Clarke reign under real scrutiny for first time

There is suddenly a very different complexion to Scotland's Nations League match against Armenia in Yerevan tomorrow evening.

The 92nd-ranked side in the world were swept aside at Hampden Park last Wednesday in a 2-0 win that could and should have been by a greater margin. But that was then and this is now. Saturday's defeat at the hands of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin was embarrassing and it's not overstating the case to say that Steve Clarke is facing the first real examination of his managerial reign.

At the time of the 3-1 World Cup play-off defeat by Ukraine it felt understandable given the background to the fixture – the visitors were playing in hugely emotional circumstances and are no slouches in the international arena having reached the quarter-finals of last summer's European Championship. It is only in hindsight that the result can be viewed more dispassionately, however. Many of the same failings – such as defensive miscommunication, misplaced passes and a general malaise that looked like a combination of weariness at the end of a long season and a more worrying apathy – that were present in that World Cup play-off defeat were again on show against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

But here the quality of the opponents did not provide the same excuses for Clarke. Ireland came into the fixture off the back of a miserable run of form having lost their previous game to a second-string Ukraine with their own manager Stephen Kenny in the midst of a full-blown crisis. Indeed, so badly had they been performing that that midweek defeat to Oleksandr Petrakov's side was their 12th successive Nations League game without a win.

But that shocking run was halted against Scotland. Shane Duffy, a player who struggled badly at Celtic last season, was made to look every inch the superior international defender to Scott McKenna, Grant Hanley and Jack Hendry. Meanwhile, Michael Obafemi, a player who could not dislodge Che Adams from the Southampton starting line-up and left last season to join Swansea City ran riot and scored a superb goal. Ireland's other strikes came from Troy Parrott, who spent last season in League One with MK Dons, and Alan Browne, a journeyman at Preston, while all over the pitch there was a similar gulf in perceived class between the personnel on show.

Afterwards, Clarke said those players were at a loss to explain the nature of their defeat but the manager himself seemed similarly confused about what to do to provoke a response from his team. That has got to be a major concern for the Scotland manager going forward.

Time surely up for Baraclough

It was not just one manager of an Irish national team under pressure prior to this weekend's Nations League matches. Ian Baraclough – who endured a similarly forgettable spell in charge of Motherwell as Stephen Kenny did at Dunfermline – has presided over a rapidly diminishing Northern Ireland ever since replacing Michael O'Neill in 2020.

Granted Baraclough's options are not bountiful. He can no longer call on defensive stalwart Gareth McAuley, while veteran Steven Davis – who started just six times for Rangers under Giovanni van Bronckhorst from the turn of the year – no longer has the boundless energy that he once did.

Nevertheless, O'Neill was able to do something that Baraclough seems incapable of. He was a master of extracting greater efforts from limited resources and those players that he does have at his disposal have rarely demonstrated that they are capable of responding for him.

Yesterday's 2-2 draw at home to Cyprus was just the latest embarrassment for Northern Ireland during a run in which they have won just twice in 11 international matches.

Ramsay fee is robbery by Liverpool

It seems it is only a matter of time now before Calvin Ramsay completes his much-anticipated transfer to Liverpool for the bargain fee of £4m. The attitude among big English clubs continues to prevail that Scottish football's best young talents continue to be low-hanging fruit, ripe for plucking at knockdown fees. Aberdeen have sought to insert plenty of clauses into the deal for Ramsay – and understandably so. Ramsay played 27 times for Aberdeen last season in a breakthrough campaign and was awarded the Scottish Football Writers' young player of the year award for his efforts. Former winners of the award include Steven Fletcher who fetched Hibernian £3m when he joined Burnley 13 years ago, Stuart Armstrong (£7m, Celtic to Southampton in 2018) and Kieran Tierney (£25m, Celtic to Arsenal in 2019).

Liverpool, meanwhile, are preparing to make room in their squad for Ramsay by selling Neco Williams to Fulham. The Wales right-back has played 13 times for Liverpool and racked up 14 appearances on loan at the London club in the season just ended. Yes, Williams has played 21 times for his country but the players are at a comparable level at this point in their careers. The fee Liverpool want for Williams? £15m.

There's still life in Murray yet despite Stuttgart defeat

Can it really be only a week ago that this column came perilously close to penning the obituary on Andy Murray's tennis career? Nearly two decades of following Scotland's favourite son should have warned me of the folly of ever writing Murray off.

In mitigation, his exit at the hands of the world No. 84 Denis Kudla in a Challenger event at Surbiton was hardly the kind of performance we see in the average back-from-the-dead story arc that has accompanied Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal's unlikelier grand slam wins.

But that's Murray for you. This week in Stuttgart it has been an entirely different set of affairs. The Scot has claimed the scalps of Alexander Bublik (world No.42), Stefano Tsitsipas (No. 5), Nick Kyrgios (former world No.13) and showed all of his old gusto in a hard-fought defeat in yesterday's final against world No.10 Matteo Berrettini. Just as last weekend's semi-final defeat was not the epitaph to Murray's career, the big strides made in Stuttgart are not confirmation that he is back to his grand-slam winning best but it is evidence that he is heading in the right direction and gives hope of him reaching the second week at Wimbledon for the first time since 2017.

LIV Golf defectors do themselves no favours

The more the defectors to the LIV golf series open their mouths the more it becomes apparent that they deserve every ounce of opprobrium coming their way.

First there was Pat Perez, previously the world No.168, claiming that he was moving to the Saudi-back series because he wanted to travel less than he was doing on the PGA Tour.

The flight time from Perez's Arizona home to London for last week's inaugural tournament? Around 10 and a half hours.

Then there was Patrick Reed explaining his reasoning for joining up, barely able to contain his excitement for “this new format.”

The new format? Manufactured teams flung together by way of a draft, no cuts and 54 holes.

Then there was Charl Schwartzel's answer when asked about criticism from 9/11 families over the Saudi-funding of his cheque for winning the inaugural: “Where money comes from is not something I've ever looked at in my 20 years career,” said the South African.

The value of Schwartzel's cheque? £4.75m.

The real reason for all this verbal gymnastics and claptrap? Vast quantities of money.


The number of goals scored by the Republic of Ireland during Stephen Kenny's 24 games in charge prior to Saturday's 3-0 defeat of Scotland. The tally includes a 4-0 victory over Qatar plus 4-1 and 3-0 wins against Andorra and Azerbaijan respectively.