‘We’ve come a long way in a short time’: Steve Clarke revels in Scotland progress

Confidence arrives in many forms. Steve Clarke, never one for wild proclamations, did not break stride when it was pointed out Italy and Portugal will join his Scottish team in the draw for March’s World Cup play-offs.

“Scotland are there too,” said Clarke. “And anybody who watched our game against Denmark will be thinking: ‘That’ll be a tough game.’ We will see what this draw brings and deal with it in March. I keep saying it, we are decent. We wanted to finish the campaign on a high and I think you saw the way we approached the game was very positive.”

That the Danes, who had won nine qualifiers out of nine before visiting Glasgow, were defeated by Scotland was one thing. The cohesion and technical strength of the Scottish performance turned heads. They were comfortable 2-0 winners. Late June, when Scotland were bundled out of Euro 2020 having claimed only a single point in the group phase, felt like a lifetime ago as Hampden Park partied.

“We have come a long way in a short space of time and it’s great, so let’s just enjoy it,” Clarke added. “It has been a good campaign. It was nice to take part in our first tournament. I don’t know if anyone remembers but I did say at the time I felt we would come out of that tournament as a better team and better squad. I think we have proved that. I think we have improved as a team for the fact that we have been together. We got criticised for the tournament but we learned at the tournament and that was important.”

Clarke reserved special praise for John Souttar, who headed in Scotland’s first goal against Denmark. The Hearts centre-back has battled back from three serious achilles injuries, including two in three years, to return to international football. Numerous Championship clubs in England have designs on the 25-year-old, who is out of contract in Edinburgh next summer.

“John Souttar was the story of the night,” said Clarke. “I’m so happy for him. I gave him a big hug when he came off and I could have cried. Two years fighting back from the kind of injuries John had? To come back in the squad, he was made up, to get the chance to play and to play like that – I’m not talking about the goal, the goal was icing on the cake, because to play like that, I’m so pleased for him.”

Clarke said he has not considered whether it is worthwhile asking for domestic fixture leeway from authorities before the play-offs. The manager does not expect to see his squad collectively again for four months.

“We sort of discussed if we could get together but it’s so difficult,” said Clarke. “I’ll wander around, watch all the games, keep an eye on them and keep in touch with them, without interfering too much in their club business. Now they go away, they can concentrate on their clubs and we pick up the reins again in March.”