Euro 2020: The Englishman plotting for Scotland! Clarke’s No 2 John Carver on bidding for history

When it comes to discussing Scotland’s starting XI for next week’s Euro 2020 showdown with England, Steve Clarke and assistant John Carver know what not to do.

They were part of Ruud Gullit’s backroom team at Newcastle United in 1999 when, in the manager’s office, the Dutchman told them he was ready to bench Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson for the Tyne-Wear derby.

‘It would be like Steve dropping Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney!’ laughs the Englishman now known as ‘Jock Carver’ around the Northumberland golf club in which we meet.

John Carver will be helping Scotland at the Euros as No 2 to manager Steve Clarke

John Carver will be helping Scotland at the Euros as No 2 to manager Steve Clarke

‘I was astonished when Ruud decided to do it. I said, “Do you realise how big this game is?”. Ruud said, “I played in the Milan derby, that is bigger”.

‘Me and Steve have talked about it since, and I’m convinced it was deliberate, that he was doing it because he wanted to leave.’

Newcastle lost 2-1 amid torrential rain.

‘I walked into Ruud’s office to dry myself off after the game and he was sitting there with a pad,’ recalls Carver. ‘He was writing his resignation note. I knew it was the end.’

While it was the end for Gullit, the period marked the start of a lasting friendship between Carver and Clarke, one that has now helped Scotland to their first major finals in 23 years.

Carver was brought in last summer. So is he the reason their tournament exile is over?

Carver recalled Ruud Gullit (centre) dropping Alan Shearer (right) and Duncan Ferguson (left) for the Tyne-Wear derby

Carver recalled Ruud Gullit (centre) dropping Alan Shearer (right) and Duncan Ferguson (left) for the Tyne-Wear derby

Carver recalled Ruud Gullit (centre) dropping Alan Shearer (right) and Duncan Ferguson (left) for the Tyne-Wear derby

‘No! And I’m not the best coach in Scotland…’

That last sentence is a nod to the quote for which he became unfairly known during his time in charge of Newcastle in 2015.

It made headlines when, after eight straight defeats, Carver declared: ‘I still think I’m the best coach in the Premier League.’

As a reporter on the patch at the time, it is fair to say his words were taken out of context. Rather, he had meant that he needs to tell himself as much to maintain belief.

‘I was hurt by the coverage,’ he says. ‘But you learn from things like that, I left myself open.’

Newcastle survived on the final day when Jonas Gutierrez – who had beaten testicular cancer – scored in a 2-0 win over West Ham.

‘I told Jonas on the Monday he would play and said, “You could be our hero”. When he did that, it was like a movie script.

The 56-year-old was interim manager of Newcastle in 2015 and helped them avoid relegation

The 56-year-old was interim manager of Newcastle in 2015 and helped them avoid relegation

The 56-year-old was interim manager of Newcastle in 2015 and helped them avoid relegation

‘For me, what went before that day wasn’t nice. But for that moment when Jonas scored, it was all worth it.

‘I don’t think I could have coped with being relegated – I did not want that on my head. The emotion was more relief than euphoria.’

Euphoria, rather, is qualifying for the Euros via a penalty shootout, even if Carver’s joy at the sight of David Marshall’s winning save from Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic was short-lived.

‘I’ve learned that you have highs and lows in football. Well, that was both in the space of 10 seconds.

‘The adrenaline rush of the save was up there with anything I’ve experienced. But then I felt this incredible pain, like I’d been shot. I’d torn my calf muscle running towards the pitch.’

There is a clip in the dressing-room of the team celebrating to the sound of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie – the 70s disco classic by Baccara – when Carver limps past the camera, a belated arrival having been piggy-backed up the tunnel by fellow coach Steven Reid.

‘My sister had the record when we were kids, so I knew all the words. I’d have been singing it with them if I wasn’t in so much agony.

‘That pain eased once I’d had a couple of drinks back at the hotel, watching the lads singing and dancing. What a brilliant night. We want more of that.’ 

Carver has played a role in Scotland qualifying for their first major tournament in 23 years

Carver has played a role in Scotland qualifying for their first major tournament in 23 years

Carver has played a role in Scotland qualifying for their first major tournament in 23 years

The coach hurt himself in the celebrations as Scotland beat Serbia in their Euro play-off

The coach hurt himself in the celebrations as Scotland beat Serbia in their Euro play-off

The coach hurt himself in the celebrations as Scotland beat Serbia in their Euro play-off

Carver may have played down his part in Scotland’s success, but Clarke counts on his opinion and analysis.

