Roberto Martinez has admired Steve Clarke from day one. He just had a funny way of showing it.
In fact, Martinez inflicted two brutal beatings on the Scotland boss at a time when Clarke was only just settling into his new job and trying his utmost to make a good impression. As if a butchering in Brussels was not bad enough, Martinez compounded it with a humiliation at Hampden during his time in charge of Belgium.
Those clobberings were straddled on either side by crushing defeats against Russia, all of which combined to obliterate any chance Clarke may have harboured of qualifying directly for Euro 2020. Through the front door at least. And they meant Clarke’s international career had opened up with a four game losing streak. But Martinez suspected all along that Scotland had appointed a footballing visionary. Last week the pair met up again in Paris after being put on collision course all over again in the top division of the Nations League.
And Martinez, who is now in charge of Portugal, was not in the least bit surprised to see him there. The Spaniard said: “Steve Clarke has done an incredible job. I played against him twice right at the start when I was in charge of Belgium and I’ve seen an incredible progression since then with the work that he has done.
“It’s as if, when he went into the job, it was almost a vision he had for the team. He’s building something very special that he’s ending up beating Spain, the current winners of the Nations League at home and qualifying for the Euros. It’s been a fantastic job that he has done and he has created almost a club feeling within the national team and I know how difficult that makes it for an opponent to have to go to Hampden. But now I have my own problems to deal with at home. My wife is Scottish so it’s not going to be straightforward!”
Of course, the former Motherwell full-back has come a long way himself since his playing days at Fir Park. But he’s kept a close eye on Clarke’s journey over these last five years. And he’s seen enough to be convinced that the foundations Clarke has laid down will ensure Scotland’s resurgence is not just some flash in the pan.
Martinez went on: “Absolutely. There are two things at international level. One, you have to have a coach who understands his group of players, who understands the philosophy of the nation and who gives clarity. I think Steve is perfect for that.
“And then you rely on the players and which dressing rooms they come from. You look now at Scotland and there are a lot of players in that squad from the Premier League. That makes a big, big difference.
“Your players are with you five times a year but for the majority of the ten months they are in a dressing room in the Premier League which is the most competitive league in the world. If your players are part of that then the team you can create goes to a different level. Those are the most important factors.
“The good work that has been done in the development of the young players in Scotland plus what Steve Clarke is doing in the organisation and the vision that he had since his first day he arrived in the job. That’s why the team looks in good shape for a long time to come.”
Clarke did make it to those finals even though he had to get there via the side door of the Nations League play-offs. And now the same competition has him looking forward to group games against Portugal, Croatia and Poland at the end of this year – after a summer spent at a second successive Euros in Germany.
Having been there for the start, Martinez is almost in awe of the remarkable progress Clarke has overseen. He said: “It’s been about getting the right players and finding the right partnerships. You can see that he has done that.
“When you analyse the individuals who are playing for Scotland you see players who have won the Champions League, players who have won titles and individuals who are very important in their own dressing rooms.
“What Steve Clarke has built is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s a team – not a group of individuals. They’ve got an incredible structure and now, when you start winning, you obviously have a new level of confidence that allows you to beat a team like Spain.
“Traditionally Scottish football has been all about passion and aggression. You have to have that because it’s part of the competitive nature of Scottish football. But to succeed at this level you need to have organisation and a good strategy. You need to have a good idea of how to use your players to try to pose a threat. That’s what Steve Clarke has done with his squad.”
And Martinez will get a close up view of Clarke’s work in September when the two men go head-to-head again in Group 1 in Lisbon. Marinez said: “It’s an interesting draw for everyone. First and foremost the format of the competition is a fantastic step forward.
“I was involved in the first competition with Belgium and I felt three teams per group wasn’t the right format. Only one team qualified. I qualified with Belgium into the final four but you felt like you were missing some of the top teams.
“Now two teams qualify it’s an incredible format – a competition over five different training camps, which tests you in a different way because you need to find different moments with the form of players and the changes in the dressing room. It makes it a fascinating tournament.
“And for us and Scotland to play against Croatia and Poland will be fantastic.”