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From out of the side to starting for Scotland . . .

IT is unlikely that Craig Slater will again experience the whirlwind of recent months anytime soon.

Craig Slater made his debut for the Scotland under-21 side against Hungary on Wednesday. Picture: SNS
Craig Slater made his debut for the Scotland under-21 side against Hungary on Wednesday. Picture: SNS

Unless his next step is to be elected youngest mayor of Kilmarnock or chief taster of the club's famous pies, the midfielder can probably expect his career to plateau for a while.

It is no bad thing. Having made a solitary appearance for the first XI back in August, Slater was then left out of the side. His club started to suffer, though, from poor form and poor results and in November his struggling manager - Allan Johnston - stuck him in on a hunch.

Slater is now as good as certain a starter. The SPFL Premiership Young Player of the Month award for January followed, and then most recently a debut appearance for the Scotland under-21 side. For a player who had asked to leave St Mirren two years ago after not being satisfied with his treatment and his lack of game time, it has been an extraordinary rise.

His club's form, though, has dipped of late. Without a win in five matches, Kilmarnock have been painfully dragged back into the battle to avoid the relegation play-off place and need to win today at home to Hearts, not least because their three fixtures after that happen to be against the three strongest teams around. With trips to the forbidding fortresses of Pittodrie and Fir Park on the cards, the visit of Celtic to Rugby Park will also be unwelcome. But, with the bright optimism of a youngster as yet unused to the year-in, year-out, dog-eat-dog scrap to stay in the top division, Slater insists that he is not feeling the strain.

"I don't think there's that much pressure to be honest," he said. "Obviously we need results to get results and, hopefully, we can do that and move up the table a bit. I think that we can do that, definitely. I think we've been playing well, we just need a few wee lucky breaks."

Slater was surprised to be thrown in from the start against Hungary on Wednesday; he expected to just spend time with the squad, bedding in and getting accustomed to new surroundings. So, although Billy Stark's side threw away a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Hungary at Tannadice, Slater admits that the experience had been better than he had expected.

"It was a nice wee thing to get the call up," he grinned. "It was a nice wee bit of recognition, playing with Kilmarnock and getting in the first team . . . it's all happened quite quickly. Hopefully, if I keep doing what I'm doing there'll be many more. I had a chat with Billy Stark before the match and he just said to me, 'play your normal game, just go in and be confident'. That was it, really, nothing too much.

"It was a nice wee boost to get away for a wee break, to play with other players in a team that's got really good quality. It was something different; good to hear a different voice as well, work with a different coaching staff and pick up a few wee things." The signing of Alexei Eremenko in the January transfer window has given Kilmarnock an added dimension in attack, and he is yet another experienced campaigner for the Rugby Park youngsters to admire and pick up the odd little trick from. Slater was asked what it was like to train every day with someone like the mercurial playmaker.

"Brilliant," was Slater's blunt assessment. "So many things the guy does with the ball are amazing. He's played at a high level and it's really good to learn off these guys. In training every day, he maybe puts a wee bit of a different slant on how to approach it . . . maybe tactics, just the way he passes the ball really and the wee angles he makes.

"He's got that wee bit of flair, that natural ability. What he's got is just that unique bit of magic going forward. Obviously as a midfielder, you're going to need that to take you to the next level. I could definitely chip in with a few more goals. If I could add that, I'd be really happy and it'd be really good for the team."

Gary Oliver, one of Hearts' young prospects, is also relishing getting unexpected game time this season. The 18-year-old admitted that he has thrived under the guidance of former Hearts striker John Robertson.

"Robbo is a legend at the club so I'm just trying to take in as much as I can from him," he said.

"If I can learn from him then I'm sure I can do well and it can only help me as a striker. I haven't seen a lot of footage of him as a player but I don't need to; he tells me every day exactly how many goals he scored. You do get sick of listening to him at times."

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