The Scots – playing their second game in 72 hours – trailed at the break to John Egan’s opener at a packed-out Hampden.
But Jack Hendry’s second-half header and a late Ryan Christie penalty – following Alan Browne’s handball – were enough to secure a crucial victory for Clarke’s side as they moved back above Ukraine at the top of Nations League Group B1 ahead of Tuesday’s showdown between the two nations in Krakow.
“It was as tough a game as we expected, you could see Ireland had a clear week to prepare for the game,” said Clarke. “It took us a bit of time to get a foothold and by that time we had conceded from a set-piece which plays into Ireland’s strengths as they have good pace up front and are a good counter-attacking team.
“Towards the end of the first half we had better control of the game. I said to the boys at half-time just to stay patient and keep working the ball into good areas.
“I knew eventually the game would come back to us. At half-time it was about having a little reset just to calm the boys down.
“You don’t want to get them too frantic and starting to put the ball into the box from deep areas.
“Eventually we go to 1-1 and the penalty was right. If you jump for the ball like that with your hands in front and it stops the ball going goalwards, it’s a penalty.”
A point against Ukraine will earn the Scots top spot in the section and promotion to Group A.
“At this moment in time I’m just thinking about what my issues (in terms of injuries) are going into the game on Tuesday, rather than thinking about the consequences,” he said.
“We know we have to get a point. We know we have to go to a difficult place. We know we have to play very well.
“If we do that then we get first place in the group. Then we can talk about the rewards of being first.”
Clarke lost both full-backs Kieran Tierney and Aaron Hickey to injury during the match but insisted they were both taken off for “precautionary” reasons. Tierney was replaced under doctor’s orders after suffering a head knock while Hickey had a tight hamstring.
Midfielder Scott McTominay is suspended for Tuesday’s match in Krakow after picking up a second Nations League booking.
We know we have to get a point. We know we have to go to a difficult place. We know we have to play very well.
Steve Clarke on Ukraine showdown
“It’s disappointing, for something that happened so late in the game, but we have plenty of cover, many midfield players,” said Clarke. “If it has to be Ryan Jack or Kenny McLean we have good bodies to go into the midfield.”
Ireland now go into their final game at home to Armenia knowing they can finish no higher than third in the four-team section.
Manager Stephen Kenny rued the way his side relinquished control at Hampden.
“It was a tough game to lose because in the first half we showed real maturity,” he said. “I felt we had a high degree of control. We were comfortable in possession and didn’t really concede any chances in the first half.
“It was just disappointing to concede five minutes into the second half because we had started the second half well. The crowd really got up after that and they went into the ascendancy. I thought we responded well and created some really good chances but we just couldn’t quite capitalise on them. The penalty was contentious, it was very harsh.”