After years of admiration from afar, I finally got to spend a couple of hours in the company of ‘Sir’ Steve Clarke, the Scotland manager, at a hotel in Leicestershire. Honest, direct and thoughtful - for someone dubbed ‘taciturn’, he wasn’t half chatty. 

“I have a face that never looks happy,” Steve Clarke tells me. This isn’t strictly true. The man leading Scotland to the Euro 2024 finals has a smile that goes all the way to his eyes and a chuckle that comes all the way up from his chest. It’s just that it can be a long time arriving. In the chasm between a journalist making a quip and the corners of his mouth twitching up, civilisations rise and fall, empires crumble.  

Case in point: at around 2pm on a bright afternoon, Clarke, 60, is having his photograph taken on a window seat in Stapleford Park Hotel in Leicestershire. The former stately home, with its many wings and topiary maze, screams Brideshead Revisited; the defensive stance of the man in the skinny jeans and quarter-zip jumper screams: “Let this be over.” If we were shooting a perfume ad, the scent would be “Eau de Discomfort”. “To think we could have been doing this in Saltcoats,” I say to lighten the mood. Cue a long Clarke silence, before: “Saltcoats has its own distinctive charm,” he deadpans; and it feels like redemption.  

I had wanted to talk to Clarke for a long time. In 2019, writing a feature on the way his success at Kilmarnock was reviving the town, I chose not to approach him. With the club near the top of the Premiership, he had taken on the status of a demigod, the fans dubbing him Sir Steve, and setting up a Church of Saint Steve Clarke Facebook page. I liked the idea of him as omnipresent, yet too ineffable to be quoted. (Later, he will tell me he liked the piece. “What did you like about it?” “The fact I wasn’t in it.”)   

Still, as he moved from Kilmarnock to Scotland, securing the national team’s first qualification for an international tournament for more than 20 years, I found myself intrigued. Who was this quiet man with the power to transform the country’s footballing fortunes?   

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“Taciturn”, “sullen”, “thrawn” were epithets advanced about Clarke by many of those I approached ahead of the interview. Others compared him to Andy Murray, possessed of a distinctive dry wit some non-Scots just don’t get. Now, in the Stapleford Park Hotel, I have a chance to ask him: how does he feel about the way he is perceived? “I know what people say about me: that I am dour, that I am boring, that I don’t talk outside myself,” he says. “I think it’s laziness. Those people make an outside judgement. They don’t make an effort to get to know me.”   

Sometimes, I say, he seems to send those perceptions up; to turn himself into an Only an Excuse?-type parody. “Sure, occasionally I feed the laziness,” he answers. “But I like to think people who know me well understand I am actually all right.”  

“All right”. That understatement runs through Clarke like a place name through a stick of rock. One of eight children - three boys and five girls - he was brought up in Saltcoats by loving, if undemonstrative, parents, whom Clarke cites as the biggest influences in his life. We were supposed to meet in the town but then, while he was visiting, his father, Eddie, passed away. “The death of a parent is always a loss,” he says. “But he had been suffering from vascular dementia and it was time for him to go.”   

Clarke’s earliest football memories are of his dad in Auchenharvie Park. Eddie, an industrial chemist who worked for Roche in Dalry, would be putting Clarke’s older brother Paul through his paces while Clarke, then still a toddler, dribbled his own ball on the fringes.  

Football was in the Catholic family’s DNA. Eddie was a talented amateur player until he was injured in a go-kart accident. Clarke’s Uncle Jimmy played with Celtic boys’ club reserves before going on to Morton and Cambridge City. “Kicking a ball was life in those days,” Clarke says. “Anything else was just getting up to mischief.” Were his parents strict? “It was more that it is easy to lose yourself in such a big family; you have to find your own way to operate, but always within the rules your mum and dad set for you.”  

Clarke started playing for St Mirren on schoolboy, then provisional form. He knew he was good, and wanted to turn professional. But Eddie insisted he got a trade, so he played part-time for the club, while training as an instrument artificer in the Beechams Chemical Factory, outside Irvine. Only once he had qualified did he sign a full-time contract.  

The Herald: Steve Clarke at St MirrenSteve Clarke at St Mirren (Image: SNS)

By then, Paul was playing for Kilmarnock, but there wasn’t much sibling rivalry. “He was seven years older than me and most of the time he could beat me,” Clarke says. “It didn’t stop me trying, though, and obviously, the harder I tried, the better I got, so I have a lot to thank him for.” Even on the handful of occasions their teams clashed, the defenders were at opposite ends. “It was nice for the family and quite an achievement to have two boys on the same pitch playing at the highest level of Scottish football.”  