He took a break recently to meet Sportsmail at Close House Golf Club, although there is no time for a round. From here it is back to homework on Scotland’s Group D opponents.

The 56-year-old is a good judge of a player (he released me from Newcastle’s academy before his elevation to Gullit’s senior staff) and he is excited by those bidding to make history by becoming the first Scotland side to progress beyond the group stage.

‘I knew how good they were as soon as I met them. I’ve been around some special groups in my time. At Newcastle, under Sir Bobby Robson, we had Alan Shearer, Gary Speed, Shay Given, all big characters.

‘Scotland is the same, they all want to win for each other, and that goes a long way. You might think there are some superstars, the likes of Tierney and Robertson, but they don’t look at themselves like that.

‘But don’t being fooled into thinking it’s just about spirit, these lads are top quality players. They have set a standard and we can’t let that drop just because we’ve qualified.

‘Steve has told them, “You can all be heroes now”.’

One player who could emerge as a star is Billy Gilmour, the 19-year-old Chelsea midfielder for whom Carver reserves a special comparison.

Carver's experience makes him well placed to assess the young talent in Scotland's squad

Carver's experience makes him well placed to assess the young talent in Scotland's squad

Carver’s experience makes him well placed to assess the young talent in Scotland’s squad 

‘He has a bit of Phil Foden about him technically, in terms of that close control. He can play under pressure, in tight areas. He’s different to what we have.

‘And he’s not here just for the experience. We want the young guys to force their way into the team. Steve is like that – if you’re good enough, you’ll play.’

Carver is well placed to assess such talent, given he was forced to rebuild his career as a junior coach after injury ended his playing days aged just 20.

He had been head apprentice at Newcastle when Paul Gascoigne was coming through, and he will spare a thought for his old friend when he takes to the touchline at Wembley next Friday.

It was there, while a Rangers player, that Gascoigne scored his famous goal against Scotland at Euro 96.

‘Paul proved that you can be a proud Englishman but also respected in Scotland. I suppose that’s what I want to achieve,’ says Carver, who lives a few yards north of Hadrian’s Wall on what he calls the ‘Scottish side’ of Northumberland.

‘I’ll stick my chest out for both national anthems but, on the day, I’ll be fighting for a Scotland win.’

The coach believes 19-year-old Billy Gilmour could have a big role to play at the tournament

The coach believes 19-year-old Billy Gilmour could have a big role to play at the tournament

The coach believes 19-year-old Billy Gilmour could have a big role to play at the tournament

There will be a lot of coverage around Gascoigne in the coming week, and Carver says: ‘It looks like he’s in good spirits right now, which is lovely to see.

‘I remember him as a cheeky 16-year-old. I took him under my wing as head apprentice, and that wasn’t easy keeping him in line.

‘I had a ground-floor flat in Newcastle with two other players. You’d be lying in bed after midnight and would hear this dodgy window being forced open, and there was Gazza climbing in! He just loved spending time with us.’

Carver, then, is well versed with some of the game’s more challenging characters. Take Craig Bellamy, the Newcastle forward with whom he had an infamous dust-up in an airport departure lounge before a UEFA Cup tie at Real Mallorca in 2004. 

Conversation cannot pass without getting Carver’s take, although he greets the subject with a smile.

‘I’ll start by saying I went to Craig’s wedding after this, and we’ve been friends ever since. But yeah, there had been a few little issues and I thought, “I just can’t put up with this anymore”, so we had a bit of a roll around at the airport. 

Former Newcastle forward Craig Bellamy had an infamous bust-up with Carver in 2004

Former Newcastle forward Craig Bellamy had an infamous bust-up with Carver in 2004

Former Newcastle forward Craig Bellamy had an infamous bust-up with Carver in 2004

Carver will be using each and every experience to help his adopted nation make history

Carver will be using each and every experience to help his adopted nation make history

Carver will be using each and every experience to help his adopted nation make history 

‘It was funny, we were in the middle of wrestling when Alan (Shearer) leaned across and said, “Come on, the plane is leaving”.

‘Sir Bobby was doing a press conference in the adjacent room. One of the coaches had his foot against the door to stop Bobby getting in and the story getting out!

‘We thought we’d got away with it until my wife rang the next morning… “What the hell have you been up to?”. She’d heard it on the radio.

‘We had a meeting and shook hands. We then won 3-0 and Craig scored, so it wasn’t all bad.’

From Gullit’s hand grenades to Bellamy’s fists, Carver will be using each and every experience to help his adopted nation make history this summer.

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