THE international break is to the sports desk what one of those mysterious “in-service days” must be to teachers. Does anyone outside of education have any idea what our pedagogues get up to during those liminal episodes in the school term? Tomfoolery on the kids’ play equipment? Karaoke machines? Suitcases of wine? No, come to think of it, that was No.10 during the Covid lockdowns, wasn’t it?

This weekend, as employees up and down the country wrap up their final shift of the week, many will gleefully switch on that “out-of-office” mode on their work laptops which allows them to swat away incoming emails with an automated reply during a bout of annual leave for the Easter Holidays.

The messages they are missing, of course, will range in significance from the equivalent of outrage over Nike’s rendering of the St George’s flag on the new England home shirt, to Hearts issuing a statement over the rendering of a Rangers badge over their club crest inside the Tynecastle home dressing room for the Sky Sports Cup final, to Joey Barton’s take on the quality of said match (or his say on anything, really).

The Herald: Scotland line up for the national anthems in AmsterdamScotland line up for the national anthems in Amsterdam (Image: SNS)

READ MORE: Easdon worth more to Scottish football than Barton ever was

Of course, international friendlies go a long way towards filling this interminable void when our clubs put their own out-of-office notifications on, but how much can we really read into performances and results in matches which towards the end become more of an exhibition of the fourth official’s substitution board’s metamorphosis into the big LED screen at the London Stock Exchange, given the sheer volume of numbers flashing green and red at one given time?

Speaking of the finance sector, on Thursday morning the Office for National Statistics confirmed that the UK had entered a technical recession in the second half of last year, although their figures showed that the economy overall grew marginally across the whole of 2023. Cue Tory Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claiming the results as proof that his economic plan is working while opposite number Rachel Reeves of Labour insists that the opposite is true.

In football, of course, we are well accustomed to competing voices attempting to put a different slant on the same set of results. For Scotland manager Steve Clarke, 2023 began with a five-match winning streak over Group A rivals Cyprus (twice), Spain, Norway and Georgia to kick off their European Championship qualifying campaign practically secured their chartered flight to Germany next summer and the national team’s stock has not been higher in the best part of three decades.

The Herald: Scott McTominay celebrates after scoring against SpainScott McTominay celebrates after scoring against Spain (Image: SNS)

READ MORE: Steve Clarke on what Scotland are 's***e' at and why he isn't worried

But has the national team been in its own technical recession ever since? A 3-1 international “friendly” defeat to England at Hampden in September set in motion a now seven-match winless streak.

So, has Clarke’s stock crashed and is our Euro 2024 campaign doomed before it has begun? Of course not. Of those seven matches, four of the five defeats have come in meaningless friendly matches. The 12 goals conceded against the Auld Enemy, World Cup finalists France, world No.6-ranked Netherlands and Northern Ireland in those encounters do point to an alarming porousness in the Scottish defence, however.

The glut of goals conceded in the three competitive fixtures during this six-month spell compound this sense of a malaise. Yet, the 2-0 defeat in Seville to Spain aside, draws away to Georgia and then at home to Norway helped to seal qualification to just our second major finals since the World Cup in 1998. It is not putting too much of a positive spin on results, then, to suggest that those were two points gained for Clarke which got his side over the line to comfortably qualify in second place behind Spain.

We have, of course, become accustomed to false starts in this country; near misses have punctuated much of our qualifying attempts during this current generation. The fear which lingered amongst the battle-weary Tartan Army during the ultimately successful qualifying campaign for Germany 2024 was that the glorious five-match streak would collapse on itself and we’d somehow have another highlights reel of glorious failure.

Indeed, in a spring which seemed to have sprung only a week ago when it was possible to stand outside without the usual involuntary shivering and chattering of teeth, the players trudging off the Hampden pitch on a miserably cold night in Mount Florida on Tuesday to a cacophony of boos from the home support hopefully met their nadir during Clarke’s reign. But this aberration coming at the conclusion of a match which meant diddly squat in the grand scheme of things is surely preferable to its puncturing another hopeful qualifying campaign.

The Herald: Scotland players trudge off at full-time after defeat to Northern IrelandScotland players trudge off at full-time after defeat to Northern Ireland (Image: Getty)

READ MORE: Major Euro 2024 rule change to be lobbied by Clarke & Co

Eventually, the summer will come. And between now and then, the Scotland manager has a couple more friendlies to work on finding the wrench to tighten up that leaky defence – who out of Jack Hendry, Ryan Porteous, Liam Cooper, John Souttar, or, when he returns from injury, Grant Hanley, for instance, inspires most confidence in the Tartan Army? And, with 10 goals conceded in his last four outings for Scotland, has Angus Gunn done enough to secure the gloves for Euro 2024? Who does Clarke start to lead the line against Germany out of Lyndon Dykes, Lawrence Shankland and Che Adams? Did any of that trio inspire enough confidence against the Dutch or Northern Ireland? These are questions Clarke will have to address quickly with the Euros kicking off just seven days after his next double-header.

This week, as club physios give players the once over to check if they have returned from their international camps in one piece, the cinch Premiership will get back under way as we turn into the final straight of the domestic season.

Scotland players from leagues as disparate as Scotland’s top flight, the Premier League, Serie A in Italy and the Saudi Pro League will conclude their respective seasons chasing trophies, European places and even attempting to stave off relegation. Hopefully they will all be on an upward curve come June as they look to build momentum against Gibraltar and Finland before the big kick-off against hosts Germany on June 14.