In the second half of the 80s, the brothers’ paths diverged. Both were offered six-figure deals to join English clubs - Stoke City for Paul and Chelsea for Steve. “Paul’s deal was substantial, but at that time the clubs had all the control over their players and [Kilmarnock] put the kibosh on it,“ Clarke says. “So Paul said: ‘Well, I’m retiring,’ and he joined the police force, which was a shame because he was only 30 and a good player.”   

Clarke was luckier. By the time Chelsea came looking for him, both Celtic and Rangers had expressed an interest. But he was bored with the SFL and looking for a fresh adventure. Clarke’s “gaffer” Alex Smith was supportive and before he knew it, he was off to meet Chelsea manager John Hollins and owner Ken Bates. “We agreed a deal within the hour,” he says. “I phoned my wife Karen - we were not long married - and told her: ‘I leave tomorrow.’.”  

Those were the days before Roman Abramovich when Chelsea was just a decent club paying decent money and struggling against relegation. They also had a disproportionate number of Scottish players on their books. In his 11 years there, Clarke played alongside Gordon Drury, Kevin McAllister, John McNaught, Pat Nevin.   

Bates, a fiery figure who once stuck an electric fence around Stamford Bridge to keep the fans off the pitch, was never off the front pages. “Of course, being Scottish, I was a union rep and there were little bits of friction,” Clarke says. Yet Bates, now in his 90s and living in Monaco, still invites him to his end-of-year dos. “I think I was his favourite Scot,” Clarke laughs. “He liked me because, although I am quiet, I speak up when I need to.”  

Not everyone agrees. Pat Nevin believes Clarke’s refusal to talk himself up led him to be under-rated. “We live in an age where everyone sells themselves,” he told me. “Some people will point to their own name on the back of their shirt when they score a goal - but Clarkie would never behave like that.”  

Clarke went on to play in the Chelsea sides which won the 1997 FA Cup, the 1998 League Cup and the 1998 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and yet his former team-mate recalled: “He was probably there for five or six years before people realised: ‘Wait a minute, he never lets us down’.”  Of his failure to be selected to play for Scotland in any of the four international finals that took place during his playing career, he said: “He could play left-back, right-back, centre-back, centre midfield. I have no doubt that if he had been playing for Celtic or Rangers, he would have waltzed into those squads.”  

The Herald:  Clarke at Chelsea holds off the challenge of Liverpool's Karl Heinz Riedle Clarke at Chelsea holds off the challenge of Liverpool's Karl Heinz Riedle (Image: Getty)

Nevin said he also wrongly perceived Clarke’s reticence as an obstacle to becoming a manager. “I knew he had the technical skills, but all the managers I played under had been eccentrics with big personalities. They had the charisma to motivate players. When I looked at Steve, charisma wasn’t the first word that jumped into my mind.”  

Maybe not; but what Clarke has is honesty and persistence. Nor should his habitual self-effacement be mistaken for a lack of self-esteem. Beneath his deflection of praise lies an unshakable sense of his own worth. Asked about his omissions from the national squads by Andy Roxburgh and then Craig Brown, he says: “I deserved more. I don’t say that with any bitterness, but I look at the way I played, and know I was good enough to get more than six caps.”  

Meanwhile, the suggestion he should have drawn more attention to his achievements provokes this passionate response. “Look, it’s not the first time I have been told I don’t sell myself. I’ve been told it a lot, but I say: ‘Look at what I have done.’ I have played at the highest level in Scotland, I have managed at the highest level in Scotland, I’ve played at the highest level in England, I have managed at the highest level in England, and I am now head coach of the Scotland squad. For a guy that doesn’t sell himself, I’ve done OK.”  

Unlike most managers, Clarke also avoids agents. “I take satisfaction out of the fact I did it without anyone pushing me or selling me,” he says. “It’s just been me and my talent.”  

Certainly, no sooner had his playing career ended than the biggest stars in the footballing firmament were vying for his coaching services. “The likes of Ruud Gullit, Jose Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola and Kenny Dalglish don’t give you a job because you are nice,” Nevin said. “And none of them sacked him; he just moved on when they did.”  

