Stevie May was a comparatively elderly 20-year-old when he made his debut for Scotland Under-21s, being sent on as substitute when his team were already 6-0 down to England.
“Regardless of the scoreline, though, it felt great to pull on a Scotland shirt,” he said yesterday, as he contemplated the next major step – making a full international debut against Georgia on Saturday, aged just 21. Hopefully he will not be asked to retrieve a lost cause in the first part of a crucial Euro 2016 double-header, with Poland to come on Tuesday.
His first full international call-up has come just months after he left St Johnstone in a £800,000 deal to join Sheffield Wednesday, where he has scored three times to date. May says the move south wasn’t born from a desire to be recognised by Scotland, although it does tend to help – 23 of the 27 players named in Gordon Strachan’s current squad are based there.
“I made the move because it was right for my club career at that time, it had nothing to do with Scotland,” said May yesterday after reporting for duty at Mar Hall, where he is sharing a room with the other new boy in the squad, Sporting Lisbon’s Ryan Gauld. Unlike Gauld, who was capped ten times at Under-19 level, May had to wait longer for recognition.
Attending a rugby-playing school in Cupar did not help his chances of becoming a footballer. However, he was determined to make it. Not for him the gilded world of football academies. Instead, he found himself being loaned out by St Johnstone to the lower divisions, where he shone with Alloa Athletic, then under the charge of Paul Hartley, and current team-of-the-moment Hamilton Accies.
“Going to Alloa and then Hamilton was great for me, I never looked at those moves as steps down,” he said.
“I looked at it as a chance to go and play football week-in, week-out. Paul Hartley was the manager at Alloa and he couldn’t have been better for me.
“It was a successful time as well because we won the league. It was a part-time club – I still trained with St Johnstone each day and then trained with Alloa two nights a week.
“But on match days I’d go to places like Elgin and Annan, which was great experiences. Had someone said then I’d be in the Scotland squad a few years later I’d have thought ‘great’. I’d have been buzzing. But there’s no doubt the rise has happened quicker than I could have expected.
“But I honestly loved every minute of it. It was the same at Hamilton when I went there. I wanted to go back from Alloa and play for St Johnstone but at the time it wasn’t to be and I had to go out on loan again. We didn’t achieve what we could have done that season. Alex Neil came in as manager and we won eight out of our last nine matches and he carried that into last season.
“They won promotion from the Championship and are now flying in the Premiership with Alex showing what a great manager he is. I feel he’s got such a great future ahead of him. I could tell that from the short time I had there with him.
“But those loan moves were great for me. They actually make me feel older than 21 but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”
The fact that then St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas was prepared to loan him out again after such a promising stint at Alloa suggested there were doubts about May’s ability to make it at the top level.
However, the striker himself contends that these spells helped him become the player he now is – one who is currently on standby to make an international debut this coming Saturday at Ibrox.
It was at this stadium where May says he experienced his finest 45 minutes as a professional footballer when scoring twice in the second half in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Aberdeen. Two high quality goals helped his side overturn the Pittodrie club’s 1-0 half-time lead. He then contributed to St Johnstone’s 2-0 win over Dundee United in the final.
The 27 goals he scored last season were all special in their own way but none proved more important than the double claimed against Aberdeen, the side he hadn’t scored against before and whose fans mocked him with the song: “Who the **** is Stevie May?” They know now.
“I have great memories from playing at Ibrox,” said May. “Thinking back to the semi-final I didn’t have a great first half but it turned out to be unbelievable.
“That second half goes down as my best 45 minutes ever,” he added. “The way the day went, getting your club into a cup final from being 1-0 down, was amazing. The feeling I had when I scored that second goal was as good as anything I’ve ever experienced.
“Will I be thinking about that on Saturday? Definitely. Some people probably wouldn’t like to admit that, insisting going back to a certain ground doesn’t help.
“But I think there are places where you have fond memories and it probably helps you even if you don’t realise it. And for me there’s nowhere better than Ibrox. Hopefully I get the chance to make an impression for the national team.”