDERING the call-offs and withdrawals which have beset his squad, there is an irony to the fact that Steve Clarke is set to put his faith in a man who has already knocked him back twice.

The Scotland manager will hand Steven Naismith the armband as he gives him his 50th cap for his country here at the GSP stadium in Cyprus today – despite the fact his fellow son of Ayrshire has already snubbed him twice at crucial junctures of their club careers.

Not only did Naismith opt to join Everton rather than Clarke’s West Brom when he was jumping ship from the financial chaos at Rangers, but he declined a personal overture from Clarke to re-join Kilmarnock in favour of joining Hearts.

When it comes to the international team, however, Clarke cannot fail to be impressed by the unstinting commitment and tenacity displayed by a 33-year-old who will take his place in the roll of honour in defiance of a couple of serious knee injuries.


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“I tried to sign Steven for West Brom when he left Rangers – but he chose Everton,” said Clarke. “I spoke to him on the phone back then and I tried to get him to Kilmarnock too - but he chose Hearts. So he’s on the bench!

“No, the fact he’s coming up for his 50th cap, having had so many serious injury problems in his career, tells you everything about Steven,” the 56-year-old added.

“He loves being here, he’s fully committed. In one of my early camps he came with a little niggle bit didn‘t want to leave. He wanted to stay and be part of it and that’s what you need around the place.

“It’ll be a great achievement when he reaches the 50 caps mark. I sit here and moan about my six caps and I can only dream what it must be like for Steven. It must be a great feeling to be approaching 50 caps.”

The thunderstorms which gathered in Nicosia around lunchtime gave away to glorious mid-afternoon sunshine and a travelling Tartan Army of 2,500 fans must hope that is a metaphor for the cloud which has been hanging over this Scotland team.

With Arsenal asking for Kieran Tierney to be omitted from Clarke’s selection, and his fellow England-based stars Scott McTominay, Andy Robertson, Ryan Fraser and Liam Cooper all pulling out, Scotland are robbed of four of their elite players as they chase third place in Group I

A perception is abroad that high profile players are calling off for spurious reasons or being talked out of international duty by their clubs but Clarke hopes that is wide of the mark.

“I’d like to think it’s wrong,” said Clarke. “I say that because we’re potentially four games away from qualifying for a major tournament again. So if people are staying away for the wrong reasons then I would say they’re being a little bit foolish. But all the injuries are what they are.


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“I never played for Chelsea in the Champions League,” the 56-year-old added. “I was at Chelsea when we were average. I was at Chelsea pre-Abramovich. Listen, I used to sit when every international squad was picked and watch the telly. When I saw I wasn’t selected I’d sigh and say to myself: ‘missed out again.’ That was how I felt.

“I got five caps pretty quickly under Andy Roxburgh when I moved to England. Then I had a gap of seven or eight years before Craig Brown picked me for my sixth and final cap. But for every one of those squads in between I was sitting waiting on the phone ringing with someone telling me I’d made the squad. I still haven’t actually retired! I might need to put myself in!”

While in the short term it means chances for the likes of Naismith, Greg Taylor, Ryan Christie, John Fleck and Ryan Jack to stake their claims for a spot in those March play-offs, Clarke’s plan is to have an easily-understandable tactical blueprint and system which stands regardless of which personnel is involved. “I think they are starting to understand,” said Clarke. “We are going into our fourth camp together now. We are trying to get in place a team structure that no matter what the personnel is, players who come in for certain positions, understand what their role is for the team.”

Clarke is adamant that he has never been the type to worry unduly about the players who aren’t there. On the assumption that Naismith’s return keeps Lawrence Shankland and Burke on the bench, his biggest choice against a team who it took a last-minute Oli Burke goal to beat at Hampden would seem to be between Ryan Jack and John Fleck in a deep midfield role. Scott McKenna returns to left sided central defence after missing the last two camps with a hamstring injury, and will most likely be partnered by his club pal Mikey Devlin.

“Even in my club management, I haven’t tended to be a manager who hangs around the treatment room and tries to drag people off the treatment table,” he said. “If they are out they are out. You have to deal with the ones you have got.”


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A man who almost never loses his cool, it almost goes without saying that Clarke is non-plussed about the international retirement of Newcastle’s Matt Ritchie. “Matt was one of a number of players I spoke to when I got the job in May,” he said. “He announced his retirement in November. He’s never been picked by me.”

Scotland (probable XI, 4-2-3-1): Marshall; Palmer, Devlin, McKenna, Taylor; Fleck (Jack), McGregor; Christie, McGinn, Forrest; Naismith.