It was a bold move as it only underscored the ordinary nature of the current team which local media said was tasked with saving Stephen Kenny’s job. It’s not too disrespectful to suggest that many visiting fans might have passed halfway through the current Irish first XI on O’Connell Street without a second glance. It was before 5 p.m. Saturday. They know all about Michael Obafemi now.
Yet this team, made up of rookies like Derby County, Swansea City, Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion, is nowhere near the height of previous vintages.
But as Scotland once had to, and may have to do again soon, the Republic of Ireland pulls it all back at the risk of exposing flaws. Saturday was the first time two players aged 21 or under had scored for the Irish in international competition since 1997. Scotland complied without giving thought to what could be a team revival Irish?
By contrast, each name on Steve Clarke’s squad sheet was top flight Grant Hanley, whose last game for Norwich City was still in the Premier League, and Ryan Christie and Scott McKenna, whose next league appearances, for Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest respectively will be there.
Clarke is not one to be unduly demonstrative. Even when he was greeted by fans in Moldova in November – yes, it was recently – he said he felt uncomfortable returning the favor. It was therefore not uncommon to note his absence from the party so little treated by the tartan army.
“I don’t usually go to the fans, no,” Clarke said. “At Hampden I never go out and I don’t take any walks of honor or anything like that. I’ve only done that occasionally in away games. But I wanted to be at the side of the pitch to be with my players who go out.
The support he gives his players is admirable. He is a player manager. But many are dropping it now.
Clarke is now under pressure. While Kenny’s side may travel to Poland to take on Ukraine with a spring in their step, Scotland face a grueling flight to Armenia from Dublin for a game they can’t see enough far. If Andy Robertson plays, it will be his 59th game of the season. This will be Callum McGregor’s 63rd. The two reliable and exceptional players behave as if they are now in great need of a rest. Who can blame them?
It can’t be a surprise. That’s why we have to be careful before using a pair of below-par performances in June as a reason to rush to judge Scotland and use it as evidence to damn Clarke.
We must also take into account the irritating effects of the match against Ukraine. Again, we wonder what could have been. What would have happened if this semi-final of the World Cup play-offs had been played in March, when it was originally planned. Not only does his delay – for reasons no one can question – mean Scotland have been denied one of their key players in Kieran Tierney, but the defeat has now served to infect the start of the campaign. Scottish League of Nations.
An ordinary Armenian side was dropped mid-last week, but it’s hard not to draw a connection with the aftermath and lingering hangover of the Ukraine blow. He threw a veil over a team.
Clarke will likely shake things up again in the return game against Armenia on Tuesday. He must. He can even decide to return to a back four. With Tierney’s continued absence, the option to move from a three becomes increasingly compelling. “It’s more a question for the manager,” goalkeeper Craig Gordon said afterwards. “We have good players who can play on any system. It’s up to us to go and make it happen.”
It remains to be seen whether Gordon will win his 70th cap in Yerevan. His performance in the Dublin defeat has been questioned by some, but he has plenty of credit in the bank.
Anthony Ralston’s display – he was one of the few, indeed perhaps the only player, to emerge with credit – could make it harder for Clarke to give Nathan Patterson a start at right-back, if indeed this position exists next time. . Scotland will certainly need the injection of energy that these youngsters can provide.
Aaron Hickey could even replace Robertson on the other side if the manager decides his skipper needs a rest. Or Greg Taylor — one of four outfielders to see no action yet in this window — could be given a run out. He will surely want to rest disconnected striker Che Adams but there is little experience left in reserve.
Clarke will also be aware of the danger now attached to the game. The critical level after the Dublin result means that a defeat cannot be sustained.
One thing is certain, Scotland could not have chosen a worse place to play the 13th and final international match of a long and arduous international season.
The Republic of Ireland withered in the heat of Yerevan last Saturday and while the game against Scotland kicks off later, at 8pm local time, conditions could still be uncomfortable.
As much as they were poor in Hampden, Armenia will relish welcoming this somewhat shaken, even embattled, version of Scotland into their midst. As for Clarke, we are entering unavoidable territory. Never mind the Caucasus, feel the heat.
Rangers defender John Souttar has his say on Scotland’s loss – “it’s tough…