HE ONCE played in a position he described as “right back” for Scotland on a notorious evening in Prague. However, James Mackie is now relishing the thought of featuring in what he would consider to be a more conventional role in a dark blue jersey.
With Kenny Miller having retired, the No 9 shirt is up for grabs. Mackie wants to make it known that he has applied to fill the vacancy.
Need a lone front man who can run the channels, make runs in behind the defenders and hold the ball up, something Miller managed to do as well as anyone in recent years? Look no further.
Playing through the middle is where Mackie would contend he is at his best. Sadly for him, he has not been employed in this position on too many occasions, either at international or club level. It is one reason why he felt he had to leave Queens Park Rangers, where he had become a victim of the “hectic” goings on.
With the Loftus Road club staring relegation in the face last season, Harry Redknapp tried to enact a recovery by going on a signing splurge that only seemed to make things worse.
The chaos left Mackie a frustrated figure on the sidelines. More often than not, he was employed as a substitute. When sent on, it was invariably in the wide position where he feels he does not offer what he can do through the middle. This was a better fate than some.
“There were many good players who were not even involved in the squad,” he recalled this week at the Scotland headquarters in Renfrewshire. He remembers looking around the dressing-room and wondering why a new team-mate had been signed when they appeared to already have more than enough numbers.
“There was an element of thinking: ‘We can’t keep just buying players in, there’s already enough good players here.’
“But it was the way they went. They went to buy a lot of players and it was a bit hectic.”
The pile ’em high strategy did not work. QPR were relegated to the Championship and, having come to accept his place in the scheme of things at Loftus Road, Mackie left to join Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest in July in a £1 million deal.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mackie bears no ill will towards Redknapp, who he says was always honest with him at least. “He was brilliant with me in that respect,” he said. “He gave me the truth.
“He sat me down and gave it to me straight. Harry said he was looking to buy players and that my game time was going to be limited.”
Anyone who has watched Mackie play will know that he is a worker. It is no surprise that was not prepared to accept remaining idle on the bench, particularly when he had his international ambitions to think about. These were not being helped by his lack of first-team opportunities and he feared being cast into the international wilderness.
Indeed, his call-up for tomorrow night’s meeting with Belgium and next week’s game in Macedonia is the first time he has been included in a squad since Gordon Strachan’s first game in charge against Estonia. His last started a game for Scotland against Macedonia at Hampden a year ago.
Although he has scored twice in nine appearances, the majority of them made as a substitute, he feels he has yet to show the best of himself in a Scotland shirt. It didn’t help that one of his rare starts was the game against the Czech Republic when then manager Craig Levein opted for his infamous 4-6-0 formation. Mackie toiled industriously somewhere between right back and right midfield. On other occasions for Scotland, he has found himself further up the field, but still on the flank.
“A lot of the times I was picked out wide because I was playing there for my club,” said Mackie. “I still feel I did well in that position. But I definitely feel I’ve got more to offer up front.”
“Without a doubt I want to opportunities to prove myself in a more central role,” he added “In the last few weeks I’ve been playing for Nottingham Forest down the middle. Hopefully, I can show people why I believe it’s there that I’m at my best. My last few years at QPR, in fact for the majority of time there, I’ve been playing out wide. I know I did a good job there in the Premier League. But it’s not where I’m at my best.
“Now there’s an opportunity here in the Scotland squad, not just for myself but all the strikers, to try to put our name on the shirt and to try to do the best I can for the country.”
Mackie admitted he was taken by surprise when he heard that Miller had decided to retire so soon after re-establishing himself as Scotland’s top striker with a fine performance and exceptional goal against England last month.
“I didn’t have any dialogue with Kenny, so I didn’t know of his thought process,” Mackie said. “So, after seeing him score a fantastic goal at Wembley and also how well he played overall, plus how he has done anyway for Scotland, I was stunned when the news broke. I was in the dressing-room at Forest. It was a complete shock.”
But the first rule for any striker is to take an opportunity when it is presented, and Mackie, however sorry he is to see Miller step away, now intends to do just that. He concedes that he can’t be another Kenny Miller, but, like the other four forwards in the squad, he will attempt to make his mark in his own way.
“It is a big challenge for me to try to fill Kenny’s boots,” he said. “I’m definitely not here to be like anyone else. I’m not going to pretend to be like any other player.
“I’m here to be myself. Hopefully, the manager can recognise my qualities. Kenny, however, showed how to lead the line. Like everyone else now I hope to get the chance to do it for Scotland too.”