Steve Clarke speaks with an occasional undertone of menace that suggests he could have starred on an alternative career path. It is easy to envisage the 56-year-old immersed in a Glasgow crime drama.
This is not to suggest Clarke is not cut out for his chosen environment. An icy exterior – sometimes, perhaps, put on for effect – is useful in his line of work. The Scotland manager is not boastful about the individuals he has worked alongside but a list that includes Glenn Hoddle, Gianluca Vialli, José Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish, Frank Lampard and Ruud Gullit emphasises his status.
Should Clarke take Scotland to Euro 2020 via the play-offs those in his homeland may hold him in loftier esteem than that sextet combined. Israel on 26 March, then potentially Norway or Serbia, lie between the Scots and a first finals appearance since 1998.
“I knew the magnitude of these games and in a strange way that was one of the draws,” he says of being coaxed from Kilmarnock last summer. “It was an attraction because this is a good opportunity but listen, Israel, Norway and Serbia will all be saying the same thing.
“The public are a bit disillusioned with the national team. I don’t want to say that’s nothing to do with me but that’s from previous years. I’m reasonably new in this job. It’s important neither myself nor this squad of players take in that it’s been 22 years of doom and gloom. We have to see this as our chance, do our best and not worry about what has gone before.”
It is fitting to glance back through Clarke’s fascinating journey, a rugged defender for whom missing out on Scotland’s trip to the 1990 World Cup hurt. “I went in the pre-squad in February, to Italy. I was in the 26 or 28 but dropped out of contention between then and the tournament. It was disappointing to be so close.”
By 1994, after six caps, Clarke’s Scotland career was over.
Clarke was a Chelsea fixture 10 years before the financial revolution at Stamford Bridge, his last appearance a winning one at right-back in the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final. Vialli floated the idea of a player-coach role. “That suggested he was going to bring someone else in to play in my position,” Clarke says. “I wasn’t too happy.”
Chelsea would have demanded a fee if Clarke moved to Newcastle with Gullit as a player so he hung up his boots and took a coaching role at St James’ Park. A switch back to Chelsea involved youth-team duties before José Mourinho took a shine to Clarke and hired him as his first assistant in England in 2004. “I think he just wanted someone who knew the club, the league,” Clarke says, somewhat bashfully. “Right place, right time.”
He adds: “José was a breath of fresh air for the Premier League. He was great for the players. I liked his enthusiasm, his intensity. His training was really structured. He didn’t have a great deal of time for fitness coaches and measurements, he just put on training sessions the players enjoyed.
“We had a great three years together. In football you tend to drift away and on to the next job; you bump into someone after two or three years and it’s the same as seeing them yesterday. It’s a little bit like that with José. We had text messages, eventually that dried up, then he has been away working all around the world. He isn’t going to be that bothered about whether or not I’m keeping in touch. We were really tight knit when we worked together.”
Clarke had the chance to remain at Chelsea after Mourinho departed. The appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2008 was instead the precursor to Clarke’s second Chelsea exit. “I could have stayed. That would have been the easy option. I wasn’t comfortable at being the perennial No 2. That didn’t fulfil my ambition. I wanted to put myself under pressure.”
Still, it took until 2012 for Clarke to step into management at West Brom after coaching roles at West Ham and Liverpool. Typically, there was method to that approach. “You know when you take a manager’s job it could be terminal. I was making sure there was enough in the bank to cover that, making sure myself and my family would be all right when I took the plunge. That’s not to say if the chance had come up earlier I wouldn’t have done it. I knew I was ready.”
Clarke took West Brom to their highest Premier League finish and points total before a “strange ending” that included being placed on gardening leave. “For the first time in 18 months we lost four in a row and the chairman was obviously nervous. His club, his choice. I can be pleased with my work there.”
Clarke took Reading to the FA Cup semi-finals and coached alongside Roberto Di Matteo at Aston Villa. Management might have passed him by before the umpteenth call from Kilmarnock in October 2017. Clarke’s brother Paul played more than 400 times for the club. Steve left Scotland – and St Mirren – at 23.
Clarke was branded a miracle worker at Kilmarnock, dragging them from the perennial threat of relegation to a third-place Scottish Premiership finish in the 2018-19 season.
“Kilmarnock had been on the phone a few times over the years,” he says. “I’d decided I was finished. I was happy working on my golf and doing a bit of fishing. My wife started nagging that I needed to go and work again. Everything just clicked.”
Everything within his control. Clarke made headlines across Britain last February after vehemently criticising sectarian abuse from Rangers supporters during a defeat at Ibrox. A year on he is candid when asked whether the landscape has improved. “I don’t think it has,” he says. “I had been so far out of it and came back – for me it was very clear.
“I always put it on the line as the racism one: if you call someone a black bastard, that’s not good; if you call them a fenian bastard or an orange bastard, that’s all right. What’s the difference? It exists in society but it manifests itself in football grounds. I don’t understand it.
“There was obviously an amount of frustration on the night … It’s pretty normal that you get an outburst then everything just quietens down, people sweep it under the carpet and it goes away again. That is how they deal with sectarianism here in Scotland.”
The Scotland manager’s job should carry a health warning. Alex McLeish used it as a platform to move to Birmingham 13 years ago, but he is the clear exception to an inauspicious rule. Manager after manager has seen prospects reduced as Scotland struggled.
“You could have said that same about Kilmarnock because if I’d gone there and it hadn’t gone particularly well, I probably wouldn’t have got another job,” Clarke says. “So it’s not really any different here. I’ve gone in with my eyes wide open. I didn’t think this was a job I could turn down.
“If it doesn’t work out, you are looking at a contract until 2022 and hopefully, everything being as it should be, no matter what happens with these games I’ll get the time to build and shape the squad over a number of camps that can get us a qualification.”
Clarke has sampled changing attitudes towards international football. “I didn’t earn fortunes but the pinnacle was always to be capped by your country,” he says. “Now I think the pinnacle is securing the next contract.”
Pending coronavirus developments, Israel’s visit on 25 March should see Hampden Park at, or close to, capacity. “When I bump into Scotland supporters they are pretty positive. They just want a little bit of success. I don’t think that’s too much for them to ask.”
Woe betide any fan who believes Israel will offer a free pass to Oslo or Belgrade. “If I was the Israel manager I’d be looking at how competitive they were against Scotland in their last two games,” Clarke says. “Israel are dangerous, their front players are top-level. I’ll be delighted if we get through that one.”
He might even show it.