Had anyone told McKenna at the start of the season he would be a full internationalist by the spring, the Kirriemuir-born centre-half would have accused them of living in Neverland.
The Aberdeen centre-half’s progress is a flight of fancy of the type JM Barrie would have been hard pressed to concoct. Unable to force himself into the Aberdeen team, he could hardly harbour international ambitions even at Under-21 level. But here he now is, a full internationalist after playing 90 minutes against Costa Rica on Friday.
“If someone told me at the start of the season I’d have a cap I wouldn’t have believed you,” said McKenna. “I wasn’t in the under-21s and I wasn’t playing for Aberdeen. It just shows you how quick things can change.”
He has not been an overnight success at club level. While he made his Aberdeen debut two years ago, loan spells at Alloa and Ayr United (twice) did not necessarily signal a player being groomed for first-team football at Pittodrie. He even fell out of favour at Ayr for a spell last season and ended up training alone in a gym in Dundee.
He finally played for the Pittodrie first-team again at Motherwell in September and has not looked back. “I’d been waiting long enough for a chance,” he said. “It was more about excitement than anything else.
“Ever since, I’ve tried to take everything in my stride and I think I did that on Friday. There were a few nerves because you’ve never been in that situation before but I thought I coped reasonably well.”
He was viewed to have been among the more successful of the five players handed debuts by Alex McLeish last week. “Sound,” was how the manager described his performance yesterday.
Having enjoyed such a meteoric rise, McKenna is now determined to stay in situ. Part of the reason for his rapid promotion is expedience – Scotland are hardly blessed with centre-halves. But McKenna has caught the eye this season after breaking into the Aberdeen side and he was a willing accomplice for Andy Robertson down Scotland’s left as McLeish experimented with a back three.
“I got forward a bit more but at Aberdeen we try to keep the two centre-halves against the one striker,” said McKenna. “Charlie [Mulgrew] and Grant [Hanley] dealt with the one striker and it allowed me to get forward a bit more. It was all about getting the ball to Andy Robertson higher up the pitch – he was very effective.
“Charlie talked to me all game and Andy, playing at a very high level, was speaking to me as well, so it was easy enough.”
It also helps having a former Aberdeen centre-half as manager. Like McKenna, McLeish made his debut at 21 and went on to earn 77 caps. McKenna has time on his side as well as every opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place as McLeish overhauls the defence.
“There’s a lot of history with the manager and Aberdeen,” he said. “He was successful there and someone told me he made his Scotland debut at the same age as me. Hopefully I can learn a few things off him and come back a better player.
“In between drills, he’ll come over and make a point or wee things that can help out. I just want to take them to my game at Aberdeen and help with my game.”
As for the future, and a potential second cap tomorrow night against Hungary, McKenna said: “I don’t think there’s much more I can do this season!
“Keeping my head down and doing well on the pitch is my main focus.
“It’s been one thing after another this season – to get the squad call-up was unexpected. While I knew I’d been playing well there were boys doing it more consistently over a lot more games.”