Scott McKenna got some blunt advice from Aberdeen great Willie Miller
Backslapping and platitudes have not been in short supply for the 22 year-old who, in the space of just 20 months, has journeyed from playing in the Championship with Ayr United on loan to become an established presence for both Aberdeen and Scotland, as well as the subject of transfer interest from Celtic and Aston Villa. Given those circumstances, it would be understandable if McKenna felt he could do no wrong.
There has been measured criticism along the way, however, and some of it from those very well placed to offer it. Think of Aberdeen and Scotland centre-halves and the mind is immediately drawn to Alex McLeish and Willie Miller, and McKenna has worked under both.
While McLeish, in his guise as Scotland manager, will be the voice loudest in his ear ahead of Tuesday night’s game against Israel at Hampden, McKenna can still remember the pointers drummed into him by Miller during his time as a youth player at Aberdeen under Miller’s command.
As a raw, teenage prospect – ridden with self-doubt and angst – hearing one of Scotland’s greatest defenders point out your flaws must have been a tough listen, but he remains appreciative of having sat through Miller’s life lessons.
“Willie coached me for a year or two at the under-17s and he was pretty blunt,” recalled McKenna. “We were young kids, maybe 14 or 15 at the time, and he was brutally honest with us. Things tend to be plain sailing when you are at that age and you don’t tend to get a lot of criticism so this was the awakening that you need. I just remember the first couple of weeks everyone was a bit taken aback by how he was. I remember thinking, ‘he can’t speak to me like that’. But it stood us in good stead for when we went full-time and people are shouting at you and getting on your case. It kind of bridged that gap for us.
“He was massive about our positioning and our communication. He said that if we could get other people working for us then it would make our jobs way easier. Which is probably quite true.”
McLeish has been similarly keen to offer advice. “We had a team meeting recently and a video debrief,” explained McKenna. “A couple of times he froze it and asked ‘could you have been here or done this?’ That’s communication. We watch games back and he tells me where I can improve.”
McKenna speaks in a quiet mature way that makes him seem far older than his tender years. He admits that it still seems surreal to be an established figure in the Scotland set-up but that he is gradually becoming more at ease. And the more settled he feels, the more comfortable he will be at expressing that on the pitch.
“I am not so nervous now [whenever the Scotland squad convenes] but I am still very quiet,” he admitted. “I just sit and listen to what the other boys are saying. I am not the vocal one and I am quite happy being like that just now. I am comfortable but I know there are boys in here I can learn off. In training I am more vocal and get stuck in but otherwise I keep myself to myself.
“I always think I have been quite vocal in a game and then the manager or my dad will say, ‘I didn’t hear you today’. It is always an area you can improve on.”
Training with Junior players in his hometown of Kirriemuir, the Angus village that lies north of Dundee, also prepared him for the physical challenges that lay ahead.
“I trained with Kirrie Thistle and Broughty Athletic mainly because my dad was involved. It probably toughened me up. It was nowhere near the level of Aberdeen but to get that physical development at 14 or 15 helped me.
“They were probably taking it easy with me being a kid but I was always trying to shove them off the ball. I couldn’t do it, but I would go in as hard as I could.”
A move to the English Premier League remains a long-term goal but McKenna knows he can’t allow himself to daydream.
“I think that is most people’s ambition,” he added. “It’s been a good year but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. If I take my eye off the ball it would be quite easy to slip out of the Aberdeen team and then that would seem a million miles away.”
And his old coach would no doubt be quick to point that out, too.