Unfazed by their egos, Clarke observed their strengths and weaknesses, soaking up the qualities required to be an effective manager. In his first role as coach at Newcastle United, he saw former Chelsea team-mate Ruud Gullit alienate those whose cooperation he relied upon. “Ruud was a fantastic coach,” Clarke says, “but he had an arrogance about him that came from being a top player. He didn’t understand that others couldn’t do what he did on the pitch and he wasn’t as forgiving as he should have been”.  Famously, Gullit fell out with Alan Shearer - “two big personalities crashing up against each other”. After Gullit’s resignation, it fell to his successor Sir Bobby Robson to repair the damage.   

“I was fortunate enough to be in the room when Alan sat down with Sir Bobby, “ Clarke says. “He made him feel like a million dollars - like the most special guy in Newcastle. Suddenly Alan’s form picked up and he was away again.”   

After Newcastle, Clarke returned to Chelsea, working with the under-18s before being taken onto the first-team staff by Mourinho. His stint with the younger boys allowed him to develop his coaching skills in a less intense environment. “Football players are horrible people,” he says. “If they smell a weakness they are on it, but the younger boys are less likely to pick you up on your mistakes because they are trying to make their way in the game. So as long as you are perceptive enough to realise a particular session wasn’t very good, you can learn a lot.”  

The Herald: Clarke with Jose MourinhoClarke with Jose Mourinho (Image: Getty)

So Clarke had the skills on the grass. But it was reflecting on Robson’s capacity to communicate that made him realise he needed to learn more about the “speaking side of the game”. “When Bobby held a team meeting, he would scribble all these xs and os on the board, and sometimes it looked a mess, but the players would follow it and listen to everything he said because they [trusted] what he was saying.  

“I didn’t speak much as a kid and had been quiet as a player (though when I spoke I had something to say so people tended to listen). Bobby always found the right words at the right time, and that’s what you need to do.”  

From other managers he learned the importance of understanding individual natures  -  “that what is good for one is not good for another. You can’t just shout at everyone” -  and from Zola, at West Ham, that being respected is as important as being liked. “All the players loved Gianfranco,” he says. “I just felt in the second season when it got close to the nitty gritty, he was too nice to them. I said: ‘You need to be careful here, you don’t really want a relegation on your CV’.” By then Clarke was an experienced coach spoiling for his own team to manage, while Zola was a novice. “Maybe I was too forceful in putting my ideas on top of his,” he says. “Our friendship suffered, but life goes on.”  

Ask those at Rugby Park about Clarke’s time there, and the first thing they will mention - after his love of lemon drizzle cake - are his people skills.  

“He protected his players and knew how to get the best from them,” Kilmarnock director Cathy Jamieson told me, citing his support for Jordan Jones, and his marshalling of the sometimes-bumptious Youssouf Mulumbu as examples. I remembered Mulumbu, not so much for his performances  - although he scored the winning goal against Celtic in what was Kilmarnock’s first victory over the club since 2010 -  but from the footage of Clarke’s valedictory speech.   

That speech, delivered after Clarke had taken Kilmarnock to third place in the league and into Europe - and a time when the club, but not the fans, knew he’d accepted the Scotland job - is goosebump-inducing. Clarke looks typically bashful as the crowd chants: “Steve, Steve, Steve!”. When he points to the players and says: “without this group of people you have nothing,” Mulumbu runs forward and pours water over his balding head. “That’s a fine for Mulumbu,” Clarke laughs. Then he calls him “my son.”  

The Herald: Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke is soaked by Youssouf Mulumbu at full-time.Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke is soaked by Youssouf Mulumbu at full-time. (Image: SNS)

Clarke nods and strokes his salt and pepper beard when I mention Jones, who signed a pre-contract agreement with Rangers, then baited the supporters by posting: “Dream move.” “The fans felt he’d been disloyal, and didn’t want him to play again,” Clarke says, “but I knew we were a better team with him playing, so the first game after the break - against Rangers at Rugby Park - I started him anyway.” Jones went on to score the winning goal of a 2-1 victory. “I had a giggle to myself, then, because he couldn’t run to the Rangers fans, and he couldn’t run to the Kilmarnock fans, so he ran to the person who had backed him: me.” Jones’ goal mollified the supporters and helped him reintegrate into the team.  

 Clarke calls Mulumbu a “cheeky chappy,” but says he never found him difficult. “I understood what made him tick. Getting the best out of him meant sometimes turning a blind eye to him bowling in late, but also sometimes saying: ‘Don’t take the piss’.”  

