Kenny McLean: Scotland and Norwich midfielder on cap milestone, missing Euros and Billy Gilmour

When he was a schoolboy at Cathkin High in Cambuslang, even playing once for Scotland seemed like am impossible dream for Kenny McLean.

McLean trains with clubmate Billy Gilmour.
McLean trains with clubmate Billy Gilmour.

His cameo on Thursday night against Austria, when he replaced Billy Gilmour during the 1-1 draw with Poland, saw him rack up his 25th appearance for his country and means he draws level with the likes of Tommy Docherty and Paul Hartley on the quarter of a century mark.

It illustrates just what a hectic year this could turn out to be for Scotland when one considers that McLean could be well on the way to 50 and Roll of Honour qualification by the time the end of December comes about.

There’s the potential for there to be six games alone in June. A big squad will be required if FIFA do in fact go ahead with a plan to crowbar the play-off semi-final v Ukraine into the first three weeks of that month alongside four Nations League fixtures. The play-off v Wales will then also have to be negotiated if Scotland can overcome Ukraine, either in June or later this year.

Kenny McLean, right, won his 25th cap for Scotland against Poland.

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Reaching such a significant cap mark is therefore particularly special to McLean. He is in line to make it 26 appearances tomorrow when Scotland travel to face Austria in a friendly.

“Going through school, at Cathkin High, you don't really think it's possible but I've worked hard to do it and I'm grateful,” he said.

“I've been going away with Scotland for a few years now and have built some caps up, so getting to 25 is a bit of a milestone and I'd like to think there will be some more to come.

“I'm no spring chicken, but I do think I've got a bit left in me and still have something to offer the group, so we'll see how far I can go."

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McLean has endured a difficult season at Norwich.

Tomorrow’s clash in Vienna is set to be played in front of a very sparse crowd. It is a frustratingly low-key appointment when several other nations are involved in play-off finals. Unlike Austria, eliminated from the qualification process by Wales last week, Scotland do at least still retain hopes of qualifying. They are guaranteed to be included in Friday’s draw.

A World Cup finals appearance in November is a particularly beguiling prospect for McLean, who endured such heartache last summer when he missed out on the Euro 2020 finals due to injury.

The midfielder is the first to admit he’s not an automatic first-choice. However, he’s been far more than a just a bit -part player in the six years since he made his Scotland debut against Czech Republic in Prague.

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There are his penalties for a start. They are two of the most precious ever scored by Scotland. McLean’s nerveless effort in a shootout victory v Israel saw Scotland progress to the Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia, where he also converted in another nerve-jangling penalty decider.

He was therefore as deserving as any to make the squad for the finals. His place was assured. Then came the devastating knee ligament injury that ended his season prematurely and meant that when his teammates were lining up against England at Wembley, he was performing punditry duties for STV. It wasn’t how he had envisaged it.

“All the lads knew how despondent I was not to be there in a playing sense,” he recalled. “They all came over and I just wished them all the best for the game.

“When we meet up with Scotland, everybody talks about the club-like togetherness we've got in the camp and it's true.

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“Everybody is tight and it's a great group of lads. I think that has played a huge part in taking us to where we are just now.

“Obviously, we have got loads of quality and absolutely top players but you need that togetherness and the group that we've got is brilliant just now.

The manager has built that up with everybody and he has been pretty consistent with the squads that he's picked. The lads are producing. We are on a good run now and we have to continue with it."

“I would love to have been there playing and being involved at some point,” he added. "But I think I was more just happy for the lads and buzzing for the ones who were involved. Of course, from a selfish point of view I wanted to be there as a player but circumstances meant I wasn't.”

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He hasn’t any time for regrets. Norwich are eight points from safety coming into the home straight. It isn’t looking good for McLean as well as Grant Hanley and Gilmour, two Scottish international teammates at Carrow Road.

Gilmour has endured a particularly trying season. Although back in the team now under Dean Smith, he was subject to criticism from the stands for his perceived lack of commitment due to only being on loan at Chelsea and lost his place in the side for a spell.

Gilmour was his usual immaculate self at Hampden last Thursday and even saved a certain goal with fine goal-line clearance in the second half. He has cemented his place in the side since making his starting debut against England at Wembley.

“You don't have to play with him to know how good he is,” said McLean. “Everybody can see the quality and the ability he has got. It doesn't take somebody who plays with him every day to see that.

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“He has got all the ability in the world. Obviously, we are in a difficult position at Norwich, but his quality is not in doubt. He is getting better and better for Scotland.

“He has nailed that place down for himself in the middle of the park and is only going to get better because he is still young and is still learning the game. He is going to be right at the top for a long time."