STEVE Clarke has praised the important role that Scott McKenna and Declan Gallagher played in Scotland’s second-half fightback against Kazakhstan and urged supporters to give the centre backs the time they need to adapt to the demands of international football.

Aberdeen defender McKenna was at fault for the goal that Michal Bilek’s side scored in the first-half of the Euro 2020 qualifier at Hampden on Tuesday night; he stood off Baktiyor Zainutdinov and allowed the midfielder to net a long-range strike that put the visitors 1-0 ahead.

It wasn’t the first time the 6ft 3in player, who has attracted the interest of Aston Villa, Celtic, Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers in the past couple of seasons, has been caught out at the back in a match for his country.


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Many Tartan Army footsoldiers remain to be convinced the 23-year-old can live up to the high expectations that some in the game have of him and become the dominant centre half which the national team has desperately needed for so long.

The Scotland defence will certainly have to perform far better defensively in the Euro 2020 play-offs in March, against Norway or Serbia if they get through to the final especially, if they are to progress to next summer’s tournament. They kept just two clean sheets, against section minnows San Marino, in 10 games.

However, Clarke was impressed with how McKenna and Motherwell man Gallagher, who was only winning his second cap, responded to the setback, took on board his instructions and acquitted themselves after half-time.

The former West Brom, Reading and Kilmarnock manager, whose team won the game 3-1 to finish third in Group I, appreciates representing Scotland is a big step up in standard and is hopeful their showings augur well for the future.

“In the second-half I was delighted with my two central defenders because they stepped up onto the game,” he said. “We knew we had to force the game against a counter attacking team. You could see the threat they had on counter attacks.

“We had to risk a bit at the back and I thought the two centre backs were good stepping in, closing the game and allowing us to keep the pressure on which then allows the front players to go and express themselves.”

Clarke, the former Chelsea full-back who made six appearances for Scotland in his playing days, understands that inexperienced young players will make errors which will cost their team and feels what is important is that they learn and cut them out of their game in future.


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“Listen, Scott is a young central defender finding his way in international football, as is Declan,” he said. “They make little mistakes and it was a little mistake that was heavily punished. But that’s what happens at this level, that’s what I explained to them at half-time.

“The good thing for me was they listened to what I said at half-time and in the second-half they stepped into the game and it allows us to then free the attacking players to go and do what they do best.”

Asked if he thought McKenna could develop into a top class international centre half, Clarke said: “Only time will tell. At this moment in time he is a good young prospect.

“Obviously he is picking up games all the time for Aberdeen in the Premiership. He has got a lot of clubs who have looked at him, maybe there will be a bit of interest in him. But I am not going to talk about or try and sell Derek’s players. Derek will be on the phone to me straight away!

“The biggest thing for Scott is just to keep developing, keep working even if he makes small mistakes like he did in the first-half. I don’t know if it was Scott or Declan, but they should have stepped up onto the No.7 and not allowed them to turn. But those are little things. If they improve on them they will become better players.”

Clarke feels the improvement shown by John McGinn, who scored a double against Kazakhstan to take his tally for the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign to seven, this year shows that McKenna can fulfil his potential.


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“It is a different level,” he said. “It took John a long time to find out the level. I think the little tweak in John’s position, which came from Aston Villa, who stuck him a little bit higher up the pitch, has made a difference. We have utilised it as well. As well as giving us a threat attacking-wise with John arriving in the box, which he is very good at, it also gives us a good high press at times.”

The win over Kazakhstan means that Scotland will go into the play-off semi-final against either Bulgaria, Hungary, Israel or Romania at Hampden on March 26 on the back of a three game winning streak.

Clarke is unconcerned about who his side are pitted or against in the draw in Nyon on Friday or whether they are handed a home tie for the final. He knows that maintaining their run of form to five matches is all that matters.

“I don’t think you can afford to look at it like that,” he said. “I think we have to look at who we get in the first game. We know the first game is going to be here at Hampden. So we make sure we are properly prepared for that and then we should know afterwards whether we are home or away.

“It doesn’t matter where we are, whether we are at home or away we have to win. We have to win the first game, we have to get to the second game and then deal with what we get into the second game.”