Steve Clark is unaware of the hostility towards Scotland as it prepares to welcome Ukraine. It’s just the background to arguably the greatest Scottish game in a generation that’s unusual enough to spark extraordinary debate.
Clarke’s job is to make sure his players eye a potential World Cup spot, not Ukraine’s conditions, ahead of the semi-final match. Neutral support will sit with visitors to Hampden Park but the Scottish message is crystal clear.
“We have to focus on the football match and I don’t think the Ukrainian national team wants anything else,” the Scotland coach said. “Their coach said they are ready for the game. We are ready for the game. It is a football match and we hope the best team will win. We hope to be the best team.
“It’s definitely not back to normal [in Ukraine]. But we have always said that we are guided by the Ukrainians, how they see the situation and what they expect from the situation. What they want is for the football team to get out of the country, prepare properly as they have done for the past four weeks and prepare for a football match.
They want to strengthen their country, which is 100% understandable. But we also want to go to the World Cup. We want to give our country a boost. It is very difficult, but you have to separate the situation that the Ukrainians are in and the context of the football match. It’s a football match and that’s what we focus on.”
In the stands, if not on the field, the scene promises to be different from what you would normally expect from a game of this size. “We will respect the Ukrainian national anthem and salute the Ukrainian national anthem,” Clark said. “From there, the fans have to sing from their heart, get behind the team and push the team forward.”
Asked if Scotland could inadvertently be the villains in this situation by ending Ukraine’s World Cup dream, Clarke said: “I don’t always read a lot of the media but I didn’t really feel like we were getting it wrong. I’ve never felt this before.”
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who will be making his 67th cap, has stressed that avoiding distractions will not be a huge problem for Scotland. “Because we trained to do it,” says the 39-year-old. “We can’t even imagine what’s happening in Ukraine. We really have no idea. We can’t understand exactly what these players are going through, what everyone’s circumstances look like. We have to focus on football, prepare and make sure we are as prepared as possible to try and win the game.”
Clarke brushed off the social media hype aimed at captain Andy Robertson, who was photographed holding a beer during the end of the season parade in Liverpool on Sunday. The left-back joined the Scottish camp the next day.
“He’s joined us in a great place and that’s all that worries me,” Clark said. “I’m not interested in criticism. It wouldn’t bother Andy and it certainly wouldn’t bother me.
“Liverpool have had a great season, if you look at two of the four big trophies in the treasury, they missed the league by a point and a goal in the Champions League final. They should have been up front before they conceded that goal. They were very close to the quartet. They’ve had a great season.
“Finishing with disappointments is something you learn to deal with as a professional player. It’s not like he’s going to a bad Nations League season-ending match with Scotland. It’s probably one of the biggest games he’s played for his country, so he’ll be ready.”
Clarke’s primary personal decision revolves around who should play on the left side of his three back due to Kieran Tierney’s injury. Liam Cooper of Leeds is likely to fill that spot. Bologna’s Aaron Hickey is expected to play at right-back as Everton’s Nathan Patterson has not adequately recovered from ankle surgery.