STEVE Clarke must have forgotten how whataboutery can dominate a discussion about Scottish football during the years that he spent playing and coaching down in England.

Since taking over as manager of the national team in 2019, though, it will all have come flooding back to him.

He was lauded as a hero after winning the Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia in November and leading the country through to their first major tournament since France ‘98.

However, the momentous accomplishment hasn’t stopped the questions about the players he selects or the formation he uses.

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Aye, but what about Billy Gilmour? What about James Forrest? What about moving Scott McTominay from centre half to midfield? What about switching from a back three to a back four?

There is no let-up for Clarke, who will meet up with his squad in Edinburgh today to begin preparations for the opening 2022 World Cup qualifier against Austria at Hampden on Thursday night, in his role.

The former Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United assistant acknowledges his team is a work in progress and accepts there is room for improvement – but he is determined to remain loyal to the individuals who have served him well since he replaced Alex McLeish.

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“Sometimes I find it a little bit difficult to understand the clamour to bring in seven or eight new faces to a squad that has just qualified for the first tournament in 23 years,” he said after announcing his 26-man squad for the Group F triple header against Austria, Israel and the Faroe Islands. 

“It’s an unbelievable achievement that this group of players have managed. I don’t think that should be overlooked. The performances to get us there were maybe not top, top performances. But they were made up with grit, determination and a passion to be successful for their country. I don’t think we should lose that. 

“Although I’m trying to improve different areas of the team I think by sticking by the nucleus of the squad that managed to achieve that historic feat then hopefully I have got the balance right. 

“I understand the need to speak about young players coming through, to blood some players. But I don’t think the first month of a World Cup qualifying campaign is the time to blood new young players.”

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There were widespread calls for Gilmour to be promoted from the Scotland Under-21 set-up into the senior squad before the coronavirus outbreak last season after the young midfielder broke into the Chelsea first team and performed well.

The 19-year-old then suffered a serious knee injury and his first team appearances at Stamford Bridge under new manager Thomas Tuchel, who replaced Frank Lampard in January, have been limited since he returned to full fitness.

But Clarke, a Chelsea great, is confident he will get back to the level he was at before he was sidelined in the coming months. The Euro 2020 finals may come too soon for the Ayrshire native, but the Scotland manager knows he has a bright international future.  

Asked about Gilmour’s lack of game time under Tuchel, he said: “Without being inside the club it’s difficult to know. Yes, Billy has not featured much recently, but he is obviously back after a serious knee injury that kept him out for five months. 

“It takes a bit of time to get back to your level. I saw him play in the FA Cup game against Barnsley and I thought he played quite well. 

“He is a good prospect, Billy, but he is only 19 years of age. He has 15 years in front of him so he has plenty of time to push his way into the Scotland national team. I know he has a great attitude and he is very highly thought of at Chelsea.”

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James Forrest, the Celtic winger who made his comeback after five months on the sidelines in the Premiership match against Dundee United at Tannadice a fortnight ago, is well regarded by members of the Tartan Army.

His hat-trick against Israel in a Nations League game in Glasgow in 2018 clinched the Euro 2020 play-off spot.

Clarke is confident the 35-times capped 29-year-old can force his way into his plans if he performs well at club level in the remaining games of the 2020/21 campaign.  

“James has done well for his country,” he said. “A lot of people remember Allan McGregor’s big save in the 3-2 game against Israel that qualified us for the Nations League play-off and eventually Euro 2020. James scored a hat-trick that night. You can’t forget that kind of input. 

“He was in some of my earlier squads and he did well. He is a good character, good about the squad and is a good player. He has also had a serious injury. Hopefully he will get a few games between now and the summer and we will see what happens. But certainly I haven’t forgotten about him that’s for sure.” 

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Clarke deployed McTominay at centre half during the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and the Manchester United player acquitted himself well there. However, the 6ft 4in 24-year-old has been performing superbly in his favoured position in central midfield.

He has recalled Grant Hanley of Norwich City and Jack Hendry, the Celtic defender who has spent this season on loan at KV Oostende in Belgium, and looks set to shake things up in the coming fixtures. 

“Scott’s midfield performances in the English Premier league they have been of a very high standard,” he said. “He has done really well and he has become a first choice regular pick in that Manchester United team which is not an easy thing to do with the competition they have there. 

“It’s something I am keen to look at. But I am also aware of how well Scott did for us when he played in a back three. It’s going to be interesting. We need to be able to play a number of systems, whether it’s a back three or back four. I’m quite keen to explore that.”

The visitors’ German-based contingent of players is set to miss the match on Thursday night, but Clarke, whose side struggled to overcome a weakened Czech team in the Nations League last year, is still anticipating a difficult evening. He will not allow his charges’ attention to wander to the Euro 2020 finals. “Austria are a Pot Two team, a good team,” he said. “They are ranked above us for a reason. It will be a tough game for us, but we are at home and it’s a new World Cup qualifying campaign. We want to get off to the best possible start which is three points.”

Clarke added: “Nobody can get ahead of themselves because you don’t know what’s going to happen between now and the summer. Nobody knows. 

“I think if the last year has shown us anything, it’s that. Concentrate on the moment and the three massive qualifiers for the World Cup. After that the Euros will take care of themselves.”