But a path is clearing for Scott McKenna and Mikey Devlin to unite for Scotland as they have recently for Aberdeen.
Injury and the form of stalwart Andrew Considine, set to play his 500th game for the Pittodrie club next week, have combined to limit their games together at the back.
They did form a partnership in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat of Ross County. With Leeds’ Liam Cooper having withdrawn injured, McKenna and Devlin, right, could well continue where they left off while wearing a dark blue shirt against Cyprus and Kazakhstan. Longer term, they will hope to establish themselves as a unit for country as well as club.
“That would be the dream,” said McKenna. “We have probably not spent as much time on the pitch together as we would have liked. We had a good partnership at the start of last year, but I got injured and Mikey got injured. We are lucky if we have played 10 games together since November last year. But we have played three out of the last four together, kept a couple of clean sheets and are both in the squad. It’s exciting and hopefully something we can build on.”
McKenna can’t take it personally when people reflect wistfully on the days when both Aberdeen and Scotland could rely on central defenders of the calibre of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. It has been an occupational hazard for every young centre-half coming through at Pittodrie since the early 1990s.
“You always get compared to them,” added McKenna. “They say we have never had any good centre-halves since then.
“They were so good, that was always going to happen with the success they had at the club. It was incredible.
“Aberdeen right now are quite a bit away from where they were in those days. You can see why people always say that because they were used to having that standard of centre half back in the day. That standard has dropped a wee bit for them but we can only do the best we can to try and bring success to Aberdeen and keep the fans happy.”
It’s not just Aberdeen who are suffering. In fact, the Pittodrie club have produced a diamond in McKenna, for whom they have turned down bids in excess of £7 million. It seems inevitable he will test himself in the English Premier League before long, something he has dreamed of since studying the craft of defending from watching Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic on TV playing for his beloved Manchester United.
“It’s something I still do when watching Premier League games now – my focus is not on the game or the score, it’s on what are the defenders doing,” said McKenna. “That’s the level we all strive to be at.”
There was not quite the same quality of player in Scotland to inspire budding centre-halves. But McKenna remembers watching Christophe Berra and Russell Martin playing together for Scotland and despairing over whether he would ever reach that level.
Since he was struggling at the time to get into the Ayr United side while on loan there, it seemed unlikely. Now it is a very different story. Having turned 23 two days ago, he is well placed to be a Scotland centre-half for years to come. He already has 15 caps. Meanwhile, never mind Miller and McLeish, Aberdeen are already trying to find the next McKenna.
“I know at the Aberdeen academy centre-half is a position they are targeting and trying to work on from a young age, and I am sure there will be a lot of clubs doing that,” McKenna revealed.
With the Euro 2020 play-offs to come, he won’t rest on his laurels. His own tale of instantly changing fortunes can give comfort to others currently out of favour at lower league clubs. After his loan at Ayr was cancelled, he went from watching Aberdeen lose a League Cup tie at Motherwell to playing for the first-team a few days later against the same opponents. He has barely looked back since.
“Things can change,” he said. “I could play well these two games but then it’s up to me to play well for my club until March. Things changed overnight. It’s not to say it won’t happen for another young player at a different club and they might go and play well for a season or two.
“It is up to me to keep on top of my performances and make sure I am always the one being called into the squad.”