THE 1-1 draw Scotland won on Thursday night in a crowded Hampden after Poland scored the softest penalty of the whole season in the fourth minute of added time was hopelessly disappointing for its players and manager Steve Clarke.
A win would have extended a six-game winning streak – the national team’s hottest form streak since 1930 – and boosted confidence ahead of their appearance in the Qatar 2022 play-off finals later this year.
Yet the deflation Clarke and his charges felt at being denied a triumph in such cruel fashion was nothing compared to the devastation they suffered after back-to-back 4-0 defeats to Belgium at home and Russia away in Euro 2020 qualifiers. back in 2019.
Scotland, who are two wins away from reaching their first World Cup since France 98, have come a terribly long way in a very short time.
Clarke reflected on those painful setbacks yesterday as he continued his preparations for the friendly international against Austria in Vienna on Tuesday night at Oriam just outside Edinburgh and stressed how important they had been in bringing her team at the level at which she currently performs.
But he made a point of stressing that there remains, despite the qualification for Euro 2020 and a place in the Path A play-offs assured since, a significant margin of progress, both defensively and in attack, in the future.
He is optimistic that, with the likes of Billy Gilmour, Aaron Hickey and Nathan Patterson all emerging from those beatings, even better times lie ahead in the years to come.
“Those games let me know that what we were doing at that time was not right,” he said. “I was looking at what we had at camp and we were always losing that way. You can lose a football match, but that’s how you lose a football match.
“We decided, as coaches at that time, to find a way to benefit each other and find a core of players that we can rely on when we come together. Fortunately, it happened in a good way.
“Recent games have shown that we can have our fair share of possession in the game, which is good. Because the more possession you have, the more chances you have to create chances in the game.
“If you control the game with the ball you’re going to concede fewer chances at the other end. But we still conceded a few chances on Thursday night so we’re not sitting here thinking we’ve succeeded. We can improve, we must continue to improve.
“I still think there’s an evolution and improvement to come with these players. If you look at the ages and the number of caps they have, it’s a group that can go until 2022, hopefully- the, 2024, 2026 and even into 2028 which hopefully will be when Scotland host this tournament which is a long way off.”
Clarke added: “I think I have a very good group of players who will continue to improve. Every player is a better player when they are confident, every player is a better player when they go out on the pitch happy. , in a good mood and looking forward to coming here.
“They appreciate the training we give them, they appreciate the atmosphere we create around it. You have to win games, you have to find a process to win games and lately we have been able to do that which is great.
“It’s like any team, even if you’re at a club, if you work in the right way and work with the right kind of people, the team will evolve and that’s what happened at the the past two years. The team is constantly evolving.”
The 58-year-old is currently under contract with the SFA until the Euro 2024 final. in the Scottish team, he replied: “I would like to go to Qatar 2022 and then think about what I will do next.”
Euro 2020 turned out to be a tough experience for Scotland and their supporters; the national team lost their opening match against the Czech Republic, drew with England and were then beaten by Croatia in their last group match to miss the knockout stages.
However, Clarke knows that defeating Israel and Serbia in the play-offs, reaching this tournament and ending years of failure and heartache was important to his team’s development and firmly believes he has reaped the benefits of their participation. since.
“Reaching the Euros was absolutely crucial,” he said. “It was crucial to beat the cycle of non-qualification. It wasn’t because of this group of players, they haven’t all failed before. But the pressure that comes from not qualifying regularly was there. So it was important to break that and it was also important to spend time with them.
“When you go to this camp, you have at least 10 days in advance to cultivate your culture. Then the time spent in the tournament itself gives you almost a month together. I said that thanks to that, we would be a better team.
“People didn’t believe me when we went to Denmark and got beaten, but after that the results came, slowly but surely. I thought the team would grow from those three and a half weeks together , this time allowed us to improve.
“When you look at the way we’ve played recently, against Pot 1 teams and Pot 2 teams, we’ve always been competitive. We haven’t always won the game, but we’ve been competitive. more important is to be competitive because if you are competitive you will get your share of the wins.
“It’s good that the tartan army comes and enjoys watching a Scottish team with a nice style of play, which is also part of the process.”