Interview: Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna on his sudden rise to the Scotland captaincy, why he wants to leave Pittodrie and why Aston Villa’s move for him fell through

The spiral staircase teams must climb up before stepping out at Estadio Azteca only served to accentuate the scale of Scott McKenna’s dizzying ascent.

June 2018, captain Scott McKenna leads the Scotland team out at Estadio Azteca for a friendly against Mexico. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

There he was at the head of the line. Just 21 years old, he was captaining his country in this great arena that’s dug deep into 
Mexico City. So why was he thinking about the Indodrill stadium and times he feared his chances of making it were fading?

An emergency loan move to Alloa Athletic was signed and sealed on Hogmanay in 2015 with a view to him playing in the New Year’s derby against Falkirk two days later.
There were no sports shops open so an enterprising official at Alloa simply wrote “MCKENNA” across the back of a shirt with a black marker pen.

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“It was one of those funny things you don’t expect as a player,” says McKenna. “The previous name had been scraped off – I think it was Omar Kader. He was away and I got whatever number it was, 12 I think.

“It was like a tattoo across my back because it was pouring with rain and my name ended up imprinted on my back for about two weeks afterwards.”

He was recalled to Aberdeen amid an injury crisis and pushed on for his debut at McDiarmid Park against St Johnstone in the final minutes to help protect a 4-2 lead. Eager to a fault, he remembers jumping over fellow defenders to get his head to crosses.

“We are big on set-plays,” he says. “I remember Tony Docherty saying to me before I went on: ‘You are picking up Tam Scobbie, whatever you do pick up Tam Scobbie.’ With a minute to go we give away a corner and the cross comes in. Me wanting to try and impress I went to try and win it. Ash Taylor got there first and headed 
it to the edge of the box. Tam Scobbie is standing there and scores a volley.”

It wasn’t significant in the end. Aberdeen held on. In the dressing room afterwards, Derek McInnes asked who had been meant to be marking Scobbie. Honest as a 
Kirriemuir kirk elder, 
McKenna raised his hand. Luckily, the Aberdeen manager isn’t in the business of tearing into teenagers.

Nevertheless, McKenna returned to the bench for a prolonged period. Shortly afterwards he watched from the sidelines when Aberdeen came up against Hearts at Tynecastle. “It was when Robbie Neilson was manager and they had a massive defence; Augustyn, Ozturk and Rossi, Juanma up front as well,” he says. “I remember thinking: ‘If I need to come on then I am not ready to deal with this’. I felt as if I was still a kid.”

And yet, just over a year later, there he was on top of the world, responsible not just for himself, but for ten others pitched into an unforgiving situation against a World Cup finals-bound Mexico.

“I always remember before the game we came out for the warm-up – you come out from behind the goal after going round a spiral staircase,” he says. “When we were ready to go back out again before kick-off, obviously I have walked to the top of the 
spiral staircase again and I’m standing waiting for the team behind me.

“The referee and a linesman run up and say: ‘No, no, we don’t go out here this time’. I am at the front. So we have to turn round and I am now at the back and we come out the other door of the changing room, up a ramp and emerge by the corner flag. I was thinking: ‘What a start this is, I can’t even lead them out the right way!’”

Against all odds, Scotland performed well in front of a passionate 70,000 crowd. In the heat and high altitude, a 1-0 defeat was respectable. McKenna kept his wits about him. He was alert enough to hand the armband to Charlie Mulgrew when he came on.

“After the game he came in and gave it back to me. He said: ‘Take it home, make sure you get it framed’. That was a nice touch. It’s up in my mum’s living room in Kirriemuir with the top from the game. These are things people can never take away from you.”

“Sometimes you forget about them when things are bad,” he continues. “But I have captained my country, things cannot 
be that bad. You go through difficult spells but you try and remember the 
good times.”

McKenna, still only 23, sounds like he’s emerging from a challenging period. When things were going well, it all felt very easy. Suddenly, he found himself over-thinking things, over-complicating an essentially straightforward position. He was filled with self-doubt. Was he even as good as he was cracked up to be?

“I was doing fine I suppose but given the expectancy after being captain of Scotland, people probably expected a wee bit more,” he says. “When I got into the team at first, I did the basics: I headed the ball and kicked the ball, I didn’t play too many passes.”

