Scott McKenna hopes he has already negotiated the most hazardous stage of a Nations League qualification process.
Scotland’s 4-0 win against Albania was the easy part of a trip where the hairiest experience was the bus journey back from Shkoder to Tirana following the game. The 100-kilometres drive to the Albanian capital to catch the flight home was certainly more fraught for the players than the 90 minutes at the Loro Borici stadium proved.
At least McKenna and his team-mates are in control of the situation when they step out against Israel this evening knowing what they need to do. It’s win or bust. On Saturday night it was more a case of life or death.
“We were driving the up the wrong side of the road with a police escort, going round blind corners and that!” recalled McKenna yesterday. “We made it back and we got home safe so that was the main thing.
“The right lane was full of buses so we were going down past them and there were cars coming the opposite way who had to go off the road to pass us. We got there in the end. But it wasn’t great to be honest!
“The mood on the bus was obviously good, though,” he added. “The louder ones up the back of the bus had all the bam tunes on, all the Glasgow boys. You know what they’re like. It’s not really my cup of tea, that music. We don’t get that in Forfar!”
It’s amazing the difference a win can make. The scale – and manner – of Saturday’s victory meant such high spirits were justified. Despite now having seven caps, including when he skippered the side against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, McKenna still does not feel secure enough to start shouting the odds when those at the back of the bus are choosing the tunes. The Forfar massive must know their place, it seems.
“I’d get absolutely slaughtered for that,” he said, when asked if he felt confident enough to tell them to switch it off – or at least put on something less unpleasant on the ears. “I am outnumbered. There are more Glasgow boys than there are Forfar boys!”
Were he on the decks, so to speak, he’d select “something a bit calmer, but upbeat: Not GBX, or Zander Nation!” Whatever music is blaring out, at least it’s better than the solemn silence that tends to descend following a defeat. Despite recent troubles, and the absence of so many team-mates and friends, it’s gladdening to hear such a tight bond still exists.
“We have that throughout the whole camp,” said McKenna. “When it is time for training and time to play we are always focused. People up to stupid stuff. There’s probably not much I can repeat here. It is good we can have that focus when we need to, but obviously boys can chill and relax when we are away from training.”
While he is one of the quieter ones off the pitch, McKenna has wasted no time making his mark on it. He is the one helping others such as centre-half partner David Bates cope with the step up. The SV Hamburg player made his debut on Saturday and will almost certainly partner McKenna again this evening.
“Batesy is a great guy,” he said. “I spoke to him on his first day in the squad and we got on right away. There wasn’t any awkwardness or anything.
“Sometimes people feel someone is coming to take your position or it’s competition but he was fine.”
It’s proved quite a year since McKenna made his own international debut in March against Costa Rica in Alex McLeish’s first game back in charge. Now 2018 has the potential to get even better. McKenna will play twice at Hampden in the next 12 days – against Israel tonight in what amounts to a cup final and then v Celtic a week on Sunday, in what is an actual cup final. McKenna also recently celebrated his 22nd birthday.
“The Aberdeen game takes a backseat this week but the Betfred Cup final is something to look forward to,” he said. “There’s so much happening before the end of the year. Potentially I could have won a cup with my club and have a Euros play-off place guaranteed with Scotland.”
McKenna was just 16 when he first trained with the Scotland full squad having been invited to take part with other Aberdeen youngsters prior to Gordon Strachan’s first match in charge against Estonia at Pittodrie in 2013.
It was then that he got his first chance to see what a good striker Steven Fletcher is, with the Sheffield Wednesday player joining McKenna in the Scotland side after a lengthy break on Saturday. Fletcher looks certain to start up front again tonight.
“We were taken in to shadow and it was the back four working against the strikers,” recalled McKenna.
“I remember Mark McGhee telling us we weren’t there just to muck about or make up the numbers. We were to get stuck in to them. Marcus Campanile, one of the young boys who was at Aberdeen, actually flattened Charlie Adam! We got told to calm down after that.
“I was trying to get to Stevie but I couldn’t get near him,” he added.
“Saturday was the first time I have played alongside him. To go and show that quality after not being in the international squad for a wee while was brilliant. His link-up play was superb, bringing boys in to play and helping us get up the park.”