By the time he was approached about the Kilmarnock job, Clarke had been out of work for a year. He hadn’t intended to come back to Scotland - in fact, he had been in talks with a US club. But he still owned a flat in Saltcoats and he appreciated what he saw as the “honesty” in Scottish football: a willingness to work harder for lower wages.   

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At Kilmarnock, that honesty extended to budget discussions. “I liked the fact the board were straight up,” he says. “When I talked about signings, they immediately said: ‘Oh, we don’t pay money for players’ and I went: ‘OK, that’s fine’ because now I know the parameters.”   

Paul and his younger brother Michael, who still go to matches, told him the team was better than its bottom-of-the-league placing suggested. “I thought the worst we needed to do was to finish 10th, so I agreed to take it on though I knew if it didn’t work that was me done because it would have been difficult to find a way back from failing at Kilmarnock.” Eddie was still well back then. Was he excited to see Clarke at Rugby Park? “He didn’t get too excited, my dad,” Clarke laughs. “I think I have some of his genes.”  

In his first week, the team drew 1-1 against Rangers, then 1-1 against Celtic. But it wasn’t until they were applauded off the pitch after a 3-0 defeat against Hibs that Clarke understood the extent of the goodwill they had garnered. “I told the players: ‘You got that because of the way you played, and if you play like that every week you will win more games than you lose’,” he says.   

“From there, we found a bit of momentum, and we finished in the top five. Suddenly, everybody was talking about me, everyone was talking about the team. And Kris Boyd, who had been thinking about retiring, was picking up another award for being the top goalscorer in the SPL.”  

The next season Kilmarnock continued its roll. The team’s success saw many who had become disaffected return to Rugby Park. When I ask Clarke what he remembers most about his farewell speech, he says it was looking round to see Kilmarnock supporters in three of the club’s four stands.   

The Herald: Clarke became a god in KilmarnockClarke became a god in Kilmarnock (Image: SNS)

Prior to his arrival, Old Firm fans were allocated two stands, and that rankled with him. He approached the owner, Billy Bowie, who worked on the figures and agreed it could be cut to one (the Killie Trust was also in favour). “I knew some supporters didn’t go to those matches because they didn’t feel comfortable in their own stadium,” Clarke says. “I didn’t think that was right.”  

“So you gave the club back to the fans?” I say. “That’s a bit too romantic,” he replies. “But I think when I arrived, there was a disconnect between the supporters and the club and by the time I left they were reconnected. That feels like an achievement.”  

 The road to footballing glory is rarely smooth. It took Clarke a long time to be appointed manager in his own right, and, once he had, he faced the usual highs and lows, successes and sackings.   

He is not, he says, one to “overthink” his failures. Stretches out of football have been spent playing golf, fly fishing and taking off on exotic holidays with Karen, who worked at Johnnie Walker’s in Kilmarnock until the move to England, and later became a classroom assistant. His three grown-up children, Emma, Joseph and John, along with a growing brood of grandchildren - five, aged between eight and one - all keep him grounded.   

There is only one experience that sticks in Clarke’s craw: his stint at West Bromwich Albion. This was his first job as manager, though his official title was head coach. In his first season, he took the club to eighth in the Premier League, its highest ever position, with its highest ever points total: “two records that still stand,” he says proudly. But a second-season run of four defeats was all that was required for the axe to fall. The last of those matches was away to Cardiff, where manager Malky Mackay’s job was also hanging in the balance. Cardiff won 1-0.   

“I spoke to Malky afterwards, and he was happy because he knew he’d still be the manager in the morning,” he says. There had been no backlash from the West Brom fans, so Clarke had no inkling he was going to be fired until he arrived back at the training ground to find the light on in the chairman’s office. “I was summoned into a meeting. The director of football Richard Garlick was bumbling through his reasons so I just stood up and said: ‘Listen, it’s over, thanks very much,’ shook their hands and left.”  

The reason it still irks is because he doesn’t think he deserved it. ”Surely if you are going to become a good manager - and I had already shown I had that capability - you should be allowed to manage through your first little dip,” he says. But more than that he sees it as symbolic of a short-termism which plagues the sport. “Nowadays everyone is looking for the golden egg,” he says. “So it’s ‘good, good, good, rubbish, sacked’, whereas maybe it should be ‘good, good, good, not-so-good, better, better and back to good again’. If football had been the way it is today when Alex Ferguson was first at Manchester United, he wouldn’t have lasted through the first three years it took for him to find a way to make the club work.”  

