Scotland: People's choice Steve Clarke knows he has much to do
|Euro 2020 Qualifying Group I: Belgium v Scotland|
|Venue: King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels Date: Tuesday, 11 June Kick-off: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website|
When things were looking hairy at Hampden on Saturday, Steve Clarke may have picked up on little moments of disquiet among the home support, a brief bout of booing at the end of a tepid opening half and some angst-ridden roars when calamitous defending threatened to destroy his opening night as Scotland head coach.
Like the visitors' defence, two decades of despondency is a hard thing to break down. The frustration wasn't so much directed at Clarke and his players, it was an age-old weariness that has been building up over time. Fans are fed up of failure. They can sniff it a mile off. Patience is in short supply.
Everybody bar Kilmarnock fans wants Clarke running the show, but the esteem he is held in doesn't give him immunity from the fatalism that has run wild for quite some time now.
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So it was that when that dreary first half concluded legitimate questions could have been asked about how different this performance was to an Alex McLeish team. Answer: not very. Questions, too, about the logic of deploying Eamonn Brophy as the lone striker. The Kilmarnock forward scored five goals from open play last season and suddenly he's a Scotland player?
Why play Brophy? Well, Clarke was missing four strikers in Steven Naismith, Steven Fletcher, Leigh Griffiths and Oli McBurnie. Swansea's McBurnie has never looked convincing for Scotland, but he scored 24 goals for the Championship side last season, 21 of them from open play. Clarke could have gone with Oliver Burke from the beginning, but Burke wasn't deemed good enough to make the bench for Celtic in the Scottish Cup final, so he wasn't exactly a great option. He started against Kazakhstan and did nothing.
There was also Marc McNulty, scorer of eight goals (five from open play) in 17 games for Hibs, but the Reading forward played 53 minutes against San Marino and did little to advance his case. Johnny Russell, a goalscorer in that game, had a better claim to start than those guys, but Clarke went with a player he knew well. It was a punt. Why play Brophy? Given what else he had to pick from, why not?
If McLeish had still been in charge then much of the first hour - and the couple of minutes after the equaliser - would have been played out against a backdrop of mass discontent, admittedly with fewer people in the chorus. Clarke drew a crowd of more than 30,000 on Saturday. It would have struggled to reach 20,000 had the old manager been kept in his post.
Clarke knows better than anybody that this fretfulness and drop-of-the-hat negativity is historic and it's something he needs to put up with until his methods bed in and performances improve. The sweet mercy for him - and for everybody else - is that he can kick on for Belgium on Tuesday with a win in the bag. It was nerve-shredding and a little fortunate against an organised but limited team, but at least Burke's goal averted another post-mortem. At 1-1, the thought of another was nauseating.
In the midst of a mini-crisis, Scotland remained calm. They displayed character and a bit of class to win it. Ryan Fraser's cross was excellent, Burke's leap was outstanding. He got a break with the loose ball but stayed in the moment long enough to benefit from it. It was a terrific goal created under intense pressure.
The big individual winners of the night were the new number one, David Marshall, the efficient Kenny McLean, the explosive Fraser and super sub Burke. The latter remains a football enigma. Youth, pace, strength and two multi-million pound moves already in his career but also confusion as to where he should be playing, uncertainty about his game intelligence and precious few starts.
At 22, he has already played for Nottingham Forest, Bradford City, RB Leipzig, West Bromwich Albion and Celtic and, in the four years since his debut as a kid, he has started just 41 club games. The nomadic existence needs to stop if he's to develop. Burke has obvious attributes, but the flaws are just as clear - a poor touch and a lack of awareness. If it's not West Brom, who splurged £15m on him, then he needs to go somewhere he can play and learn rather than not play and earn.
The need for an out ball and physicality and speed up front will probably mean a start for Burke in Belgium, but Clarke will be counting the days until injuries heal and his options increase up front. Through captain Andy Robertson and Fraser, Scotland are potentially lethal down the left side. You can already see an understanding developing between these two terrific players. The opposite side needs work. Will Kieran Tierney be asked to play right-back long-term? And who will be the man to put pressure on James Forrest?
The Celtic midfielder was playing his 63rd game of the season on Saturday. He looks a tired boy and has done for a little while. Clarke could do with having Robert Snodgrass as an option out there, if the West Ham United man's heart is still in it.
On to Brussels
For Belgium, the more defensive minded Scott McTominay may come in from the beginning instead of John McGinn. The Aston Villa midfielder was a rock on their way to promotion to the Premier League, but he's yet to convince at international level.
A word here for Callum McGregor, who was playing his 68th game of the season on Saturday. Thirty-five league games, eight domestic cup games, 16 appearances in Europe, two international friendlies, four Nations League matches and three Euro qualifiers - scour the continent and you'll struggle to find anybody who has played as many times as McGregor. One more effort in Belgium and he can be deposited on a beach somewhere for a seriously well-earned rest.
Awaiting Scotland, one of the great tests of world football. Never mind the chosen 11, Roberto Martinez has a bench that is the envy of most nations. Players from all the top clubs, players of all different types, they are a frightening prospect. Clarke is targeting a point. If he gets it then Messiah status can be bestowed upon him there and then.