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Shortage of characters is no concern to either Stark or McKenzie

MUCH of the initial talk of Rory McKenzie's nascent international career has been at his expense.

Kilmarnock's Rory McKenzie will not be  the only newcomer to the under-21 squad hoping  to impress Billy Stark
Kilmarnock's Rory McKenzie will not be the only newcomer to the under-21 squad hoping to impress Billy Stark

The Kilmarnock teenager yesterday sat contentedly in the lobby of the team hotel in Clydebank; the centre of attention after earning his first call-up to the Scotland Under-21 squad ahead of a friendly with Greece today, yet the news had already made him the focus of some good-natured ribbing from others at his club.

McKenzie's resistance to Twitter had meant he was the last one at Kilmarnock to know about his inclusion in Billy Stark's squad. And boy didn't he know about it. That followed a few playful jibes from assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl after it emerged the striker is also eligible to play for Trinidad and Tobago as one of his grandparents had been born in the Caribbean.

The enthusiasm with which McKenzie has hauled on a Scotland tracksuit and the candid manner with which he treated his prospects of making an impression on Stark told of how seriously the 19-year-old took the notion of switching his allegiance, while the exuberant celebration that will come should he score this afternoon will likely cover the rest of it.

With his squad short on experience – Stuart Armstrong, the Dundee United midfielder, is a relative veteran with 11 caps – and his pool of attackers depleted by the withdrawal of Hearts' David Smith, Stark is quite inclined to listen, too. McKenzie's promise has finally been caught up by an opportunity to prove it; a number of departures at Kilmarnock last month allowing greater room for younger players at the club to show off what they can do. That has allowed McKenzie to feature in three of his side's last five matches and he has taken that encouragement with him to Greece.

"The manager [Kenny Shiels] is not scared to throw them in," said the forward, who scored four as Kilmarnock's under-20 side routed Rangers 5-1 in the Scottish Youth Cup earlier in the season. "Fortunately I was one of them at Celtic [in a 2-0 win on October 27]; at Parkhead he started me and he started Mark [O'Hara], who is 16. When we went back after the window closed I felt that the squad was so small. I was waiting in training for folk to come in but that was it. There were quite a few out the door so that gives the rest of us a chance."

He will find that to be a shared ambition in the under-21 squad this afternoon. The teenager has joined a group of players with a growing pedigree but who have yet to prove themselves, with even Tony Watt seeking to establish himself as a striker with more than just that one fine memory. "Tony is Tony and he has done what he has done this season," said McKenzie, allowing the Celtic striker's goal against Barcelona to go without saying. "I was always hoping [to get a call-up] but I never let it get me down if I wasn't selected. I was confident I would get a chance."

Stark has travelled to Korinthos with a depleted squad of 16 after the withdrawals of the injured Smith, Fraser Fyvie, Stefan Scougall and Lewis Toshney, with Fraser Kerr and Callum Tapping being called up. "We are a wee bit tight with numbers but it depends where you are in the building process," he said. "We've had the game in Portugal and we had a couple of games in Malaga. We're at the stage now, going into a championship game, that I wouldn't want to have a whole big squad of players to try to fit in. You want players to get plenty of game-time to see how they look.

"We are quite comfortable with the ones we've got. We're excited for Stuart Bannigan, Stephen O'Donnell and Callum Tapping to get an opportunity. It means when we go into the championship game in six week's time, we've blooded another couple of players that, if needed, are there for us."

The match provides another opportunity for Stark to work with his players ahead of the qualifiers for the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship which open with the visit of Luxembourg next month. Stark knows Greece will provide a worthwhile test: "They are a big, physical side. They have beaten Belgium 3-1 and they drew with Austria 1-1 so those are good results at international level. We are expecting a tough game."

The Scots will face Netherlands, Slovakia, Georgia and Luxembourg in the qualifiers. "As with most draws, it could have been better and it could have been worse, said Stark. "We always approach it in terms of we've got a realistic chance of qualifying. We've taken it to the last game every time and we hope to do that again."

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