John Carver always listened intently when Bobby Robson reminisced about managing England at international tournaments but little did the former Newcastle coach know he would one day prove a key figure behind Scotland’s return to the European stage.
Carver’s installation as Steve Clarke’s assistant last September coincided with a marked upswing in the team’s performances, culminating in their qualification for a first major tournament since France 98.
As he and Clarke made final preparations for their opening Group D fixture against the Czech Republic at Hampden Park on Monday afternoon, Carver exuded confidence the team can make history by reaching the knockout stages of a World Cup or European Championship for the first time at the 11th time of trying.
“What we don’t want to do is just arrive at the tournament and say, right, we’re happy to be here,” said Carver, who has remained good friends with Clarke ever since they served as coaches at St James’ Park under Ruud Gullit and then Robson in the late 1990s. “We want to take the next step.”
Crucially, he believes Scotland can still improve appreciably. “This group of players want to compete and progress,” he said. “The manager has talked about how, every time we play an international match, they get better and stronger and that’s what I’m seeing.
“Since I arrived we’ve had five camps and the quality in the group has got better and better and the standards higher and higher.
“I’m expecting us to get out of the group. The guys are confident enough to do that and if we can achieve something that’s never been achieved by a Scotland men’s national team, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Breaking through the glass ceiling will involve Clarke getting his increasingly tough first XI selections right. Matters are complicated – albeit in a good way – by all 26 squad members reporting fit on Saturday as Scotland prepared to leave their tournament base at Rockliffe Park, set in undulating countryside on the County Durham/North Yorkshire border south of Darlington, and fly to Glasgow.
Carver confirmed Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney will play, despite sitting out training as he manages the legacy of a knee injury. The Sheffield United midfielder John Fleck has recovered from Covid in time to challenge for a place in another strong department while Chelsea’s 20-year-old Billy Gilmour also has a compelling case for inclusion.
Although competition for places is now so intense Carver said “some of the senior guys are under pressure” it has not disrupted a powerful team spirit.
“One of the main things for me is camaraderie and togetherness,” he said. “We know these guys have ability, I’m seeing it every time they go on the training ground. They’ve got to believe in their ability and I keep telling them how good they are because I’ve worked at the top level of English Premier League football, with top players.
“But the biggest thing for me is the togetherness. Everybody wants to be part of it, everybody wants to be here. Nobody wants to miss out.”
After a mixed stint in Canada, managing Toronto FC, Carver returned to Newcastle as Alan Pardew’s assistant before a turbulent six months in caretaker charge. It dented his reputation but there is a reason why Gullit, who promoted him from an academy role, Robson and now Clarke placed their trust in his coaching ability.
A man who always said he wanted to make “Sir Bobby proud” has surely achieved that aim.