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Bhardwaj: Clarke's new era brings genuine optimism

Steve Clarke takes charge of Scotland for the first time against Cyprus on Saturday.

Clarke impressed as Kilmarnock boss.
Clarke impressed as Kilmarnock boss. SNS Group

In my years working as a sports journalist, I can't remember a time when there's been so much positivity and enthusiasm over the appointment of a national team manager as there has been with Steve Clarke.

On the day he was introduced to the media, I put this to Clarke and asked him how it made him feel. ''Under pressure, '' he replied with a broad grin. Adding ''there's obviously a big expectation, but it's better to start with everybody onside and everybody on board.''

Too right it is. Just ask Clarke's predecessor. Alex McLeish was behind the eight ball before the cones were out for his first training session, with many of the Tartan Army convinced the SFA had misstepped in bringing him back for a second shot at the job.

A new era begins on Saturday, with the former West Bromwich Albion, Reading and Kilmarnock manager trusted to inject some much needed positivity. That must begin with a win against Cyprus.

While questions were asked about the team's shape and players' knowing and performing their roles under McLeish, amongst Clarke's many qualities include being able to get the best out of his players and knowing what system suits these players best. Greg Taylor, one of the fresh faces in the squad, said as much when asked about his former club manager's strengths: "He's exact, to the point so you know your roles within the team and within your job. He is good''. I like the sound of that.

'Clarke isn't going to build a team from scratch. Rather, get that bit extra from a group of players capable of delivering more with the right guidance.'
Raman Bhardwaj

Unsurprisingly the core of the squad is the same . Clarke isn't going to build a team from scratch. Rather, get that bit extra from a group of players capable of delivering more with the right guidance. One only has to look towards Ayrshire to acknowledge the impact the 55-year-old can make.

It's a fresh start for all. For whatever reason, over the last year or so, some players made themselves unavailable or were overlooked. Fulham's Tom Cairney fits into the category of the latter. The Nottingham-born midfielder has two caps, but those appearances were in friendly matches against Canada and Costa Rica. The door remained open for him to switch allegiance to England. While Clarke has smoothed this particular issue, future squads will tell us how successful the telephone conversations were with others who haven't donned the dark blue.

While the return of Cairney showed Clarke's diplomatic side, he also struck a firm note when revealing he wouldn't chase down players who had retired. The onus is on them - not him - to get on the blower.

The notion that Scotland doesn't have the players doesn't wash with me. Andy Robertson is amongst the best left backs in Europe at the moment. Add to this, half a dozen of the current squad will be playing in England's top flight next season and there are guys in the group who have cut it with the big boys in the Champions League.

Steve Clarke: He is confident ahead of match against Cyprus.
Steve Clarke: He is confident ahead of match against Cyprus.

Clarke is keen to stress the target is to qualify for next summer's European Championship via the group qualification route, rather than through the safety net of the Nations League play-offs. He, of course, has to say this. Realistically, though, our chances are slim. The damage caused by that one, humiliating result in Nursultan could come back to bite Scotland hard when the Group I fixtures are complete. The top two teams from each of the ten groups qualify automatically, while the remaining four places are decided by the play-offs.

Clarke is not only tasked with getting results but also turning supporter apathy to enthusiasm.

The visit of Cyprus on Saturday, will be the first match at the national stadium since that scrappy win over Israel in November. Just over 20,000 fans made their way to Glasgow's south side on that damp, cold, miserable night. A couple of months ago, a senior figure at Hampden feared the crowd could be as low as 12,000 for the visit of the Cypriots. That conversation took place not long after Scotland's humiliating defeat to Kazakhstan and before the sacking of Alex McLeish.

Saturday's opponents, who are ranked 89th in the world, started their campaign with a 2-0 home defeat to a far from full strength Belgium team. Cyprus' record on the road isn't impressive. They've gone eight games without a win. Scotland's record against the Cypriots is impressive - winning all five games.

The most famous victory was a World Cup qualifier in Limassol in 1989 and I remember it well. Our school teacher allowed us to watch the match in the AV room. Around 20 or so of us went a bit nuts after Richard Gough rose to bullet a header into the net in the sixth minute of injury time to earn the Scots a 3-2 success.

It's this sort of spirit Clarke will aim to instil within the current group of players. Combined with his nous and excellent man management skills, then Scotland may well be on to a winner. Now when's the last time we said that?

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