He’s back doing these basics well. Scotland manager Steve Clarke was an interested observer on Tuesday as Aberdeen finally found the back of the net again in a 3-1 win over Hamilton Accies. Sky Sports featured a segment of analysis after the game detailing McKenna’s effectiveness. It’s a timely return to form for the defender, who must cope with Odsonne Edouard tomorrow when Celtic visit Pittodrie.

Fitness permitting, it’s surely McKenna plus one other at centre-back when Scotland re-engage with what’s beginning to feel like an eternal quest to qualify for Euro 2020. Not that McKenna agrees his place is guaranteed when Scotland take on Israel in the play-off semi-final.

“I sit there and watch Grant Hanley play in the Premier League every week,” he says. “He is playing against the best. Liam Cooper is captain of a very good Leeds team.

“There are boys playing in Scotland like Stuart Findlay and John Souttar. Then there are other boys up here doing well – Declan Gallagher, I played with him the last two games. Mikey Devlin, who has come back into the team at Aberdeen. Charlie Mulgrew, for the experience. There’s so many and it gets narrowed down to three or four. People talk about a crisis in that position but there are options and boys playing well. Hopefully we can start showing that on 
the pitch.”

All Scots, not just Gordon Strachan, will be heartened to hear the full extent of Scott McKenna’s genetic
make-up. His family tree includes 
genuine Perthshire football aristocracy in Alan Gilzean.

Strachan, of course, was ridiculed for lamenting the physical shortcomings of Scotland following failure to qualify for another World Cup three years ago after a draw with Slovenia. McKenna had made his Aberdeen breakthrough a couple of weeks previously against Motherwell. A strapping 6ft plus, it felt like he was the answer to a nation’s prayers at a time when physically imposing centre-halves were particularly scarce.

As well as fitting this bill, he also boasted
impressive credentials. His father, Ian, played football, turning out over 50 times for Forfar Athletic alongside the likes of Craig Brewster and Charlie Adam Snr in the early 1990s.

Ian, a hard-working midfielder, played junior football into his 40s and his son contracted the football bug while kicking a ball around on the sidelines at places like Kirrie Thistle and Broughty Athletic. McKenna has a younger brother, Stuart, who works for their father’s electrical firm and plays in defence for Kirrie Thistle.

“My dad was a Celtic season-ticket holder,”
says McKenna. “I went to a few Celtic games round the time when they were doing well in Europe. I remember being there when Alan Thompson scored versus Barcelona. I used to love going to a midweek game at Parkhead under the lights.

“Of course, when you play against Celtic
for Aberdeen I want Aberdeen to win. When you become a professional and it’s your job, supporting Celtic goes out the window. You play for Aberdeen, you want the best for Aberdeen.”

McKenna’s maternal grandfather, the resident policeman in Meigle at a time when every village could count on the reassuring presence of a local bobby, was a cousin of Gilzean, who was brought up along the road in Coupar Angus. “I heard my gran and my grandad before he died talk about it,” McKenna says. “I never met him. Of course I know of him.

“I knew he was a brilliant player, but I was still young at the time. You are more focused on the players around at the time.”

If you were – back to Strachan again – seeking to create the perfect Scottish footballer featuring an amalgam of qualities, you might, along with Jimmy Johnstone’s dribbling skills, Strachan himself’s guile and Kenny Dalglish’s vision, choose to mix Gillie’s heading ability into the pot. He was world class in that particular discipline. McKenna has clearly inherited the knack though he regrets not requesting a masterclass from the Dundee and Spurs legend while he was still alive.

What would he want to know? “Tell me how to head the ball downwards,” he says. McKenna is frustrated at only 
having scored one header for Aberdeen, officially at least. He claims he should have 
another but Adam Rooney pinched it off him by claiming to have got a touch on 
the line.

“I am convinced it was across the line,” he says. “Rooney being himself made sure it had gone in. It was the same game I scored from 35 yards v Kilmarnock.

“Heading is one of the main parts of my game now,” he adds. “But when I played 
left-back in the Aberdeen academy from under-12s to under-16s-17s, I could not head a ball. I got put in one day at centre-back against Celtic Under-17s on the university pitches at Balgownie.