Clarke has had the chance to work through his bad spells at Scotland (although it has sometimes been touch and go). When he took charge in May 2019, the national team was locked in a cycle of failure. With two decades of non-qualification behind them, the players and fans had lost faith in the possibility of change.   

The first few months were shaky, with more losses than wins. By the time Scotland were beaten 4-0 by Belgium in a Euro 2020 qualifier at Hampden in September, even he was having doubts.   

At around the same time he received a phone call from an English club trying to lure him away. “So, I have this club in my ear and I’m wondering: ‘What will I do?’ because I think, at that point, the SFA would have been quite happy for me to go and for them to get their money back. But then I decided: Nah, I am going to do what I want to do, and I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to weed out the ones who don’t want to be here, or who are not good enough to be here. And I am going to pick a core of players who will be [mine].”  

Gradually, the tide began to turn. There was a 2-1 win away against Cyprus. Then, having been booed off the Hampden pitch at half-time after going 1-0 down to Kazakhstan, they turned it around to win 3-1. But the game-changer came during Covid when all matches were off, and Clarke “with too much time on [his] hands”, decided to experiment with a new formation. Having brought both Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson on board (in part by telling Tierney he would be “Scotland’s best ever left centre-back”), he made the switch to a back three.   

And well, we ALL know what happened next: two nail-biting penalty shoot-out victories later, Scotland was finally heading to the finals of an international tournament.    

Once upon a time, Bill Shankly’s “some people say football is a matter of life and death” quip set the tone for the sport, and Ally MacLeod left for Argentina in an open-top bus. Perhaps it’s a pandemic thing, or a backlash to the culture of entitlement but, after decades of braggadocio, humility now seems to be the zeitgeist. Gareth Southgate brought it to the England squad; now Clarke is bringing it to Scotland. When he slips up and refers to his job as “stressful,” he quickly corrects himself. “Stress is being ill,” he says. “Stress is not being able to pay your bills.”   

It makes a refreshing change. And yet, football is more than just kicking a ball. It has the power to lift a town from its post-industrial doldrums; to bring light to the darkest of living rooms. On the night of the penalty shoot-out against Serbia, Scotland had been in lockdown for nine months. Suddenly, across the country, people were laughing, crying, dancing, blasting out “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.”   

Clarke’s son John, who possesses the ‘excitement’ gene his father and grandfather lacked, spoke for many when he tweeted: ”My dad is my hero. Watching him take Scotland to an international competition is the greatest thing I'll ever see.”  

The Herald: Clarke is carrying the hopes of the nation on his shouldersClarke is carrying the hopes of the nation on his shoulders (Image: SNS)

It must be both a burden and a privilege: to carry the hopes of a nation on your shoulders? For the first time, Clarke becomes emotional to the point where I wonder if there are tears in his eyes. “I don’t do social media, but all these clips were coming out and everybody was passing them round,” he says. “Then Ryan Christie cried in his post-match interview. I think he summed up how everyone felt that night. It was great to be able to give the country something like that.”  

Now Scotland is gearing up for Germany in June (and this time they did it with two games to spare). Social media is full of tips. “[Lawrence] Shankland’s numbers are ridiculous. Steve Clarke, don’t be a tool,” advises one poster. “If I’m Steve Clarke, I’m camping out in Newcastle until the next international window,” proffers another (with reference to Harvey Barnes and Anthony Gordon). The man in charge won’t read them. He will choose who he chooses, though he says his own experience of rejection will make him more considerate towards those he omits or drops.   

The Tartan Army, meanwhile, are organising their travel. So what does Clarke think: should they hold off from booking their flights home?  

Unsurprisingly, he’s making no predictions. “For me, the Tartan Army can dream whatever they want to dream,” he says. “They can believe we will beat Germany in the first game, and then Switzerland, and then Hungary; that we are going to make the next stages, that we are going to maybe do what Wales did and get to the semi-finals. They can think like that. The people within the game, and certainly me as head coach, can’t think like that. I have to think pragmatically. I have to go from game to game. And people get fed up with that. They think: “Ah, he is just boring”. But if I allow myself to dream, I get too far ahead of myself and forget the basics, and the basics have to be good performance, good performance, good performance.”   

That’s Clarke: overlord of the understatement, master of expectation management. He tills the soil for others’ hopes; keeps his eyes to the ground, so the rest of us can look to the stars.