The Scotland Under-21 manager yesterday named his squad for the European Championship qualifiers at home to Andorra and away to the Netherlands next month. The trip to Holland will be the reverse fixture of a 2-0 win over the Dutch almost 12 months ago that proved the catalyst for McKenna’s irresistible rise.
Gemmill gave him an under-21 debut despite the fact he had come off the back of an unremarkable loan spell with Ayr United, and was rewarded with a stoic display. That was instrumental in McKenna three weeks later being given his first Aberdeen senior outing in a year. Thereafter he has never looked back, becoming a pivot for club and country, with the player even given the armband for Scotland during their summer tour.
If he can handle so much so soon, Gemmill has no doubts McKenna would not be fazed were Celtic to make the Pittodrie club an offer for them they could not refuse.
“I do [believe he has the ability and mentality to handle playing for a club like Celtic],” said Gemmill. “He’s lucky right now to be working for a manager who has really helped him develop at Aberdeen. There’s no doubt that Scott can be trusted to play at the very top level in games. The team that he’s playing for currently have really given him that opportunity and helped him get in that position. Aberdeen deserve enormous credit. We obviously only have him for a short period of time.
“You can refer to that game against Holland and Derek’s also been honest enough to say how influential that was but the real credit has to go to Derek and Aberdeen for that development.”
The Scotland under-21 manager admits it is rare to see such rapid development, recalling how he was playing under-20 football this time last year. “It’s been extremely fast,” said the 47-year-old. “The one that sticks in the mind is [Renato] Sanches, the young lad that played against us for Portugal in the under-17s finals [in 2014]. And then two years later he won the Euros.
“We’re in the very privileged position to have played in these tournaments in recent years, playing against the top players in Europe. But Scott has definitely put himself in that kind of bracket now where he has made such huge progress. I think it’s a very good example of keeping faith with young players, of giving them time.
“There’s not only one tried and tested pathway of the young players. Some of them go straight in, possibly like Kieran Tierney – although there was that little extra to his story in terms of how that came around. And there’s people like Scott who had to go on loan – and maybe it didn’t go how he thought. He could have got disheartened but he had the right mentality to handle that disappointment and go again.”
John Souttar at Hearts has shown this season the mentality to make the progress many have been promoting for what seems a footballing lifetime. It was thought this would earn him a senior call from Alex McLeish next week, and Gemmill says that door has not closed despite naming him yesterday.
“The full squad hasn’t been finalised yet so maybe he will be in it – there’s still a round of fixtures to be played this weekend and the staff who select the senior squad are still working on that so anything could happen,” said Gemmill. “But John seems to have been in the squad for ever. He’s matured and evolved but you could apply that transformation to a lot of the players if you think about their progress.” Not least McKenna, as he is well aware.