Progressing to next month’s Scottish Cup final would be the perfect way to mark the meteoric rise in fortune that has surprised even Scott McKenna himself, especially given how the Aberdeen defender spent the day when the club lost last season’s final against Celtic.
He was at Hampden Park to witness their cruel defeat to Tom Rogic’s last-minute goal but spent the build-up having lunch with agent Gordon Reid discussing the options for someone who genuinely feared being released under freedom of contract this summer.
That followed a dismal loan spell at Somerset Park terminated by the player himself after realising he wasn’t even performing well enough to get a game for an Ayr United team drifting towards automatic relegation to League 1.
Now, today’s opponents will be only too well aware that the turning point for McKenna’s Aberdeen career came in a 1-0 win against them at Fir Park, just days after Motherwell had bullied Derek McInnes’ side out of the League Cup at the same venue.
The 21-year-old hasn’t looked back since, becoming a regular in the Dons starting line-up, the subject of a failed £1million bid from Hull City in January and going on to impress in his first full Scotland internationals against Costa Rica and Hungary.
Instead of being released next month, McKenna is contracted to Aberdeen until the summer of 2023 and the contrast from last May is something he’s still coming to terms with.
He said: “I sat with my agent trying to work out what I might need to do if I was going to be released by Aberdeen this summer. What do I have to do to give me a chance of getting another club if I get released from here? My target for the season was to try and play five to ten games for Aberdeen this season.
“I had just had my loan at Ayr cancelled and everything was going through my mind at the time, although I was focused on trying to get in the best shape I could for coming back.
“You still get doubts as to whether or not you are going to get that chance. There have been boys here who have gone out on loan and done well and it hasn’t worked out here. I have been the opposite.
“You need to be in the right place in time. If the team had done well in the League Cup against Motherwell, I might not be sitting here or having played for Scotland. I might still have been in the stands but I have and I have managed to grab it.”
The time spent at Somerset Park might not have been productive from a playing point of view but it was certainly a vital character-building exercise for the player when he looked around the Ayr United dressing room. Understanding the privileged position he enjoyed as a full-time footballer compared to some of his team-mates during the loan spell had a positive affect on how McKenna approached the chance that finally came his way at Aberdeen.
“I was in with part-time boys training with them at night,” he added. “Some of them had another 90 minutes to drive after training and were getting home at midnight before they were starting their day jobs again at 6am the next morning.
“Here I am in at 9.45am and you are away at 1 or 2pm. You need to try and keep that for as long as you can and I was determined to work as hard as I could to try and turn things around. There were boys who probably weren’t earning that much money in their day jobs and needed the money from football to get by. If you stay full-time it was a very different lifestyle.”
McKenna certainly knows all about that as rather than looking for a new club next month he will surely be heading to Peru and Mexico with the Scotland squad, and what would complete an incredible year is if he goes after collecting a Scottish Cup winners medal first.
“After the disappointment of losing the final last year it is massive,” he admits. “We had a disappointing result on Saturday [a 2-0 defeat by Hearts] and we want to try and get to the final to try and put last year’s wrongs right.
“I can sense it is massive for everyone at the club but there is a difficult game on Saturday which hopefully we can get through. We have beaten them twice and they have beaten us twice this season and so we know it won’t be easy.”