This misstep generated more heat than electing not to play Che Adams from the start against Czech Republic on Monday.
While attempting to play down the significance of tonight’s eagerly awaited Group D clash, possibly in the hope of taking some of the heat out of the occasion, Clarke made the mistake of referring to his sons, John and Joseph, as “English” in a recent interview. He wanted to illustrate that it isn’t about ‘us’ and ‘them’, that his own children, who are both in their early 30s, were emotionally torn in this great, ancient sporting drama involving neighbouring countries. Bad idea.
“My eldest, John, was straight on the phone to me after he read that and said: ‘We’re not English, it’s just where we were born!’” Clarke reported.
“He made the point that they’ve got a Scottish mum and a Scottish dad, that they’ve all got Scottish blood. So, I need to clear that one up. Let me get it right, my kids are Scottish!”
This accident of birth on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall is solely down to their father’s football career, the majority of which was spent in England with Chelsea.
“They’ll all be at Wembley on Friday night along with my grandkids and wife,” said Clarke, who didn’t need to add that they will be supporting Scotland “They’re looking forward to it. They can’t wait. It’ll be a great occasion.”
Today’s date has been circled in the calendar since Scotland’s win against Serbia in November meant they booked their ticket for the finals. Despite suggestions they should refrain from travelling unless they have a match ticket or a safe place to watch the game, thousands of Scots have been pouring into London all week.
It’s not health concerns that seemed set to be the biggest buzzkill. Rather, a 2-0 defeat in the opening game against Czech Republic that has placed Clarke’s side under immediate pressure might have served to persuade some to shelve travel patterns. That hasn’t appeared to be the case.
They’ve been coming down the road despite the punch to the guts that was Patrik Schick’s second goal on Monday. As well as consigning the hosts to almost certain defeat, the wonder strike means Scotland’s goal difference does not look very petty after only one game. It could potentially get a lot uglier under thundery skies tonight. The forecast is heavy rain. “No brollies, I’ll pack a raincoat,” was Clarke’s wry response last night.
The menace associated with this fixture in the 1970s and 1980s is not as prevalent, though some drunken carnage was still in evidence in the expected parts of London yesterday. Such revelry cannot deflect from the fact Scotland are on a very serious mission. There’s a high probability Clarke’s team will need at least a point this evening. That’s certainly the way the Scotland manager is looking at it. This, Clarke said last night, “is the sole focus”. A point or bust seems to be the battle cry although results in other groups means the situation is still unclear.
Scotland have not required a result from Wembley since the second leg of the Euro 2000 play-off at Wembley in November 1999. It was very straightforward on that occasion after a 2-0 first leg defeat at Hampden Park. A memorable 1-0 win was still not enough, a stunning stop by David Seaman from Christian Dailly’s header preventing the tie heading into extra-time.
A limp 3-0 defeat under Gordon Strachan in 2016 was difficult to accept. However, it did not put Scotland out of the qualifying equation for the Russian World Cup. Indeed, even though they threw away a 2-1 lead at Hampden in the last few seconds of the reverse fixture, the Scots still manoeuvred themselves into a position where they could qualify with a win in the last game against Slovenia. The other visit to Wembley was a friendly in 2013. Scotland lost 3-2 on a night when the focus was the fact they were there at all following an absence of nearly 14 years.
Clarke’s last visit doesn’t augur well either. As is the case today, he was in charge of a set of underdogs, Reading, in an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal in 2015. Alexis Sanchez scored in extra time to give his side a 2-1 win. Clarke was sacked eight months later.
As well as missing out on the squad for Italia ‘90, one of Clarke’s big regrets as a player was sustaining an injury prior to a Rous Cup clash with England in 1987. Unlike Kieran Tierney, who the manager confirmed was fit to play tonight, he could not recover in time to face Bobby Robson’s team.
“I twisted my ankle in training before the game,” recalled Clarke.
“I would need to check with Andy Roxburgh, but I was pretty sure I was in from the start going by the way we’d be shaping up.
“Put it this way, everything we were shown in training suggested I was going to start. But I just twisted my ankle. I guess the Hampden pitch wasn’t as good in those days as it is now because I just went over on it with no-one near me.
“That was me. I sat on the bench instead, all strapped up, instead of playing against England. That was a painful one.”
Clarke knows there’s little point relaying such experiences to the present crop of players, whose most vivid memories of the fixture are likely to Leigh Griffiths’ pair of free-kicks four years ago. The manager has charged them with creating their own memories while also securing the chance to extend their stay in the tournament. It’s about the very near future as well as the past.
“It’s a historic game, a famous game,” he said. “But if I went back to the moments that meant the most to me the young boys in the squad wouldn’t even remember them. It’s a fixture that goes back a long way, everyone is aware of what it means to the people of Scotland.”