By Stewart Fisher

IT can be a lonely, bewildering existence being an international manager. Particularly when you have served your time for 20 years or more in the club game.

So Steve Clarke is fortunate indeed that he has a select little support group to help him get to grips with things.

The Scotland manager revealed yesterday that he has taken advice from his home nations counterparts such as Gareth Southgate of England Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill and Ryan Giggs or Wales since the last international double header. Armed with a few additional hints and tips, he plans to tinker with his training sessions accordingly.

“I’ve tried to condense the sessions a little bit and take out some of the non-essential parts just to get more time coaching which I think is important,” said Clarke. “That’s through a little bit of advice from other international managers.

“It was various different people,” he added. “Michael [O’Neill] at Northern Ireland, Gareth [Southgate], and I bumped into Ryan Giggs a few weeks ago and we were talking about similar things.

“We’ve all got the same ideas. We all want our players for as long as possible. So you’ve got to take out the non-essential part of training and try to fit in more tactical work. Maximise as much tactical work as you can. It is slightly frustrating but it is part of a new role. I’m working as hard as I can to adapt and adjust and hopefully become a good international manager.”

On the face of it, all that is at stake in our final two group matches against the Cypriots and the Kazakhs is the chance to finish third behind Belgium and Russia in Group I, exactly where Uefa’s seeding system thinks we should be finishing.

But they feel far more important than that. Club form will come and go in the five months or so before those play-off matches tick round, injuries too will play their part. But Clarke feels that there are places up for grabs all over his starting line-up, most notably at the back and up front. Beating San Marino at home is all very well, but every bit as important as that is getting a couple of morale-boosting wins to generating the momentum and belief amongst the group.

“I think all the positions are up for grabs,” said Clarke. “Sitting here in November, March seems a long way away and lots of things can change. I’m not sitting here thinking ‘this will be the group that goes in March’.

“But you can see there’s a continuity in the selection. These boys who’ve come in have a chance to nail down their place in the squad for March.”

Don’t tell Clarke, a man who should have garnered far more than the six caps for his country that he ultimately ended up with, that these games don’t matter.

“I think that every game that you play for your country should be important,” he added. “Every time you step out onto that pitch and play for the badge, for the country, for the supporters, it matters. We’ve got almost 3,000 supporters going out to Cyprus to watch us.

“All these things at important,” he added. “Every game I go into, I want to win. These games are every bit as important – we want to finish third in the group. To do that, we probably need to win both games, so that’s what we should be focused on, and not thinking about March. If we win both games in November we’ll go in to March in a better place. So that is what we have to do.”

To delve deeper into the squad, a smile crosses Clarke’s features as he refers to his “revolving centre halves”. Charlie Mulgrew and Stuart Findlay drop out due to injury, with previously injured duo Liam Cooper and Scott McKenna returning in their stead alongside his Aberdeen colleague Michael Devlin and Motherwell’s Declan Gallagher.

Considering he also name-checked the likes of Grant Hanley, John Souttar, David Bates, Craig Halkett and Ryan Porteous at Hibs before mentioning Steven Caulker, it seems fair to assume that the much-hyped bid to recruit the Alanyaspor defender – who has dropped out of the Turkish side’s starting line-up in recent times – is on the back burner at best.

“He hasn’t been playing in Turkey,” said Clarke. “He’s one we’re monitoring. I’ve rhymed off five Scottish centre backs plus the two boys who are in the squad so we’ve got enough centre backs that are Scottish and available right now.”

Up front, things are every bit as messy, other than the fact Lawrence Shankland keeps his spot and seems likely to get a chance at some stage to prove he can score goals against better sides than San Marino. With Matt Phillips of West Brom asking to be omitted from this group for personal reasons, and Johnny Russell injured and out of training at the end of the MLS season, you could interpret Steven Naismith’s appearance in the group as a sign of desperation, although the Hearts striker can be expected to get more game time under his belt this weekend.

“Well, obviously I had a little hesitation because I called him into the camp in September and it did not work out,” said Clarke. “He ended up missing a few more games and a few more weeks. I spoke to Steven yesterday and he assures me he is 100 per cent fit and raring to go. It was nice to see him get some minutes on the pitch in the semi-final and I am sure he will play some part of the game for Hearts this weekend.”