THE chance to move abroad was never one that arose for Steve Clarke during his playing days with St Mirren and Chelsea. The Scotland manager, though, was still influenced heavily by foreign football methods. It was kind of hard for him not to be when Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola were among his team mates.
Clarke was a fan of Italian football back in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when Serie A was the best and richest league in the world, and he was delighted when Vialli and Zola arrived in West London from Juventus and Parma respectively. Their presence at Stamford Bridge had a profound impact on the full-back.
“Chelsea was one of the first English clubs to start bringing in that type of player,” he said at Hampden earlier this week after announcing his squad for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Georgia and Norway.
“When I was there I was lucky to catch the start of that little influx of foreign players. It certainly helped me, shaped my mind a little bit differently.
“They came in with their habits, their tactical awareness, their eating habits and, dare I say it, their drinking habits. You can learn a lot from them. You learn a lot about how to eat, how to conduct yourself, how to train properly.
“But the thing for me was the competition they brought to the club. It became a case of matching their standard, staying at their standard. Do you just move on and go somewhere where you get an easy life? I chose to stay and fight for my place and it worked out well for me because I ended up picking up a few medals towards the end of my career. Which is a nice way to finish.”
Clarke has no doubts at all that two of the players who he has called up for Scotland’s final Group A double header - Josh Doig, the Hellas Verona left back, and Lewis Ferguson, the Bologna midfielder – have elevated their games to a higher level as well after moving over to Italy.
“It’s good, it’s really good,” he said. “It is something the lads have done. It is something that can only help the young boys to improve, to challenge themselves, rather than staying here in Scottish football. As long as they are playing. They need to play, they need minutes on the pitch. Young players have to play.
“Fergie has gone to Bologna and is doing good. Josh has been a little bit in and out of the team at Verona, but it looks as if this season he has really nailed down the position. He has been playing pretty regular. I look forward to seeing how he does in training. Maybe he gets a run out in one of the games.
“I think it is probably a reflection of the more outgoing or more outward thinking young person now. I never thought about going abroad as a player. Now it is something that they definitely look at, whether it is their agent who is pushing it or it is something they look at themselves.
“But they want to go and challenge themselves in that league. It is not just a great football experience, it is a fantastic cultural experience for them as well to go away.
“I would like to think more Scottish players would go abroad. I would hope that maybe, like Josh and Fergie, they get a few games under their belt before they move abroad. It is a great way to do it. Lewis has shown that if you go there and you do it and you do it right you can certainly be a top player for your country moving forward.”
Ferguson has been unable to establish himself as a regular starter in the Scotland since making his debut against Denmark back in 2021 due to the presence of Callum McGregor, Billy Gilmour, John McGinn, Scott McTominay and Kenny McLean alongside him in the squad.
But Clarke remains a huge admirer. He knows the former Hamilton and Aberdeen midfielder, who has netted against Juventus and Lazio for Bologna this term, will add to his haul of eight caps in the years to come. He has seen the 24-year-old become a far more complete footballer since going overseas and feels his attributes will come in useful at the Euro 2024 finals in Germany next summer.
“He is very clued up and switched on,” he said. “There are a lot of times when he is turning up for us and I have fantastic midfield players and he is not getting on the pitch. And you pull him aside for a little chat and he understands completely.
“It’s not like he is not spitting his dummy out. He is just very understanding that he has to be patient and wait for his chance. It just shows what an intelligent young man he is. I am pretty sure when he gets his chance he will show everyone how good he is.
“I thought he did well against France (in the friendly defeat in Lille last month). He was good. He played in two or three positions on the pitch in that game and he has played in two or three positions for Bologna, although recently they have settled on him as the one behind the striker.
“He scored a fantastic goal last Friday night, it was a fantastic finish. And that is what he does. He has that threat. But if you watched the end of that game when they are 1-0 up and trying to close the game out, he is running around and is in the right position trying to close people down. He is doing very well Lewis.”
Clarke added: “These days Serie A clubs don’t have the most money, but it is still a good league. If you watch the Italian league games, they are very, very tactical. When the players come in, I notice it. Particularly in Fergie’s case. Tactically, he is very astute.
“Having his sort of nous is going to be very important going into Euro 2024. We will have a smaller squad than Euro 2020, so 23 players. We need everybody ready to play their part. Hopefully Lewis stays fit and continues to do what he is doing and is part of that group next summer.”