OF all the messages that Steve Clark received, of all the videos that were filmed and the pictures taken, one meant more than most. It would sum up the emotion of the achievement and show why football can be the most important of the least important things in life.

The short clip that Clarke sent to Willie Thomson wasn’t done for internet hits or likes. Indeed, it was never supposed to be viewed by the public eye.

But the reaction from Thomson said it all as he hailed Clarke and the achievements of his players after Scotland reached the European Championships with victory over Serbia. Tragically, the lifelong Tartan Army member will not see Scotland in action next summer after he died of cancer earlier this month at Strathcarron Hospice.

Clarke didn’t need any reminding of just what the feats that he and his players accomplished would mean to ordinary supporters, yet the video exchanges hammered home the feelings amidst a mixture of sentiments.

“When you see the video of Willie Thomson and the emotion, you think ‘jeez’. You saw what it meant to Willie,” Clarke said. “He was going through a terrible time, getting towards the end of his life.

“And at this moment, I pass my condolences on to his daughter Anne-Marie and the rest of his family. It's a really sad time.

“But you saw what it meant to him. When I did the video message, it was meant to be private, not for the public.

“But anyone who saw it and Willie's reaction to it, will tell you just how much football means to people in Scotland.

“It was a great thing. It's such a shame that Willie won't see Christmas this year but it was wonderful to be involved in that moment between two football people.’

The sense of loss that Thomson’s family will be feeling during this festive period will be shared by hundreds across the country. Whether loved ones have passed away through Covid or cancer, it has been a traumatic and challenging year for the nation.

For a few days in November, the mood was lifted, though, and the memories of that night in Belgrade – everything from a nervous 90 minutes to shoot-out success and a dressing room boogie – continue to raise a smile.

At a time when supporters need an escape from the world around them, our national game continues to shine brightly, even in the darkest moments collectively and individually.

“The fact that football came back when it did gave everyone a lift,” Clarke said. “It's been a strange time football-wise. You only have to look at the last four in the League Cup to realise that.

“No-one would have predicted that. It's fantastic for the clubs who are there and, personally, I think it's brilliant for Scottish football as well. Because it means the trophies will be shared around.

“Celtic's achievement of 12 consecutive trophies is marvellous but you don't want to see one club dominating all the time. It'll be nice to see a different name on a trophy.

“It shows the power of football. We've got into a major tournament with the national team.

“I've got to mention the Scottish Cup Final as well, what a game that was. It was unbelievable to watch.

“It was a great effort from Hearts to push Celtic all the way. Then you had the drama of the penalties.

“I think as a country we're getting to quite enjoy penalty shoot-outs as a way of deciding games. So it's been a really good year and football does mean a lot.

“We're all heading into a further national lockdown. But the one thing we can do is keep football going and enjoy it.’

There was a time, of course, where even football was well down the list of priorities in Scotland as the nation was plunged into lockdown in March.

The ever-worsening pandemic crisis would force the halt of international action and Scotland’s date with destiny was delayed. In the end, it may have been a blessing in disguise as Clarke was given time to ponder ahead of the Nations League play-offs.

“It was a really strange time for everybody,” Clarke said. “I remember sending a text to Ian Maxwell asking if he thought the game would be in doubt at the end of the month.

“His reply was, like everyone thought, that the game would go ahead with a potential restriction on the crowd. But within days of sending that message everything was stopped and the country was shut down.

“It was a little bit disruptive but I’m going to tell you something. If the games had been played in March, because it was a semi-final/final in the same window, I wouldn’t have time to prepare and change the team.

“I wouldn’t have played three at the back, that’s for sure. We would have gone with a back four and played our normal 4-2-3-1 as it was at that time.

“So the change from March to September and the two September games being Nations league games and not qualifiers, meant I had a chance to look at the 3-5-2 system and that changed worked quite well.”

The wait, of course, would prove worth it for Scotland. The win over Israel on penalties kept the dream alive, while the one in Belgrade realised the lifelong ambition for Clarke and his players.

Some, like Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney, may not have featured had the game gone ahead as planned. Perhaps it was just always meant to be this time around for Scotland.

“You can’t really control or predict injuries,” Clarke said. “I think Kieran would have been fit you know.

“I had come into London and spoke to Kieran at the start of March. We had a chat to see where he was at and he told me then that he couldn’t wait to be back involved with the national team.

“I’m pretty sure he was almost fit. If he wasn’t going to be fully fit I think he would have been fit enough to be with us. Which would have been great for us.

“Injuries are part and parcel of the game so that wasn’t such a big drama. I don’t think there was anybody else who came into the squad, maybe Griff. He came in a little bit later for the play-off game in November.

“The biggest thing for me is that I got a chance to look at the team in that 3-5-2 formation and that allowed us to play that way in the play-off matches. That worked out well for us.”