Steve Clarke is unaware of ill will towards Scotland as they prepare to host Ukraine. It is just that the backdrop to arguably Scotland’s biggest game in a generation is so unusual that it triggers abnormal discussion.
Clarke’s role is to ensure his players can fix eyes on a potential World Cup berth rather than circumstances surrounding Ukraine before this playoff semi-final. Neutral support will sit with the visitors to Hampden Park but Scottish messaging appears perfectly clear.
“We have to focus on the football match and I don’t think the Ukrainian team would want it any other way,” said Scotland’s manager. “Their coach has said they are ready for the game. We are ready for the game. It’s a game of football and hopefully the better team wins. Hopefully we’ll be the better team.
“It’s definitely not back to normal [in Ukraine]. But we always said we would be guided by the Ukrainians and how they felt about the situation and what they wanted from the situation. What they want is that their football team can come out of the country, prepare properly as they have for the last four weeks and be ready for a football match.
“They want to give their country a lift, which is absolutely 100% understandable. But we want to go to the World Cup as well. We want to give our country a lift. It’s very difficult to do but you have to separate the situation that the Ukrainians find themselves in and the context of a football match. It’s a football match and that’s what we focus on.”
In the stands, if not on the pitch, the scene promises to be different from what would ordinarily be expected for a game of this magnitude. “We will respect the Ukrainian national anthem and we will applaud the Ukrainian national anthem,” said Clarke. “Then from there the fans have to sing their hearts out, get behind the team and drive the team on.”
Pressed on whether Scotland could unwittingly be the bad guys of this situation, by ending Ukraine’s World Cup dream, Clarke said: “I don’t always read a lot of media but I haven’t really felt that as a narrative, that we are at fault somehow. I’ve never felt that.”
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who will win his 67th cap, insisted it will not be overly problematic for Scotland to avoid distraction. “Because that’s what we’re trained to do,” said the 39-year-old. “We can’t even imagine what’s going on in Ukraine. We have no clue really. We can’t understand exactly what all these players are going through, what each individual’s circumstances are. What we have to do is concentrate on football, be ready and make sure we are as prepared as we can be to try to win the match.”
Clarke brushed aside social media noise directed towards his captain, Andy Robertson, who was pictured with beer in hand during Liverpool’s end-of-season parade on Sunday. The left-back joined the Scotland camp a day later.
“He has joined us in a great place and that’s all I am concerned about,” Clarke said. “I don’t care about criticism. It won’t bother Andy and it certainly won’t bother me.
“Liverpool had a great season, when you look at two of the four major trophies in the cabinet, missed out on the league by a point and one goal did them in the Champions League final. They should have been in front before they conceded that goal. They were very close to the quadruple, they’ve had a great season.
“Finishing with two disappointments is something you learn to deal with as a professional player. It’s not as if he is going to a poor Nations League end-of-season game with Scotland. It’s one of the biggest games he has probably ever faced for his country so he will be ready to go.”
Clarke’s key personnel decision surrounds who to play on the left side of his back three, owing to Kieran Tierney’s injury. Liam Cooper of Leeds is likely to fill that slot. Bologna’s Aaron Hickey is expected to play at right wing-back because Everton’s Nathan Patterson has not sufficiently recovered from ankle surgery.