Three years ago Scott McKenna feared his Scotland dream was slipping away – which is why he is ready to fight to retain his starting slot.
The Aberdeen centre-back is set to earn his 14th cap when starting against Kazakhstan at Hampden in the final Euro 2020 Group I qualifier tonight.
McKenna has reached the level of regular starts for his country and has been the subject of multiple rejected bids from English clubs, including a £6.5 million approach by Aston Villa.
However, just three seasons ago, while out on loan, the defender was struggling to get into an Ayr United team who were eventually relegated from the Championship.
McKenna’s career turned when he was thrown in for a start in a 1-0 win at Motherwell in September 2017.
He knows how quickly fortunes can turn – for the good or bad – which is why he will continue to battle to be a Scotland regular.
The immediate target is to impress tonight and then at club level to secure a start in the Euro 2020 play-offs in March.
McKenna said: “When I was on loan at Ayr I remember sitting at home watching Scotland and thinking ‘there’s no way I am ever going to get to that level’.
“Everything was going against me at the time.
“That day I was thinking I was a million miles off and I could never even consider I would be here with Scotland.
“The way things turned round and I am with Scotland now, it’s not something I want to let go.
“I have played a few games for Scotland now and I think I need to try to get some consistency and try to show the manager – if I play – I want left centre-half to be my position.
“Again, that only comes from my performances.”
Asked if self doubt was ever an issue when he struggled to get a start at Ayr, he said: “It was never an issue. But when you are that far away from playing for the national team and not playing for a Championship team, you do not even consider it.
“I just worked hard and things thankfully turned round for me.”
A hamstring tear ruled McKenna out of the previous two Scotland squads. Now fit, he returned to the Scotland starting line-up for the 2-1 win in Cyprus.
Despite a disastrous Group I campaign, a route to the Euro 2020 finals is still open for the Scots via the play-offs in March.
They will discover their opponents for the March 26 semi-final in Friday’s draw and will face either Bulgaria, Israel or Hungary.
McKenna’s career turned rapidly, which is why he is aware much can happen in the five months prior to the play-offs.
He said: “Things changed overnight for me.
“The season before I made the breakthrough at Aberdeen my loan spell at Ayr got cut short.
“I went from being in the stand at Motherwell on a Thursday night (3-0 League Cup quarter-final defeat) with Aberdeen to starting on the Sunday (1-0 win).
“I have pretty much played every game since, when I have been fit. It’s small margins.
“I could play well in these two games but then it’s up to me to play well for my club until March.
“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.”
McKenna started in Cyprus alongside previously uncapped Motherwell centre-back Declan Gallagher. Fellow Dons centre-back Mikey Devlin, was introduced in the final minutes to earn his third cap.
National boss Steve Clarke had four centre-backs ruled out by injury for the Cyprus and Kazakhstan double header.
McKenna said: “We have good centre-halves but the problem’s been that two or three of us have been injured at the same time.
“When we do come away there has only ever been three or four rather than five or six and there’s not that real competition the manager would like.
“That’s just circumstances with the boys being injured.
“I am sure he would love to have five or six of us all training and trying to outdo each other.
“It’s not quite worked out like that way yet. Back in the day, when we were qualifying for tournaments centre-half was probably one of the strongest positions.
“These things are just swings and roundabouts and it is up to the boys who are Scottish and playing centre-half to try to step up and grab that opportunity.
I know at the Aberdeen academy centre-half is a position they are targeting and trying to work on from a young age.
“I am sure there will be a lot of clubs doing that.”