As Steve Clarke stood in a corridor in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, it seemed incredible to recall Scotland entered this international window while riding the wave of an eight-match unbeaten run.
A painful World Cup exit at the hands of Ukraine – coming before victory over a hapless Armenia team – was one thing. Embarrassment against the Republic of Ireland, who swaggered to a 3-0 victory, quite another.
Clarke cut a more disconsolate figure than at any point in his three-year tenure. “The result and the performance, no, nobody could see it coming,” said the Scotland manager. “I back these players 100%. I back them 100% because they’ve been fantastic for the country. It’s two big blows but sometimes life isn’t always nice all the time and straightforward. We’ll come back. They just have to dig in now and get a result in Armenia on Tuesday night. It’s just about getting a win.”
It is to Clarke’s credit that he placed no focus at all on the Dublin performance of his players. This was, after all, a collective nightmare. The manager could easily have chosen to divert fierce criticism aimed towards himself from an angry Scottish public. “I won’t hear it and I won’t read it,” said Clarke when asked whether he will require the thickest of skins in the coming days.
Questions surround whether the Scots can play effectively with a three-man defence when, as is the case currently, Kieran Tierney is missing through injury. Clarke’s selection of Jack Hendry rather than John Souttar on the right of that backline looked an error.
However, the manager is adamant matters of individual personnel and tactics were not key to the display against Ireland.
“People can pull it apart If they want,” Clarke said. “If they think that’s what was wrong with the game then I would suggest that maybe they’re not right.”
Another explanation would be that the defeat by Ukraine, which ended hopes of a first Scottish World Cup appearance since 1998, rocked Clarke’s squad to a greater extent than was considered at the time.
“I don’t think so, I really don’t,” the manager insisted. “I felt the game last Wednesday [against Armenia] was a good game for them because they were able to dominate possession. Ireland got about us and we couldn’t handle it for some reason. So that’s what I need to go away and look at.”
Onwards to Yerevan, where anything other than a win on Tuesday is unthinkable for Scotland. Ukraine have already seized the initiative in this Nations League group. “We have to win in Armenia,” Clarke admitted. “It’s that simple now and it might be an ugly one or might be a pretty one – but we need to win. We have to bounce back from what’s been another disappointment.
“For me, the biggest thing is we had disappointment [against Ukraine] and then did OK, and then it’s disappointment again. I have to analyse that and find out why that happened.”