Scott McKenna: Nottingham Forest and Scotland defender who 'simply oozes class' deserves more respect to his name
“Dear Scotland fans, we love Scott McKenna even if you don’t” ran the headline. In a nutshell, that pretty much gives the thrust of his stout defence of the strapping centre-back. “We’d like some respect to be placed on his name,” implored the Forest devotee, who declared that the 25-year-old “simply oozes class week in, week out” and has done so since his £3m move from Aberdeen in September 2020. In the next fortnight, the demand for respect for the capabilities and career-choices of the hugely likeable McKenna could be irresistible. Both from his Midlands fan club, and his far more difficult-to-please ain folk.
Humungous hardly begins to do justice to what could be on the line for McKenna across that timeframe. On Sunday, he will be at the heart of the Forest backline as one of English football’s storied names seeks to find its way back to a top flight from which it has been exiled for a torturous 23 years. A period during which the fall from grace for the two-times European Cup winners was so precipitous, the mid-2000s even brought a three-year stay in the third tier. The Premier League play-off final that will see Steve Cooper’s side confront Huddersfield in the so-called £170m game, just by merely pitching the club up at Wembley, returns them to the fabled amphitheatre for the first time in 30 years. An arena wherein they snared four League Cups during their golden period under the wondrous Brian Clough; the apogee of which was conquering Europe in the two seasons that followed their 1977 title win.
McKenna is the sort of straight up-and-down centre-back that would have appealed to the dearly departed Old Big ‘Ead. A man who made it plain that those in such a role were only up to it if they could head the ball and kick it the way they were facing. There is way more to McKenna’s game than these rudimentary elements, of course. But his refinement of such basics as Cooper has transformed Forest - dare it be said - with Clough-like sorcery since he took over as they propped up the entire Championship last September has made him the cornerstone of his team’s fantastical promotion push. As well as a figure beloved in the stands. A man they proclaim is Forest’s “best signing in years”, no less.
Such is their trust in McKenna, who has packed in more minutes this season than any other Forest perfomer, they would have kittens if he wasn’t in his usual berth for the play-off decider. And repelling opponents’ advances alongside one-time Rangers loanee Joe Worrall, a player with whom he has formed such a commanding partnership. The disconnect between such status and how he is perceived by Scotland followers could hardly be more acute. In contrast, many among this faction are having kittens at the thought Steve Clarke may turn to him for Wednesday’s World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine. A possibility created by the injury absence of McKenna’s fellow leftie Kieran Tierney.
Ultimately, the Scotland faithful may have fallen behind the curve when it comes to assessing the talents of McKenna. Even if, admittedly, he has yet to deliver a landmark display across a 24-cap career that began in ignominious circumstances with a debut in a 1-0 friendly loss at home to Costa Rica in March 2018. Mind you, he did acquit himself with distinction as a 21-year-old first-time captain of his country for their creditable 1-0 loss to Mexico in a summer tour of the Americas three months later. As can happen to anglos outside of England’s top tier, McKenna may suffer from being out of sight and mind for football watchers in this country, whose minds could be fixed on his latter seasons at Pittodrie that were punctuated by a seemingly never-ending series of hamstring problems.
His robustness in the punishing league environment he is now striving to move beyond demonstrates that he has firmly overcome such muscular issues. Instead, it is Liam Cooper, his likely rival for slot on the left in Clarke’s defensive trident, that endured fitness struggles as Leeds United toiled in the domestic season just concluded. McKenna would be worthy of a starting place at Hampden next Wednesday, which the fervent hope is will give way to a play off final against Wales in Cardiff on June 5. The Forest man is at the peak of his powers - evidenced by the fact that he leads the charts for aerial duels won at his club this season. An appetite for the fray will be crucial in the fraught contests sure to play out at Wembley and Hampden in the next week. And the other month, the centre-back explained how Cooper’s tutelage has stoked his desire for that. “We like to play, we like to pass the ball and be strong in possession – but most of all we like to defend,” he told the Athletic. “We enjoy the ugly side of the game.”
It is nine months since McKenna has started for Scotland. That appearance unfortunately co-incided with a 2-0 defeat away to Denmark. The Kirriemuir-born defender is a far more complete player than he was even just back then, though, as he is now lauded for being a leader on and off the pitch. “You’ll never beat McKenna” his club’s fans sang as their team surged into the play-offs in the closing weeks of the Championship campaign. As a result, as that exercised blogger petitioned, it really ought to be time for Scotland supporters to stop beating up on the man.
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