Surprise choice MacKenzie says he owes it all to Rae

THOSE with only cursory knowledge of Scottish footballers long operating outside the top leagues might have reached for ‘who?’ and ‘why?’ on hearing that MK Dons defender Gary MacKenzie had earned an “out of the blue” late call-up for his country’s friendly in Cyprus this week.

The 26-year-old centre-back, who started his career with Rangers before moving to Dundee and then south of the border last year, would tell you the answer to both is all about Al.

The ‘Al’ in question is Alex Rae, the figure who has shaped MacKenzie’s career since the pair were slogging away out of the limelight at Ibrox. “I owe a huge debut of gratitude to Al,” MacKenzie said yesterday, as he prepared to jet out to with Craig Levein’s squad. “He was with me at Rangers when I was in and around the first-team squad. We were in the same boat, playing for the reserves, and he knew how frustrated I was because I wasn’t getting the first-team opportunity I wanted. When he got the Dundee job he gave me a call and took me to Dens.

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“I went up there just to get first-team football and ended up playing over 100 games. He then got the assistant manager’s job at MK Dons and obviously thought highly of me because he took me down with him and things just snowballed from there. When he moved to Notts County with Paul Ince I just wished him all the best but he’s been the biggest influence on my career and I have so much respect and admiration for him.

“I owe him a debt for giving me a chance and he’s someone I think about when I’m joining up with the Scotland squad. I spoke to him on Sunday after I got the call and I think he’s more over the moon about it than me.”

MacKenzie watched last month’s defeat in Spain that marked the end of Scotland’s Euro 2012 campaign in a London bar with some buddies. But, refreshingly, he never considered the leap from pub to plane where his proximity to international football is concerned an unbridgeable one. Club manager Karl Robinson had consistently told him he couldn’t be far away from earning recognition and the player knows his fine form with the fourth-placed League One side has engendered interest from Championship sides.

“Obviously I didn’t think it would happen for me this soon but I did feel that if I could continue playing well then it would happen for me. I was thinking maybe six months to a year down the line, if we are going to get promoted but I know I have been playing consistently well for a year now and I am looking forward trying to impress the manager [Craig Levein].”

MacKenzie sees his call-up as “a new start” to take him to a “new level” and now does not consider he has endured any troubling turns in his footballing “journey”. It is a trek that might see the centre-back reacquainting himself with a number of old associates should he stay in the senior Scotland set-up. “I had a privileged start at Rangers but chose to leave there to get first team football. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change that because of what I learned in my four years at Dundee.

“That experience then set me up for going down to England. I was surprised at how well I coped last season because it’s a good standard, but the education I’ve had in football has served me well. I grew up with Charlie Adam, Alan Hutton was a year older. Ross McCormack was in the same team and guys like Stevie Smith, who is playing down in League One. I was in the Scotland team when I was 19 and you see some of them who have gone on to play in the Premier League and Championship. But then the other side of the coin are players have fell away completely, so I count myself lucky. I’m in a good place in my career just now and hopefully I can kick on for the rest of the season.” MacKenzie’s one quibble is that he never made the step up to the Scotland under-21s – “even when I was captain of Dundee at 20” – but that is superceded by his inclusion in the senior set-up. A Sunday afternoon’s call that made for a “whirlwind day” but denied his daughters Arden, seven, and Amber, four, a whirlpool day.

“I was taking my two daughters swimming when I got the call. My club manager rang my mobile and said I’d be getting a call from Craig Levein, so the swimming didn’t go too well. I think we were in there for about five minutes and then back out again. The whole thing just took a wee while to sink in. It wasn’t like I thought it was a wind up – my manager knows me too well not to try anything like that. When we left the swimming baths my kids weren’t too happy. But everyone else has been over the moon at the news. Sunday was one of the best days of my life.”