What the Nottingham Forest defender doesn’t seem willing to do is stand by and see Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen tenure denigrated. That seems to have become de rigueur since chairman Dave Cormack has made all the wishes come true of the previously peed-off Pittodrie punters. The US-based businessman playing the fairy godmother role by calling time on McInnes’ eight years in charge earlier this month, and then swiftly recruiting fresh, ambitious young coach Stephen Glass as his replacement before further spreading further pixie dust with the coup in persuading Celtic captain Scott Brown to sign up for next season.
McKenna didn’t feature in the back three selected by Steve Clarke for the 2-2 draw with Austria in Thursday’s Group F opener, with which the Scotland manager is set to keep faith for the Tel Aviv encounter. The 24-year-old is categoric that his Scotland presence, and ability to win a £3million move to Forest last September, all comes down to McInnes’ careful management of his career.
“Obviously it was disappointing [when he left] because it was the manager who was so good to me. I had such a good time there playing under him,” said the centre-back, who was handed the armband for the toiling English Championship club the other week on his return from two months out with an ankle problem.
“I actually texted him to say I had probably forgotten just how many big moments there were in his time there until I saw all the clips coming out on social media in the days after he left. I am just grateful that he gave me the chance to be part of those moments.”
McKenna, who had struggles with hamstring issues throughout his time at Pittodrie and had a heart scare early on, proved a slow burner in a professional journey that can be aligned to McInnes’ stint in the north that brought a League Cup – the club’s only trophy in three decades – three other finals, four second places and six seasons in European competition. The former St Johnstone and Bristol City manager’s arrival in March 2013 pre-empted his judgement calls with the product of the club’s youth academy that proved crucial to his development. McInnes recognised the value of getting McKenns out on loan across his late teenage years. These took him to Ayr United, twice, and Alloa. The amenable performer – in those days a prospect with real rough edges – credits McInnes’ patience with him as ensuring his progress wasn’t snuffed out.
“He was a massive influence, just with the way he did everything,” said the 18-times capped performer. “He never put me in too early, when I probably would have failed. He put me out on loan at the right times, allowed me to develop and make mistakes away from the club.
“By doing that it meant when I did finally go into the Aberdeen team, it was all plain sailing and I never came back out. That was all down to his timing and the way he looked after me.
“Derek became manager five or six games before the end of the season and I went full time that summer. Even that first summer he had me away with the first team so right from the get go, he looked after me. I think you see it already that the same people who were calling for him to go have been back on thanking him. It is just the way football is, fans want something and then as soon as it changes they want another thing.
“They probably don’t realise but even when I was out with my heart problem and that he took me away to all the European games so I could feel part of it. I was out injured when they beat Rijeka 3-0 away from home [in a Europa League in July 2015] but I was there so I still experienced what was one of Aberdeen’s best European away nights of recent times. Just as with every player and manager, I probably annoyed him at times but I would like to think over the period we had a good relationship and a strong relationship. I would still text him now if I ever need anything.”
McKenna accepts that McInnes’ break with Aberdeen may ultimately benefit all parties. “I don’t think he is going to have any problems getting another job, that is for sure. Not after the success he has had these past eight years at Aberdeen. It must be hard when you are in the same place for so long and you set high standards. Who knows, a fresh challenge might give him the platform he needs to prove himself all over again?
“[As for Aberdeen in future] the team had a great start to the season and then hit a sticky patch around Christmas and it continued. Ultimately fans just want what is best for their club in that present moment but sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. You can’t judge it right now, it will be in the course of the next couple of seasons that becomes apparent but there is no doubting the job he did at Aberdeen.”
McKenna will always be thankful to McInnes for the memories. “He gave me the chance to play in a cup final. We played Celtic [in the League Cup decider in December 2018] and it wasn’t the result we wanted, but we also had Europe too. Away to Burnley, we went toe to toe with them, and though we didn’t get through it was still an unbelievable experience. Scoring the winner at Ibrox [in December 2018] was probably my favourite moment in an Aberdeen shirt – just because of the rivalry and how well we did against them that season.”