WHEN Scotland secured their march to the Euro 2024 finals following a quintet of victories to open their qualifying campaign, the kind of fawning reverence for manager Steve Clarke from the Tartan Army legions put one of those colourful rallies put on by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un into the shade.

It was a glorious qualifying campaign. Reaching back-to-back European Championships was rightly hailed as an incredible achievement by Clarke, whose convincing 2-0 win against Spain at Hampden set a high-water mark in the national team’s fortunes for a generation.

Scott McTominay celebrates his goal against SpainScott McTominay celebrates his goal against Spain (Image: Getty)

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Early sporting promise on this scale had not been witnessed since Wee Kim’s faither, Kim Jong-il, famously managed 11 holes-in-one en route to a 38-under-par score on his very first round of golf. Big Kim also scored a perfect 300 on his first trip to a 10-pin bowling alley, according to his biography. McTominay’s winning double against the Spaniards in March last year was almost as difficult to believe.

In the return fixture in October in Seville, of course, Spain had got their act together and secured a 2-0 victory on their way to topping the section. A few days later qualification was secured for the Scots by default when Norway fell at home to the Spaniards now on an unassailable march themselves.

After a sharp drop-off in form since qualification was secured – Clarke’s side only managed a 2-0 win against Gibraltar in the seven intervening fixtures – the Scottish troops rocked up in Germany like the walking wounded, with injuries to main striker Lyndon Dykes and first and second-choice right-backs Aaron Hickey and Nathan Patterson particularly damaging. Losing Kieran Tierney during the Switzerland match made a difficult task nigh-on impossible.

Kieran Tierney is stretchered off injured against SwitzerlandKieran Tierney is stretchered off injured against Switzerland (Image: Getty)

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Of course, none of this dented the enthusiasm of the Tartan Army as they mobilised in Germany in wild anticipation of a first proper finals in a great footballing nation in 26 years. That famous victory over Spain over a year earlier was even enough to keep alight hopes of another monumental upset against the host nation in the opening fixture at the Allianz Arena in the tournament curtain-raiser.

But, unlike those self-aggrandising Kims, I sensed from Clarke in the build-up to the match a nervousness which defied the supporters’ reverie. It’s one thing for a madcap dictator to burnish their sporting prowess to a super-human degree and sup on the disingenuous froth of a zealous crowd riding on an artificial wave of optimism. But for a man immersed in football reality as Clarke is, who with West Brom, Kilmarnock and then Scotland helped decidedly average squads to perform above themselves and achieve unthinkable highs, the scale of this task was not to be lost.

Steve Clarke in his Scotland technical areaSteve Clarke in his Scotland technical area (Image: Getty)

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Clarke’s understated, some might even say curt, interview style splits opinion amongst supporters: crack a smile, some say; he’s keeping it on a level and showing the players they haven’t achieved anything yet, others retort.

But after the 5-1 humiliation by the hosts on matchday one, Clarke bristled in his chair during his post-match media activities. Queried about an innocuous apparent disagreement with his coach Austin McPhee on the touchline in Munich, it was probably a blessing for my esteemed colleague who asked the question that Clarke does not wield the kind of power of a North Korean Supreme Leader.

The intervening days were a chance to quickly regroup, captain Andy Robertson and Co making clear their remorse for having let down a nation. The 1-1 draw against Switzerland in Cologne was certainly a marked improvement on the opening fixture, and crucially left the door open for qualification for the first time to the knockout rounds. But the failure to register a single shot on target in the match spoke volumes for the deficiencies within Clarke’s side.

Were his tactics off? Were Scotland too negative? An inability to have an effort at goal would certainly suggest so, but Clarke has made no apologies for his pragmatic approach in the past, where results are the focus well above perceptions of the performance.

The notion of glorious failure has long been abandoned by this incumbent. So, while healthy doses of gloom and even some sprinklings of doom had set in on a support normally immune to such emotions, there was still a very realistic chance to qualify in their grasps going into the final fixture against Hungary. This was a position Clarke explicitly stated as his goal before the tournament.

But before the match Clarke again cut an agitated figure: he seemed spooked, wearing the look of a man foretold his destiny, and who didn’t like what he had been said. In retrospect, this wasn’t some prophecy, this was the look of a realist, someone who knew the limitations of his side and who was going to have to play to the limited strengths available to him – namely his midfield comprising of Callum McGregor, Billy Gilmour, McTominay and John McGinn – in the hope that things would fall his way.

Scotland fans at the EurosScotland fans at the Euros (Image: Getty)

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The Tartan Army assembled in the stands, they belted out the national anthem thunderously, they willed their team to make history, to again go where they had never been before. In the end, after 110 underwhelming and ultimately futile minutes, there was a bitter irony to Kevin Csoboth's late strike providing yet another moment of glorious failure.

Some critics have suggested Clarke was too negative from the outset, that Scotland should have thrown everything at their opponents. It would have been better to burn out than merely to fade away, they argue. In the very end, those supporters got their wish – and it was ultimately Scotland’s undoing.

Clarke’s entire approach to the group stage was to ensure his side were in with a chance. Right up until the 10th minute of stoppage time in the final group fixture, that remained the case. When the ball dropped at the edge of the six-yard box to McGregor a minute prior to Czoboth’s sickener, a break of the ball could have been the difference between glory and failure.

When Hungary broke, however, the decision to go for broke by flinging on attacking players Lawrence Shankland, Stuart Armstrong, Ryan Christie and Lewis Morgan - Clarke even replaced skipper Robertson with central midfielder Kenny McLean at left-back - exposed the gaping chasm on Scotland’s left-hand side. The ball was swiftly cut across goal and Czoboth dealt the killer blow. Despite being clearly wounded and spent, I’m not so sure that winner would have presented itself so openly had Robertson remained on the pitch.

While Scotland failed to make a dent in a footballing sense in Germany this month, the Tartan Army certainly made their presence felt. But unlike that super-Jock Kim Jong-il, the sporty Supreme Leader who could rally a big crowd to mask the paucity of his own leadership in a basket-case economy, Clarke is not a leader willing to bask in a false glow.

In the now infamous clip of the gloomy Scotland team leaving their hotel with the backdrop of a high-spirited oompah band bidding them a fond farewell, that stoic look was back on Clarke's face. Clearly, he's not willing to play the role of tournament mascots, whose supporters won the hearts of their rivals even if their team were the whipping boys. Will he be the man to lead Scotland on their next qualification quest? Who knows. But if he is you can be sure he will look to remobilise and focus on positive results rather than positive perception once more.