Rightly or wrongly, people are often judged by the friends they keep. Given that football management is frequently as much about contacts and personal connections as coaching ability, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that Steve Clarke has long been courted in the game’s highest circles. “Steve’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business – Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson, José Mourinho, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Kenny Dalglish – and that’s not an accident,” says his former Chelsea teammate Pat Nevin. “Everyone of them rated him highly.” The 57-year-old responsible for leading Scotland to their first major tournament since 1998 possesses considerably more than an enviably stocked speed dial facility on his phone though.
Ever methodical, Clarke took time to learn his trade properly. After hanging up his boots – having won several trophies as a versatile Chelsea right-back credited with refining the then novel art of underlapping – he served as a senior coach at Newcastle, Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool, finally becoming a manager at the age of 48.
Despite leading West Brom to a new high of eighth in the Premier League, he slipped back beneath the radar during subsequent spells in charge of Reading and Kilmarnock – where a television reporter confused him with Steve McClaren during his first press conference. No matter; Clarke’s credit rating within football’s corridors of power remained high.
“Steve was never just a bibs and cones man,” says Nevin. “He understands the game and communicates well with players, which is something not all managers can do. I’ve spoken to quite a few of the top players he’s worked with and they all say he’s got something special.” John Carver, the much-travelled former Newcastle coach appointed to the Scotland backroom in August, has been friends with Clarke since they first met as young coaches at St James’ Park in the late 1990s. Indeed Clarke took time out from attempting to mediate in the civil war then raging between Gullit and Newcastle’s star players, Alan Shearer and Rob Lee, to advise the manager to promote Carver from a lowly academy role to first-team duties. A friendship that would later encompass a shared enthusiasm for fly fishing and whisky was born but Carver was not being sentimental when he recently compared Clarke to the former England manager they both served under on Tyneside following Gullit’s resignation.
“Steve has the same manner and attention to detail as Sir Bobby Robson,” said Carver during the preamble to Thursday evening’s pivotal win against Serbia in Belgrade. “His attention to detail is even greater than Sir Bobby’s but where he’s very similar is his level-headedness and the way he deals with players and speaks to people. He’s got a firm hand when necessary but he treats everyone with respect.” Clarke’s reputation for discretion, not to mention a slightly dour exterior concealing a reputedly bone dry sense of humour, dictates his media dealings can be slightly guarded.
He does, though, harbour strong opinions and, early last year, spoke out strongly, and passionately, against the sectarianism continuing to scar parts of the west of Scotland. Still Kilmarnock manager at the time, Clarke was outraged when Rangers fans called him a “Fenian bastard” and roundly denounced the discrimination that accompanied his youth as a Catholic growing up in Ayrshire where, before becoming a professional footballer, he served an apprenticeship as an instrument engineer.
In a rare public display of emotion Clarke, whose family home remains in Berkshire, appeared close to tears as he made his disgust plain. “I wake up every morning and thank Chelsea for taking me away from the west of Scotland,” he said. “I’m so happy my children have grown up not having to understand or live with this.” If his emotional intelligence has served him well in life, it also informed his decision to delay seeking a managerial position and instead continue to “compartmentalise” work and home life until he felt his wife, children and finances could withstand the likely turbulence. Tellingly, Clarke has revealed he did not apply for “No 1” roles until he had paid off his mortgage and ensured his family were in “good places”. In a self-obsessed, heavily ego-driven profession such selflessness is incredibly rare.
That base in Berkshire, with its easy access to Premier League directors’ boxes, has arguably helped facilitate the readiness of leading clubs including Arsenal and Manchester United to release highly prized players including Kieran Tierney and Scott McTominay for international duty. Given his stellar playing and coaching background, top managers are reassured by Clarke and, crucially, trust him. He is perceived differently from certain Scotland predecessors.
Such judgments are sometimes a little unfair but, while he remains very much his own man, Clarke really does have friends in all the right places.