BEING based at Middlesbrough’s plush training complex in the north-east of England for the past five days has meant that Scotland have been somewhat detached from the growing hysteria surrounding their involvement in Euro 2020 among their countrymen.

As they made their way from Glasgow Airport to the team hotel yesterday afternoon, though, the sense of anticipation being felt across the land became immediately apparent to them.

“I was a little bit nervous on the drive,” said manager Steve Clarke last night at the pre-match press conference ahead of the Group D opener with the Czech Republic at Hampden this afternoon.

“When we were on the M8 all the cars were slowing down to toot their horns. They were swerving to avoid each other, but thankfully there was no incidents.

“Everyone wanted to wish us well and that’s great. So we’re definitely aware of the magnitude of this game and know what it means to everyone.

“Everyone is good and we’re all looking forward to the game. We can’t wait, to be honest. It feels like everyone in the country is excited about the tournament and that’s fantastic.”

But Clarke will urge his Scotland players to approach their opening fixture – and their first match at a major tournament in 23 long and painful years – against the Czechs full throttle today and go all out for victory.

The former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool assistant and West Brom, Reading and Kilmarnock manager is not exactly renowned for his flamboyant approach to games.

Still, the 57-year-old appreciates that a single win in their section could be enough to secure a place in the last 16 – the four best third-placed teams go through to the knockout rounds - and that is his immediate target.

“We go into every game trying to win it,” he said. “That’s the reality and that’s how we’ll approach this one. We want to win. But if we can’t win it then don’t lose it. I’d say that’s a good way to set our your style as a football team. 

“The Czechs are a big strong physical team with one or two really good technical players. They have a couple of players I’m expecting to play who didn’t play the last time. But then some of our players didn’t play against them either.

“I feel both teams are on a similar path by improving all the time. So listen, we expect a tough game. Just like I think the Czech Republic will be expecting a tough game back. So let’s see what happens.”

Clarke is a reserved Ayrshireman who is unlikely to get caught up in the Euro 2020 fever that is gripping the nation. He is meticulous in his work and has simply been concentrating on preparing his team. But he has complete faith in his players’ ability to remain focused on deliver. 

“They are excited,” he said. “But we have a lot of experienced players in the squad, remember. We have got boys who have played in European finals, two quite recently.

“Andy Robertson is a European Cup winner and World Club champion. Billy Gilmour was involved with Chelsea in the Champions League a couple of weeks ago, Scott McTominay played in a European final. So we have players who know what it’s like to be involved in big games like this. I’ve coached a team in a European final myself.

“We understand big games and big moments. They’re for big players and we believe we’ve got enough big players to handle the occasion.

“Their job will be to keep a lid on it. I don’t want to tell any of the lads that they shouldn’t get excited because sometimes when you’re excited you play your best football. But it needs to be controlled.

“We need to control our emotions and make sure that we play our game properly. And hopefully that’s good enough to get us the win that we want to start with.”

Clarke continued: “I try to keep the games for what they are. I always prepare the same. I’ve been quite methodical throughout my career approaching matches, so I try to follow the same process in training, the meetings we have. I’ll follow the same process tomorrow and hopefully that’s enough to get us off to a good start.

“I think the whole country, the Tartan Army, they can get over-excited for us. We have to be excited, but we have to keep an emotional control, so when we get to the match we can play to our full potential. I believe if we do that we can get a good result.”

Scotland will pay in front of their supporters, albeit a limited number of them, for the first time since the Covid-19 outbreak in March last year and Clarke believes that having some fans in the 12,500-strong crowd today will boost his side’s chances of getting off to a winning start.

“The players are really looking forward to having supporters back,” he said. “We had a little taste in Israel (in the Qatar 2022 qualifier in March), playing in front of a 5,000 crowd. It’s been a long time since we’ve had supporters in at Hampden so hopefully it makes for a great atmosphere and a great game, with a good result as well.

“It’s going to make for a good atmosphere. But I’m sure the Czech Republic are looking forward to playing in front of a crowd as well. They’re a good team with experienced players. Hopefully it’s a good match with a good outcome for us.”

Clarke has been concentrating on the Czech encounter to such an extent that he didn’t take in the Group D match between England and Croatia at Wembley yesterday. He will watch the match that Gareth Southgate’s team edged 1-0 before their

“We trained this morning, had a bit of lunch and then we were travelling north,” he said. “A lot of the boys had it on their iPhones or whatever it is they watch matches on. All we can control is what we do. All I’m interested in is my players and our preparations for our first match against the Czech Republic.

“I think the opening match is always important. It sets your stall out for the tournament. Both ourselves and the Czech Republic will be trying to win the game as it’s the best way to start the tournament.”