This was the task facing Steve Clarke yesterday as he reflected on some of the personnel difficulties he is facing while Scotland’s World Cup prospects exist in such a state of flux due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
It was a challenge to adopt the right tone. As has been the case throughout recent weeks, the Scotland manager succeeded.
He must of course be permitted to ponder Nathan Patterson’s continued exclusion at Everton and Billy Gilmour’s recent trials at Norwich without continually adding the caveat that such so-called issues must be placed in perspective.
It is taken as read that extravagantly-well paid footballers who are struggling for game-time is not a matter of life and death.
Tonight’s assignment at Hampden Park should have been all about taking a step towards the World Cup finals. Instead, the prime objective is providing funds for humanitarian relief. To quote the Scottish Football Association website, the hastily arranged friendly against Poland is a match “that transcends football”.
Original opponents Ukraine remain in everyone’s thoughts, from the blue and yellow program cover to the £10 donation to UNICEF’s emergency appeal for aid to support families and children affected by the on-going Russian invasion.
No offense to Robert Lewandowski and co, who are attractive visitors, but it’s a matter of bitter regret that they are here on a night when Hampden was meant to be hosting such a significant – in football terms – occasion.
Today marks one month since Russian tanks started rolling into Ukraine. Every day has become a bitter fight for survival. To write about a match in this context seems trite. Unpalatableeven.
While the SFA do not get everything right, they are continuing to steer a tricky path with sensitivity. Funds raised from the expected near 40,000 crowd will have a tangible effect and the program cover in Ukraine’s colors is a wonderful touch.
It is an ever-changing situation. The SFA and Clarke will have to be adaptable. For his part, the manager must deal with the prospect of players coming in and out of form as well as others being unavailable, as is the case with skipper Andy Robertson this evening. Who knows what issues he will be dealing with whenever the play-off finally takes place – if indeed it does?
It feels slightly callous to note that had the Ukraine clash gone ahead this evening then Scotland would be denied one of their most influential performers in Robertson.
But then Clarke is a football manager. He is contracted to address such issues as he previewed Scotland’s first game this year after a hiatus of over four months.
Robertson, who has Covid, could still join the squad prior to Tuesday’s friendly with either Wales or Austria.
As well as the indisposed Liverpool left-back, there is the unhelpful Patterson situation that has developed – or indeed not developed – across Stanley Park at Everton.
The former Rangers full-back has barely appeared for his struggling side since signing three months and one sacked manager ago.
Frank Lampard has handed Patterson just one half of football – against non-league Boreham Wood – since replacing Rafa Benitez in January.
“I had a little text conversation with Frank about Nathan when he took over at Everton, and obviously I spoke very well about him,” revealed Clarke. “But Frank is in a situation where he has to get points on the board very quickly as they’re under a lot of pressure at Everton. So I understand the situation.
“It was difficult for Nathan as soon as Rafa Benitez lost his job because it was Rafa and the Sporting Director at that time who signed Nathan. It’s obviously been a little bit difficult for him.
“It’s all part of growing up, huh? It’s all part of the experience. He’s down there with a good move at a good club. He should, between now and the end of the season, hopefully get some minutes on the pitch and that would be good.”
It was put to him that Patterson, who was struggling to get a game for Rangers before moving south, has not played a lot of football of late. “When he gets to the end of his career, I am sure he will have played enough football,” said Clarke. He added that he would have no fears starting the 19-year-old in both games.
Clarke felt it necessary to contact Patterson at Everton to stress the importance of maintaining match fitness, at whatever level.
“I spoke to him over the telephone a couple of times, which is a little bit unusual for me between camps because I tend to leave players on their own,” he said.
“I did have a little chat with Nathan about making sure that, even if he wasn’t in the first-team, he got some minutes on the pitch with his under-23 team which he did do.
“It’s about making sure he’s working hard, even though he’s not getting a chance to start.
“You can’t let your training standards drop because when the chance does come, he has to be ready to take that chance.”
One option to replace Patterson if he is considered to lack the required sharpness is Aaron Hickey. However, the former Hearts player has succumbed to illness – not Covid, Clarke stressed – between training on Tuesday and waking up yesterday. The Bologna full-back’s much-anticipated international debut is likely to come on Tuesday night in either Vienna or Cardiff.
“The important thing for Aaron – rather than minutes on the pitch – is to feel part of the scene and part of the group,” Clarke noted.
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