Clarke targets automatic Euro 2024 qualification as next step for Scotland
It is an indicator of the confidence flowing through the Scotland scene that Steve Clarke believes the Euro 2024 playoff secured alongside promotion from Group B of the Nations League will not be required.
The taking of seven points from a possible nine inside a week saw Scotland hold off Ukraine to claim a berth in section A. The spin-offs are potentially more significant: Scotland will be in pot two for the Euro 2024 qualifying draw on 9 October and have that playoff spot as a fallback option if they fail to qualify, which was how they reached Euro 2020.
“I don’t think, with this group of players, that we will need it,” Clarke said. “That’s my honest opinion. It’s nice to have the safety net of the playoffs but I feel we can qualify outright. I would expect this team to qualify directly.
“I haven’t looked at who is there yet or who we can get. I want to enjoy this week. I want the Scottish public to enjoy this week. I want the players to go away feeling absolutely brilliant about themselves. But let’s not just think that’s enough. Let’s push for more. That’s the message I want to get across. Yes, it’s fantastic, but let’s see if we can get even better.”
Twelve years have passed since Scotland were last a pot two team. Although the squad under Clarke have generally delivered success, there have been times of trouble. Summer defeats by Ukraine in a World Cup playoff and the Republic of Ireland in the Nations League led to the manager’s detractors flying out of the woodwork. Clarke has not forgotten.
“If you go back to June, some people wanted me out the door,” Clarke said. “Things can change quickly in football. This has been a good week. It’s about trying to make ourselves better to move things forward again. Instead of taking a step forward this week, we’ve taken a giant leap. We have found another way to play, we’ve found
other players in the squad who can do very, very well for us. The squad is stronger.
“It means if we are going to places like the other night, when you are looking to get a result that takes us to that next step, then we know we have a team that can do it.”
The frustration for Scotland is that they cannot test themselves against higher Nations League opposition until the competition resumes in 2024. The Netherlands, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium or Portugal could lie in wait. “It’s tough; it’s certainly not going to be easy,” Clarke said. “You see Wales – they went up and they’ve come back again.
“If you want to improve you want to play against the better teams. We’re going to be challenged six times in that tournament, that’s for sure. But these players have come away from this tournament as better players and they will come away from the next one even better again. The young guys will be getting more experience playing against top teams.”
The Scotland support has derived obvious glee from England dropping down to Group B of the Nations League as their team were promoted. It should be noted that Clarke lives and has spent the vast majority of his career in England and he is unwilling to point-score. “I don’t think we’ve got anything over England,” he said. “They weren’t involved in this process. We’ll just enjoy it for ourselves. The games are a way off but my immediate thoughts are to catch up with some sleep. It’s been a tough 10 days.”