THERE is more than just a newly-cultivated beard that suggests Ross McCormack has become a more mature and rounded character of late. The striker is now 27 years old and a key figure at Leeds United, both for the goals he contributes in vast amounts and also for his steadying influence after being named club captain at the start of the year.
Being asked to be the on-field leader of your teammates is not a role every player adapts to comfortably but it seems to have been the making of McCormack.
As he chats openly and thoughtfully about the ongoing turbulence at Leeds, as well as his aspirations
at both club and international level, McCormack comes across as a man who has belatedly learned to shed the acts of impulsiveness that were often the hallmarks of his youth.
Leeds have a legacy of great Scottish captains - Eddie Gray, Billy Bremner, Gary McAllister
et al - but McCormack is not too interested in a history lesson.
At a club forever chained to the glory days of its past, the former Rangers and Motherwell forward
is more interested in improving the present, while plotting a more prosperous future.
Despite McCormack's bountiful haul of 24 goals - his most productive season to date - Leeds still find themselves stuck in the exact middle of the Sky Bet Championship table, in no danger of being relegated but still some eight points and six places off a promotion play-off spot.
Since leaving Motherwell for Cardiff City in 2008, McCormack has spent each of his seven seasons down south in England's second tier. Six clubs, including West Ham United and Cardiff City, reportedly tried to sign him on January deadline day but a move never materialised. McCormack banged in a hat trick the next day as if to say "here's what you could have won" in best gameshow fashion.
He remains an ambitious figure but believes Leeds can take him where he wants to go. "Definitely," he confirms. "I never dreamed about being captain of a club, never mind one the size of Leeds United. That alone keeps me here. I could go to another club and just blend in but I like the responsibility that I have at the minute, and I want to keep it."
There wasn't just a possible transfer to occupy McCormack on deadline day. The apparent sacking of Brian McDermott, the Leeds manager, by the club's prospective new Italian owners prompted him
to go on live television to express his shock.
"I don't regret anything, I spoke my mind," he adds matter-of-factly. "I was just being honest. Never once did I say I have had enough, I want to go. I have a really close relationship with the gaffer and he had been sacked - or whatever it was that had happened - and I could just not believe it had happened.
"That's all it was. Maybe a couple of years ago I might have been more reserved and thought more about what might have happened had it come across wrong. But I have learned in recent years to speak the right way and get things across the way I want them to come across.
"It was important because at that time there were six of us in Noel Hunt's house that night - and all
six of us could not believe what was happening. It was not just me. I was speaking on behalf of the whole squad."
Some people are born leaders, while others grow into it. McCormack admits he falls into the latter camp. Being a captain was not something he thought about in his younger days but it seemed a natural progression the older and more experienced he became.
"I didn't ever see myself as a captain but now it's something I absolutely love," he adds. "When I was younger I probably liked a laugh and a joke too much.
"Now I'm a little bit older I tend to be more serious about my work and how I conduct myself on the training field. It's the same off the field.
"It's a big job for me, one I've been working towards for the last few years. I think I'm ready for it, I've matured a lot as a person and I'm really enjoying it.
"Obviously I know Leeds have had a few Scottish captains but I don't tend to look too much to that because you can get lost in the history of that club. There's so much good history but I think it's all about the present and the future. It's up to me and the rest of the boys to become the pictures on the wall for the next generation."
McCormack has aspirations at international level that are yet to be fulfilled, too.
He flies out with the rest of the Scotland squad today for tomorrow's friendly with Poland hoping to add to the 10 caps and two goals already to his name.
The recent retirement of Kenny Miller means there is no longer an automatic pick for the centre-forward role in Gordon Strachan's side and, given his form, McCormack would seem as good a choice as any.
"In terms of being a regular in the squad, I feel ready to be part of it. There have been frustrating times [over the years] but I've found my position, playing up front for Leeds and scoring goals.
"That's where I want to keep playing for my club and, if I get a chance, for Scotland too."
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