“All of a sudden it was like something clicked: I could head a ball. It was not something that I practised. The timing just came, I did not duck out or shy away, I committed to it. It’s probably been one of my biggest assets since. It was just like a penny dropped: suddenly I realised I could head a football.”

There’s another clue to the Gilzean heritage; a desire to better himself. Gillie took this to an extreme at a time when footballers had fewer options, effectively going on strike at Dundee to force through a move to English football. It had always been his dream to win the FA Cup at Wembley.

McKenna sought to take 
his future into his own hands earlier this season when he submitted a transfer request. It sounds old school, a relic of a time as far back as when Gilzean was in his pomp. McKenna explains the process and reveals it literally is a matter of handing in a letter.

News emerged prior to Aberdeen’s Europa League clash against Rijeka in Croatia but in actual fact, the request was submitted on the morning of the first league game of the season against Hearts.

With the English transfer window due to close a few days later on 8 August, the date of the away European game, time was of the essence. After several offers, including one from 
Celtic, in the previous 12 months, the bid that prompted this action had come from Queens Park Rangers. “There were a lot of things about that move that made sense,” he says.

Manager Mark Warburton has a record of developing players and moving them on and encouraging centre-halves to play out from the back.

“Everyone would have benefited, Aberdeen and myself,” explains McKenna. “This is me just being honest. It’s nothing Aberdeen won’t understand. That’s where my frustration lay.

“I thought it was my chance to move on while the club was receiving offers probably nowhere near what they had received before. I signed a long-term deal to protect the club. I was told I would be allowed to move on, that I wasn’t going to be there for five years.

“At the end of the day it’s your career and your life, you want to know what’s going on,” he adds. “I got a bit too involved, a bit too distracted. But I always did my best for Aberdeen. I did not down tools, it’s not in my nature.”

He’s been associated with Aberdeen since he was 11 years old. He trained with Celtic for a spell at a satellite training centre in Dundee but things “fizzled out”. He was also on Dundee’s radar. “Dundee were not in a great place at the time,” he says. “We trained at the Michelin [factory], the wee Astroturf pitches. The lights went off one night and they would not pay the extra whatever-it-was to get them back on for half an hour.”

Aberdeen has been his adult life to date. Initially he stayed at club digs in the city before, unable to afford a property in the city, commuting from Kirriemuir. A new contract, the one he signed to help the club protect its main asset, ostensibly ties him to Aberdeen until 2023. It also provided the means to purchase a flat in Westhill.

The club belatedly joined him there. His home is five minutes away from the new training ground, which opened late last year. A large chunk of the cost could have been covered by selling McKenna to Aston Villa for a reported near £7 million in the summer of 2018. The bid arrived hours before the deadline. In these circumstances
and no matter the number of zeros, a cheque can’t buy time to source a replacement. “It was the last day, they [Aberdeen] would not have had much time to react,” he says. “But I’m not sure they will get that kind of money again.”

When his agent phoned to inform him of the details, his instinctive reaction was: ‘That’s it, I’m off’. “John McGinn tells me 
the story, as he’d just signed for Aston Villa.
Steve Bruce went up to him that morning and said: ‘We are going to put in an offer for that lad McKenna at Aberdeen. We are going in hard so they can’t reject it’.”

Reader, it was rejected. McKenna is currently beginning another six-month cycle before the transfer window opens again, and speculation inevitably increases. It’s an odd existence, summed up by striker James Wilson’s sudden departure from Aberdeen to Salford City last month. One minute he was there, the next he’s gone. “It’s just the way the industry is,” says McKenna.

“I don’t know what the next step is,” he adds. “The end goal is playing in one of the major leagues in Europe, it does not necessarily have to be England. Is a step straight there realistic? Probably not. Do I need to play well enough to earn a move from Aberdeen and prove myself at another level to try and get there? Most likely.

“You have to have goals and aims and aspire to get there, it does not always 
happen in one move, it might take two or three moves. You might get a move that does not go well and you need to prove yourself again. Whatever happens, it will all come from doing well for Aberdeen 
and Scotland.”