GARY MACKAY-STEVEN believes his latest snub from Scotland manager Gordon Strachan could ultimately benefit his chances of establishing himself as an international player.
The Celtic winger was again left out of Strachan’s squad which was announced yesterday ahead of the Easter Road friendly against Qatar on 5 June and the crucial Euro 2016 qualifier with Republic of Ireland in Dublin eight days later.
Mackay-Steven has not been called on by Scotland since November 2013, the month in which he earned his only senior cap so far as a late substitute in the Hampden friendly against USA. Those who believed the 25-year-old’s prospects of a recall would be enhanced by his move from Dundee United to the Scottish champions in the last transfer window have, as yet, been confounded.
Mackay-Steven has made an eye-catching start to his Celtic career, scoring four times in 15 appearances so far. In an injury-affected first half of this season, he netted five times in 25 outings for United.
None of that form has been good enough to convince Strachan, however, and Mackay-Steven is now aiming to ensure he returns to action next season in the kind of rejuvenated condition which makes him harder to ignore.
“The Scotland squad is obviously an aim for myself, but that will be further down the line now,” he said.
“I just want to kick on now to really show from next season what I can do here”Gary Mackay-Steven
“In some ways, it’s maybe a blessing for me to be left out again after the last hectic six months. Obviously, if the call came I’d be very happy to play for Scotland because that’s what you always want to do – but a break will be nice, too, so I’ll take my chance to recharge the batteries and prepare right for next season. My main focus is doing well here and being settled at Celtic and I feel I have done that in the six months I’ve been here.
“If I do well for Celtic, then the Scotland situation will look after itself. If anything, being left out of the squad makes me want to work harder. I’ll have a nice little break over the summer and then come looking to really hit the ground running.
“I had a a few niggles here and there at the start of this season, so I was in and out of the United team at times. That’s always frustrating if you don’t come back as fit as you want to, but towards the end of 2014 I got myself in good shape and felt great at the turn of the year and just kicked on.
“I was obviously delighted to move to Celtic in January. That was definitely a big help to really kick on. The gaffer has different ideas here, so I’ve tried to take them on board and I feel it has really benefited me.
“When I was in and out the United side, I wasn’t worried about being in the final year of my contract. I know what I can do when I’m fit and knew once I got to the bottom of these little injury problems, ultimately my football would do the talking. So I was never too worried – and then when the call from Celtic came in January, there was only ever going to be one place I was going. It has worked well so far and I just want to kick on now to really show from next season what I can do here.”
The flicks and tricks which made Mackay-Steven something of a YouTube sensation during his time at Tannadice have so far been conspicuous by their absence in a Celtic jersey as he has prioritised bedding himself into Ronny Deila’s team shape and strategy. But he is determined his individual flair will eventually flourish at his new club.
“The first few months have been just about working hard and contributing towards helping the team, but I definitely feel there is more to come from me next season,” he added. “It’s the last thing I would want to lose, so for sure next season I’ll be trying the tricks and touches. I still practise them on my own. I was in Kelvingrove Park a couple of weeks ago to play keepy-uppies.
“It was a bit later in the afternoon when it’s a little quieter and I just put a hat on so no one recognised me. Or at least I don’t think anyone saw me, I was too busy running about enjoying myself.
“I do it because I enjoy it and I think probably every footballer would say the same – that it’s more fun with a ball at your feet than just walking around. I’ve never had any random guys wanting to join in for a game or looking for a pass. Although I must say I’m tempted whenever I see kids playing with a ball in the park to go over and join in their kickabout. That side of me will never change, I just love football.”
One compensation for Mackay-Steven missing out on international duty is some extra time off to spend in his home town of Thurso. A visit to the Newmarket Bar in the Caithness town, where he worked as a barman for a spell after his early career spell with Liverpool didn’t work out, is on his agenda. “I have only been to Thurso once since I signed for Celtic and it was a flying visit,” he said. “We got two days off and I spent more time travelling than actually being there. So it will be nice to get a bit more time to catch up with everyone because last time I only saw a few friends and family.
“It will be nice to go go back, switch off from football and chill out. I’m sure I’ll make it back to the Newmarket but I don’t think I’ll be getting pulled in to cover a shift for the boys behind the bar this time. We’ll see.”
• Gary Mackay-Steven was speaking at the launch of Celtic’s new five-year deal with Dafabet who have become the club’s official international betting partner.