Sheffield United: The film about Scotland every member of Slavisa Jokanovic's team must watch

They looked disheveled, dispirited and utterly demoralised as the inquest began into yet another defeat.

Sunday, 14th November 2021, 11:00 am

Some stared at their feet. Others into space, having apparently grown so used to the beatings they were immune to embarrassment.

Scotland. Not Sheffield United. Although two of their players were present when, deep inside the bowels of Moscow’s cavernous Luzhniki Stadium, Steve Clarke surveyed the sorry scene which greeted him after entering the dressing room.

“I was angry with them and I let them know it,” Clarke remembered, describing his reaction after witnessing Russia score four times without reply during the closing stages of the contest two years ago. “Everybody was on the floor. Everybody felt it. But we spoke about things later and decided that had to be the lowest moment. I think the boys must have listened because that turned out to be the case.”

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Clarke, Celtic captain Callum McGregor and former manager Alex McLeish are the central characters in Sky Sports’ documentary ‘Whatever it Takes’, which chronicles how a country whose name had become synonymous with football failure restored its reputation. John Fleck, Oliver Burke and Oli McBurnie, who missed the capitulation to Stanislav Cherchesov’s side through injury, all make fleeting appearances. But that isn’t why the hour long programme should be required viewing at Bramall Lane.

In a series of ‘to camera’ monologues, interspersed with actual match footage, Clarke details the steps which were taken to transform Scotland’s mentality and ensure they qualified for last summer’s European Championships. It is a process, as they continue to appear haunted by their relegation from the Premier League, United must also go through in order to become the team Slavisa Jokanovic thinks they can be.

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Beaten by Blackburn Rovers earlier this month, events at Ewood Park left United with serious questions to answer about their character and mental strength. There are no doubts about their ability, with every member of the starting eleven Jokanovic selected in Lancashire boasting top-flight experience. But the psychological flaws he suspects are suffocating United’s potential were once again in evidence as, despite taking the lead through Rhian Brewster, they predictably imploded once Reda Khadra had equalised. Further strikes from Ben Brereton Diaz and Ian Poveda saw Tony Mowbray’s men, who had been beaten 7-0 by Fulham only 72 hours earlier, cruise to a comfortable and deserved win.

Head coach Steve Clarke has told Sky Sports how Scotland helped transform their fortunes and reach the European Championships: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire.

Clarke will recognise the problems Jokanovic has been grappling with since that 3-1 reverse, which followed a loss to Blackpool and draw at Nottingham Forest where United also threw away an advantage. Why? Because they bear a striking resemblance to the ones he was confronted by after replacing McLeish at the helm during the aftermath of an embarrassing reverse in Kazakhstan.

“Gutless,” was the verdict of one Tartan Army member interviewed by Sky’s production team afterwards. “No fight whatsoever,” complained another. “That was the worst performance, ever.”

Clarke did not enjoy immediate success when he stepped into the breach. But after making a few tweaks and personnel changes, he introduced a way of working Scotland simply would not deviate from despite losing to Belgium (twice) and Russia after beating Cyprus at Hampden Park.

Sheffield United's Oli McBurnie and John Fleck (right) both featured in the documentary about Scotland: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage

“The atmosphere around us was quite negative,” Clarke said, reflecting upon their first meeting with Cherchesov’s side in Glasgow’s national stadium. “I felt it was something we had to change. My intention was to be more competitive and it took a little bit more time than I would have liked. But right from the first time I met the players, I felt they were a group who wanted to do well for their country.”

“It was a key game in the evolution of the squad,” he continued. “Because, at that time, the players did not have the confidence that they could win tight games. Gradually we were able to instill a mentality where they were more robust in difficult periods.”

Scotland demonstrated their new found fortitude 10 months later when, in the decisive Euro 2020 play-off with Serbia, Luka Jovic cancelled-out Ryan Christie’s opener in the 90th minute. Clarke’s men recovered, reaching the finals via penalties including one from McBurnie. But before then came another set-back, in the Russian capital.

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic wants his squad to believe in themselves more: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“The manager was furious,” McGregor acknowledged. “He wanted to know how it could be nil nil after an hour and then finish 4-0 to them? He was right. But you have to trust yourself, go again, and believe in your ability.”

Jokanovic has been preaching a similar message since taking charge of United in July; insisting that engendering greater self-belief, learning how to negotiate safe passage through high-pressure moments, will eventually enable the talent at their disposal to flourish.

“It’s definitely harder than I thought,” Clarke was captured on film saying soon after his appointment. “Maybe I have to look at selections, because this group just can’t seem to get the result we need, so perhaps that’s something to look at.”

Although his room for manoeuvre is limited, Jokanovic could consider doing something similar when, 18th in the table, United face Coventry City this weekend. But he will also be emboldened by the fact Clarke felt a shift in mentality enabled Scotland to complete the same journey they must also take in order to salvage a campaign being undermined by inconsistent performances and self-inflicted defeats. After all, the message Clarke gave his players before that famous night in Belgrade, echoes the speech Jokanovic delivered following the trip to Lancashire.

“I told them ‘Don’t play with the fear of failure’ because that was the Scottish anthem,” Clarke said. “Failure, failure, failure - that’s all people had been thinking about for a long time. But we went out there and played with the anticipation of success.”

Sheffield United's Oliver Burke scored for Scotland against Cyprus soon after Steve Clarke's appointment as national team manager: Simon Bellis / Sportimage