SO IMPRESSIVE has Kevin McDonald been for Wolverhampton Wanderers since the turn of the year that the club’s supporters are running out of superlatives.
He is a “Rolls Royce” of a player, controlling games from his new position in front of the defence. He is, with the possible exception of Geoff Thomas, the best midfielder to grace the club’s colours in quarter of a century. “He’s our quarterback,” says their press officer, by which he means that the 25-year-old Carnoustie lad has become the team’s go-to guy through which every play is filtered.
The blogs and the chatrooms are full of it. One suggests that McDonald’s ability to make time for himself in possession is reminiscent of the late, great Frank Munro, a Broughty Ferry-born Wolves centre-back who also played for Celtic and Scotland. Another goes so far as to say that there are shades of Beckenbauer about McDonald’s tall, powerful frame and his elegant, often effortless distribution of the ball. Well, they can dream.
McDonald is no Beckenbauer, but he will rub shoulders with Mario Götze, Mesut Özil and a few other household names in Germany next weekend when Scotland line up for their Euro 2016 qualifier against the world champions. The former Dundee, Burnley and Sheffield United player gives Gordon Strachan another refreshing option at a time when he is not exactly blessed with them in central midfield.
Already this season, McDonald has led newly-promoted Wolves to victories against all three of the sides relegated from England’s Premier League. If he can dominate the Championship like he did League One – where he won two player-of-the-year awards in Wolves’ title-winning side – he will find himself back in the top flight, where many believe he belongs.
“I have always thought he had the talent to play at the very top level,” says Alex Rae, who was his manager at Dundee.
“On his day, he can be one of the best players in his position in the country,” says Owen Coyle, who bought him for Burnley.
All of which effusive praise only begs the question: Where has he been these last few years? If McDonald is so damn good, why is he only winning his first full call-up now, at the age of 25?
“I’m more experienced in life now, more focused,” McDonald says. “The older you get, the more you feel that way. Everyone makes mistakes. When I look back on mine... you are young.... these things happen.”
McDonald’s mistakes came after a prodigious spell with Dundee during his teenage years. Strachan, then the manager of Celtic, was among those who tried to buy him, but it was Burnley who lured him away from Dens Park with a much bigger offer. There, he announced himself to the nation with two goals that knocked Arsenal out of the Carling Cup and secured Burnley their first semi-final appearance in 25 years.
At that stage, McDonald seemed to have the world at his feet, but Coyle left for Bolton Wanderers, Burnley declined and it all went wrong for the young midfielder one fateful day at Turf Moor. Angry at being substituted when Burnley were 5-0 down to Manchester City, he walked out of the ground and into the nearest pub, where he watched the rest of the game with supporters. Fined for his act of petulance, McDonald apologised profusely, but his bridges were burned with Brian Laws, the manager. After loan spells with Scunthorpe United and Notts County, he was released by the Lancashire club and forced to start again.
“All you can do is move on and look for a fresh start,” says McDonald who came through a trial at Sheffield United in 2011. There, he got his mojo back, a process accelerated by Wolves when they paid £750,000 for him last summer. Twelve months on, he is having the most fun of his career, back to his best and full of confidence. He says: “From Sheffield United onwards, I felt like a different player, enjoying my football again.
“Every player will tell you he needs confidence, that bit of backing, but in my last year at Burnley, it wasn’t there. When the Wolves manager [Kenny Jackett] came in for me, and said that he wanted me to be one of the key players in the team, that helped me a lot. For the last couple of years now, I feel like I’ve been on top of my game. It’s nice to get myself back where I want to be.”
A subtle positional change has contributed to that. Since Jackett reinvented him midway through last season, the Scot has gone from strength to strength. “I have kind of gone more defensive,” he says. “I sit in front of the defence. I was kind of a No.10 before, but I’ve adapted to the new role well. I feel at home there, I know what my job is and I think that will be my position now. It’s all fallen into place.”
It has been a spectacular year for McDonald. He scored the goal that won Wolves automatic promotion, they are already establishing themselves as contenders for another step up, and he has been rewarded with international recognition, his first since he made 14 appearances at under-21 level.
“It’s such a privilege” he says. “It’s something I’ve always played and worked for. We all saw Germany at the World Cup. We all know how good they are. It’s one of those special games that will be a great experience for everyone. If I get the chance, all I can do is try to impress, and, hopefully, the manager will like what he sees.”
McDonald will know only a couple of players when he meets up with the squad today. He played alongside Steven Fletcher at Burnley, while he and Craig Forsyth have been buddies since they grew up together.
McDonald played for Carnoustie Panmure, Forsyth for Carlogie Boys Club, but they were team-mates at Dundee. They still go on golfing holidays together every year.
McDonald, who grew up across the railway line from the links at Carnoustie, used to play golf every day, but it’s all about football now, much to his father’s relief.
Ally McDonald likes to claim that he could have played for Nottingham Forest, but he became a fireman instead. He and his mates were down at Molineux towards the end of last season, wearing kilts, gold and black polo shirts and Dundee T-shirts underneath.
A few of Kevin’s pals, regular Tartan Army foot soldiers, will be in Dortmund next Sunday, hoping not only that he will play, but that it will be the start of something big for the Wolves player.
“I’m at great age now,” adds McDonald. “I couldn’t ask to be a better age to be honest with you. I’ve got so much more experience than I used to, but I’m also in a position where I can kick on.
“Hopefully, my club form will continue, and I can do the same for my country as well.”