Full Scotland debuts at the age of 29 are as rare as happy endings by the storied Irish playwright, but surely the Dundee product is at last on the verge of one.
Alex McLeish has called up McDonald for a new era that begins with the friendlies against Costa Rica at Hampden on Friday and away to Hungary four days later with the firm intention to provide him with that elusive game time. A Scotland debut that will be reward as much for form – alongside fellow Fulham call-up Tom Cairney – underpinning the club’s recent, thunderous promotion charge as perseverance these past eight years.
McDonald was selected by Gordon Strachan for Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against Germany in 2014, and then for the double header against Poland and Gibraltar the following year. He then sat on the bench as Scotland beat the Czech Republic in a friendly in March 2016 before injury forced his withdrawal from the World Cup qualifier at home to Malta six months later.
Now McDonald is back on the international scene and this time his chance to get stripped is likely only days away. He pinches himself at that thought.
“It feels like a long wait,” he said. “It does feel like a long time coming but I hope to get my first cap and then show people what I can do and stay in the team.
“It would be such a big moment for me. I’d be over the moon. Personally, I’d see it as being how far I’ve come. I’ve worked all my life for moments like that. For my family it would also be massive. I’m sure they would be there watching. They’d be proud.”
McDonald never stopped believing he could make the breakthrough, he just had begun to question whether it would actually happen. “You have to keep faith but after a few years of missing squads you start to doubt it,” he said. “But I’m grateful for being in the squad and I can’t wait to show what I can do.
“The only person who can answer [why I never got a cap] is Gordon Strachan. It was just one of them when you realised the manager was going to stick with what he knew. But that was fair enough and I’ve got nothing but respect for him as a manager and a person. But I can’t do anything about it. You just have to move on.”
McDonald might be one of a mere 13 midfielders in the 27-strong current squad but he stands alone in terms of the role he plays at club level, assuming a holding role in a three-man midfield flanked by Cairney – subject of an £18m bid from West Ham in the last window – and former Celtic midfielder Stefan Johansen.
“That’s where I’ve been for the last few season – playing that deep-lying midfield role,” McDonald said. “Me and Tom have been doing well along with Stefan. When we play together we make each other look better. Tom’s fantastic on the ball and he needs people behind him to do the dirty work behind him to then let him play. It’s good that we’re in this together – it can only benefit us.
“Tom’s a a great player to have in your team. He gets on the ball and dictates things and he’s a luxury to have in the team. He finds it harder when you have to defend a bit more, but he brings quality to the game. When you get him going then he likes to graft and get his foot stuck in. He’s one of the guys who will give 110 per cent and bring quality to either Fulham or Scotland.
McDonald is no luxury performer and, dare it be said, there are similarities in the diligence he and international-retiree Scott Brown demonstrate in defensive duties. “Fair play to Scott [Brown]. He’s had a fantastic career and if I can do anything like he’s done then it would be great for myself. But the guy has been incredible for Scotland. I’m in to try and do my own job.”
A job that is much changed for his youthful days at Dens. “I used to score goals, but that’s gone! I like to get on the ball and play nice football and I’m lucky that’s how Fulham see things. I’m at a good club for that. I don’t mind doing the dirty work for others. I know I’m a defensive midfielder, but I do like to start attacks and that’s where my game is at.”
Memories of his most bitter moment at the Tayside club remain, though. On Friday, McDonald will be hoping to take to the Hampden pitch for only the second time in his professional career. He would be entitled to wish he had avoided the first – in the 2006 Scottish Cup semi-final when Dundee lost 3-0 to Gretna. The then 17-year-old only made it on to the pitch after 63 minutes with the his side 1-0 down.
“Most people thought I would start, but I think when it came to it the manager – Alan Kernaghan – maybe thought it would be too big for me,” the player said. “I was only young and I can’t remember doing much after I came on. I was told on the day I wouldn’t be starting. I was upset at the time, but overall I was still happy to be playing first- team football at that time. It was still a big moment for me to come on.”
Only now, though, is the curtain about to come up on McDonald’s biggest possible Hampden moment.