Maybe Scotland losing 4-0 to the Netherlands in an international friendly on Friday evening wasn’t the worst thing to have happened. 

It feels like we could be doing with tempering our expectations slightly in the run up to Euro 2024. We should go with real optimism that we can make a significant impact, but we should be hopeful of getting out of the groups for the first time ever at a major tournament, not expect that it will happen. 

There was still a lot to like about the match. In the first half, away from home against a top side, Scotland showed they can very much compete on that level. Unfortunately we didn’t take our chances while still in the game and Netherlands eventually exploited some poor defending and took control when a raft of subs, which you’ll get in friendly games and not so much in tournament football, weakened the away side. 

Scotland, even when we’re decent, haven’t been that great in friendly matches over recent decades, which makes sense. We play football with a certain intensity, feeding off the pressure and making it uncomfortable for an opponent, which doesn’t exist to the same extent when there’s nothing on the line. Things would have been very different in a competitive setting on Friday and I feel 100 per cent confident in saying the match wouldn’t have finished with such a one-sided scoreline. 

All of that still didn’t stop some online grumbling of Steve Clarke’s management. On the one hand, I find some doubters’ perception of the Scotland boss baffling, but on the other hand I try to reason that it’s just the nature of the beast for someone in charge of an international side and not a club team. 

Clarke is the single biggest catalyst for the transformation in the Scottish national team over recent years. Our nation has gone from an outfit which sunk from one embarrassment to another in an attempt to get back to the promised land of major tournament football (Kazakhstan, anyone?) to a team that has reached consecutive Euros and got to a World Cup play-off. 

We’ve beaten Spain, we’ve beaten Denmark, we’ve drawn at Wembley, won in Norway; even after Friday, things are still positive. There remains a feelgood factor about the national team that has made people like me, a real club-over-country man, property understand the allure of international football and its ability to unite a nation of fans, who spending most of the year at each other’s throats, behind a common goal.

The players have played a massive part, of course, but Clarke has nurtured them, improved them, and, in the cases of Lyndon Dykes, Che Adams and Angus Gunn, helped convince them to come on board in the first place to fill some real problem areas. 

He’s done all this, and yet even before a ball is kicked each international break you will find people complaining about him, particularly with regards to his squad selection. ‘What’s the point of picking X?’ ‘Why hasn’t he included Y?’ ‘The continued omission of Z shows how clueless he is’. It goes on and on and on. (As a quick aside, if I have to read “What about Ryan Gauld?” one more time I’m going to lose my mind. He plays in a kiddy-on league. Get over it.) 

Typically when managers do well they get cut a bit of slack by supporters who may be confused or curious about a team line-up. Your favourites win five games in a row and suddenly the manager throws a curveball into the starting XI for a big game and the responses on social media will largely be of the “mmm, not sure about that, but in the gaffer we trust” nature. But this doesn’t translate to international football, at least not to the same degree of harmony. Why is that? 

It’s because of the way we all perceive what international football is and what it represents. As players progress in their careers there are checkpoints that they are expected to hit: their first contract, their first-team debut, their first run in the team, their first big contract, their elevation to key first-team player, their first big move, their first call-up, their first cap and becoming an international regular. If someone on this pathway plays for one of our clubs we’re desperate for them to hit these checkpoints (apart from the ‘big move’). We take these rising stars to our hearts and show immense pride in them as if they were one of our own family. So there is naturally going to be some frustration and even fury when someone who fits that billing is being consistently overlooked for Scotland. 

You hear about a player ‘deserving’ of a call up. Often it’s true, to an extent. A player does deserve a bit of international recognition for working hard and consistently performing well. But Steve Clarke and international managers across the world are not here to hand out merit badges. They’re here to win football games. And constantly changing a squad to fit the demands of supporters across the country would be detriment to the ambition of doing just that. 

Clarke takes this to extreme levels, I’ll admit. He very rarely deviates from the core group who make up the 23/24/25/26-man unit, which does rankle with some supporters. Other nations will use friendly encounters to experiment a bit more. Clarke doesn’t so much, but it works for him. Scotland have good players, some great players, but our talent pool is still inferior to many other countries, some of whom we’ve outperformed in recent years. He has readdressed the balance by making the Scotland national team camp like a club unit. It’s the same players all the time, but it means there’s a familiarly, an understanding, a trust. It gives advantage to a country that will be at a disadvantage when compared to strength of squads for many potential opponents in Germany this summer. 

It’s not going to be all plain sailing. Like the Ukraine defeat at Hampden which ended our last World Cup dream, or the Ireland away match which followed not long after, there’s going to be setbacks. But we continue to trend in the right direction under Clarke. 

His methods may madden the average club-team fan at times, but picking the same core group of players time and time and time again has worked for us so far, and we shouldn’t deviate away from it so soon before the tournament starts.