THE SPFL have been less than equivocal so far about the assistance they have to offer to the Scotland manager when it comes to tinkering with their fixture calendar around those play-off dates in March.

There are question marks too about the backing he gets from some of the bigger clubs in England when it comes to the notion of dragging their players away on international duty.

But at least there is one group from which Steve Clarke knows he will get unstinting support in his bid to return the club to a major finals after a gruelling 22-year-absence.

A crowd in excess of 20,000 is expected along tonight to see Scotland conclude their Group I campaign as they bid to lay the ghost of their calamity in Kazakhstan, but Clarke knows fine well the Tartan Army will pack this Mount Florida venue out to the rafters in four months’ time when either Bulgaria, Romania or Israel arrive in hopefully the first phase of two Euro 2020 play-offs.


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Having rebuilt the bond between a club and a supporter base to remarkable lengths during his two-year stint at Kilmarnock, it wasn’t a surprise to hear Clarke citing this long-suffering group last night as thoughts unavoidably started to turn towards those encounters in four months’ time.

With a Uefa draw this week set to confirm both our semi-final opponents, and whether any final meeting against Serbia or Norway would be at home or away, the backing of these fans could yet have a serious role to play in roaring Scotland back to international relevance.

“I know the nation and the mentality we have in this country,” said Clarke. “And I’ve got no doubt in my mind that in March Hampden will be full or almost full.

“And the fans will be with us,” he added. “The fans are always with us. The 3,000 fans who went to Cyprus were behind the team.

“The Tartan Army have levels of endurance and their ability to put up with the pain that the national team have put them through is amazing. I’m telling you that, come March, they’ll be there and right behind us. And am sure that the squad I pick in March – injuries permitting – everyone will turn up.”

The logistics of these March play-off ties are challenging to say the last. After tonight, players sign off from international duty for four months, unaware of who their next game is against.

While the Scottish league has a winter break in January, and the Premier League in England for the first time has a unique split-week break of their own in February, it is almost impossible for Clarke to get his players together for a training camp. While he would love the small mercy of none of his Scottish-based players being involved the Sunday before in order to give him three clear training days with his players, even such a modest request is fraught with political and logistical difficulties. The best Clarke may be able to do is arranging a series of meetings with small groups of players, or maybe a series of phonecalls.


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“Could we do a get together?” said Clarke. “I don’t think so because obviously we are spread across Scottish Premier League, Scottish Championship, English Championship, English League One, abroad – Spain. We are scattered all over so a get together where everyone is there is almost impossible.

“Maybe the best thing will be for me to try to track down one or two at certain times and try to have a little chat with them. But that is all you are doing, having a chat. You can do that over the telephone as well.”

With Scotland’s scouting all of their potential play-off opposition in these games – the daunting prospect of Luka Jovic’s Serbia or Erling Braut Haaland’s Norway could wait in the final – at least Clarke could take a page out of Craig Levein’s book and pack his players off over the festive period with DVDs about their future opponents.

“We could well do that once we get an idea of who it’s going to be,” said Clarke. “We’ve got scouts out during this international break watching all the countries that we might play against, so that we have at least some match reports. We could probably put together DVDs and sent it to an extended squad – just in case they’re involved – and hope that they look at it!”

With Kieran Tierney the only man Clarke has yet to work with who is likely to come into contention during March, at least his players are starting to know what he expects from them. Ryan Porteous of Hibs is the only man in his first squad.

“I need to plan just now and think that it’s not about getting help,” said Clarke. “I’m going to have three training sessions to get them back on the bike and ready to go again. It’s not a lot but, on the back of what we’ve done previously, then I hope it will be enough.


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“I would also point to the fact that this squad that is here now out of the 23 I have here, 22 of them have been in previous camps,” he added. “They should know what my mentality is, the message I am trying to get across. There are a lot of players here who have been in all the camps and hopefully in the next four months they don’t forget everything they have been told.”

All of that can wait, though. For at least a few days. Because Clarke is not of a mind to downplay the importance of our Kazakhstan re-match tonight. It isn’t so much a revenge mission for him – Alex McLeish was still in charge during the calamitous 3-0 defeat in Nursultan – as a chance to build momentum with a hat-trick of wins for the first time in two years and a chance to pad his own stats by breaking even with four wins and four defeats from his first eight games.

The team seems likely to be along similar lines to the one fielded in Cyprus, although Sheffield United’s John Fleck could come into contention in midfield. Kenny McLean returned to Norwich from the camp ahead of training on the indoor pitch yesterday at Oriam, with Lawrence Shankland departing the group when a minor injury picked up before the Cyprus match didn’t clear up. Steven Naismith slipped to earth painfully shortly before being withdrawn at the GSP stadium but will be fine to play his second match in four days.

“There’s no doubt it will help if we go in one the back of three wins,” said Clarke. “And every match for your country is important. These boys are representing their country, they are getting another cap, it is another game for me as international manager. I want my record as international manager to be better than it is, three wins, four defeats is no good to me. I want to have more wins than defeats.”