Why Steve Clarke was right to allow Scotland players to go home ahead of Euro 2020 despite Covid fears

There could only be a widening of the pupils and a sharp intake of breath at the news Steve Clarke had given his Scotland squad two days back home before they plunge into the country’s first major finals in 23 years.

Scotland head coach Steve Clarke has allowed his players to return home ahead of Euro 2020. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

In this Covid-19 age, it could only appear incredibly risky. A matter of five days before their Euro 2020 opener against the Czech Republic on Monday, players haven’t merely departed from the bio-secure bubble in which they have been cocooned for almost a fortnight. They have been allowed to come into close contact with wives, partners, parents, siblings and children who simply by going about their daily business have the potential for catching and passing on the virus.

It is a huge call by Clarke; not least because of the problems that ensued from John Fleck testing positive for Covid-19. It might be the sort of call coaches are paid to make in such high-pressurised situations, but these only make them all the more daunting.

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“When I heard what Steve had decided, my first thought was ‘well done’,” said Atholl Duncan, chair of UK Coaching.

Tennis coach Judy Murray is a supporter of the UK Caching organisation. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images for LTA)

The organisation operates across all sports and from elite to community level, and, according to their blurb, “supports the nation’s three million coaches by delivering best practice, training, research and industry standards across sports, communities and national governing bodies of sport”.

“Yes, it might be considered risky,” he said. “But it is also right.”

Duncan says he is evangelical about the transformative abilities of sporting participation and those whose leadership roles are crucial in this context. He is currently concerned that the pandemic could reduce the number of those taking part in activities by up to one million people, which in turn could exacerbate health inequalities.

In UK coaching week, he believes Clarke has demonstrated the very best practice, and identified the requirement to be conscious of mental health going into a tournament that will place intense physiological demands on coaches, as well as players.

“I would draw parallels between coaches who will prosper in Euro 2020 and those political leaders who have done well during the Covid crisis,” said Duncan, whose coaching within commerce inspired him to write a book last year entitled Leaders in Lockdown: Inside stories of Covid-19 and the new world of business. “I think Steve has shown the awareness that was important in leaders handling some of the issues Covid-19 has raised. We always talk in UK Coaching of recognising stress, then being able to take a pause, because that is the way to cope. Pause, reflect and regather your strength. That is what Scotland players and coaches will be able to do with their two days away. You cannot be ‘on’ all the time, but a tournament such as the Euro 2020 can make it difficult not to be. It is shrewd from Steve to recognise the value of this pause right now.”

Duncan says UK Coaching, who are currently also helping coaches prepare for the Olympics, are fortunate to have support of such high-profile figures as Judy Murray and Mel Marshall - coach of swimmer Adam Peaty - but he wants to revamp the organisation to do more, and make more of a difference. Never has this been more important than in the teeth of the Covid-19 health emergency.

“We need a volunteer army of coaches, we need local authorities to ensure facilities reopen and are expanded and government support to ensure we don’t jump from one health crisis to another. We cannot afford to lose one million people to participation in exercise and sporting activities, the cost to our society, to our NHS, will be too great.

"It has been shown that Covid-19 has impacted more on lower income families than any other section of the populace, and that is worrying because this group were less active before the pandemic. We can’t let inequalities grow, we have a duty of care to everyone.

"Coaches are key here. They are the people who inspire and develop interest in activity. They can be parents, teachers and those who run clubs and we have to do everything we can to encourage and support those taking on such important roles.

“We have a coaching champion award that recognises the person who was the catalyst at the start of an elite athlete’s journey. Last year, following England cricketers’ World Cup win, we chose Ben Stokes’ old coach Jon Gibson, so influential to him when he was a 13-year-old with Cockermouth Cricket Club.

"Jon told us he watched Ben’s heroics in the World Cup final on his own in the Cockermouth pavilion. Every single one of the Scotland players who take to the pitch in the Euros will have a figure like Ben.

"We have to appreciate and cultivate these inspirational figures.”

Duncan hopes that this summer can light the touch paper for a whole host of new coaches and youngsters to become active.

“I think seeing Scotland in a major finals after 23 years, and then watching our athletes at the Olympics can ignite interest in sporting activity and stop levels dropping. It is my fervent hope this will be how we can measure lasting success.”

The role that coaches play in inspiring people to be active will also become increasingly significant as we emerge from the pandemic, with 72 per cent of the British public believing that coaches and instructors will be important in supporting and encouraging people to get back into physical activity after the pandemic.

To find out more about UK Coaching Week visit www.ukcoaching.org.