Ahead of next month’s international break, the first of this year, Scotland manager Alex McLeish will be busy preparing and shaping his squad for the two EURO 2020 qualifier games the Tartan Army will play against Kazakhstan and San Marino.
McLeish also faces a tough choice, as any international manager does, of choosing the best and most in-form players who have pledged to play for Scotland. The goalkeeper spots were a fairly easy one to fill throughout 2018, with Celtic’s Craig Gordon and Rangers’ Allan McGregor often taking the position.
However, 2019 has also seen the breakthrough of Celtic’s Scott Bain and the demise of Gordon, but there are other Scottish goalkeepers who don’t get the recognition they may well deserve, as is the case with St Johnstone’s Zander Clark.
Clark started off in Hamilton Academical’s youth team before moving to St Johnstone. Without playing a single time for the Saints, the Glaswegian was loaned out to Scottish Third Division (now League Two) side Elgin City as a 19-year-old, playing 41 times for the club and even receiving two red cards during the 2011/2012 season. Two loan spells at Queen of the South would follow, as Clark played 70 for the Championship club after a season back at St Johnstone, where he failed to pick up any game time.
Once he returned from his time in the Championship, Clark would prove to be pivotal in St Johnstone’s success during the next few seasons. The Saints had been able to finish in European places the four previous seasons before he took over the mantle as number one at McDiarmid Park.
— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) March 23, 2017
In Clark’s first season back, he made just 6 appearances, renewing his contract after his debut against Aberdeen in 2015 and starting in all of the last 4 games in the league. He held his position for most of the following season, starting 31 times for the club as he helped his side finish in 4th place.
A pre-season friendly ahead of the 2017/2018 against Sunderland saw the goalkeeper pick up a concussion after clashing with Jack Rodwell. After recovering from that injury, Clark played once before being dropped again until October, but he wouldn’t always play as number one for the remainder of the season.
Fast-forward to the 2018/2019 season and Zander Clark is on fire. Despite St Johnstone conceding 32 goals in the league this season, with Clark as goalkeeper in all the games in which his side has conceded, he’s managed to keep 11 clean sheets in 25 matches, sitting joint-first with Livingston’s Liam Kelly.
They’re both ahead of Craig Gordon, Allan McGregor, Scott Bain and Joe Lewis. Moreover, Clark has made the most saves out of any goalkeeper this season, making 88 in his 25 appearances in the league.
Zander Clark makes a series of fine second-half saves to deny Celtic. Stubborn St Johnstone are still level at McDiarmid Park.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) February 3, 2019
The Glaswegian was also highly praised in one of St Johnstone’s three defeats to Celtic, as he was able to deny the reigning champions from opening the scoreline, denying Jozo Šimunović, Odsonne Édouard, Scott Sinclair and Oliver Burke on two occasions before finally conceding with under 15 minutes left in the match.
Unfortunately for Zander Clark, he picked up a hamstring injury after St Johnstone’s 5-0 defeat to Celtic in the Scottish Cup and was unable to play in the Saints’ goalless draw with Rangers. Manager Tommy Wright did confirm that Clark hadn’t torn his tendon. He won’t be able to play for the Saints this weekend either and you can read our tips on that game against Aberdeen here.
“Fortunately, it seems the injury isn’t as bad as we first feared,” said Wright. The scan has shown some damage but importantly there is no tear to Zander’s tendon.
“The hamstring and tendon are stretched but the fact that there is no tear there means we can hopefully have Zander back to full fitness in a matter of weeks rather than months.”
This setback could affect Clark’s chances of making into Scotland’s first squad of the year, but if he can manage to return to fitness and play a couple of games before McLeish announces the players he’s picked, then he is fully entitled of receiving his first international call up.
With 12 games to left in Scottish Premiership, Clark also has enough games to cement his place as one of the best keepers in the country. Another thing to take into account is which half of the league table St Johnstone will end up in when it eventually splits into two.
Clark’s chances of keeping clean sheets in the post-split fixtures would increase enormously, as his side would be playing against lesser-quality teams, unless the Saints can go on a run of good games like they did earlier on in the season and perform better than most of the top-half teams expect.
Zander Clark has been, on many occasions this season, St Johnstone’s key player in some important matches. The Saints currently sit in sixth place in the top half of the table, two points ahead of Motherwell and three of Hibs, and if he continues to put in consistent performances, St Johnstone will more than likely finish amongst the best 6 clubs in the country. Bet365 currently offer odds of 8/13 for the Perth club to do just that, making it fantastic option going into the latter stages of the season.