He knows what it is to lose an Ayrshire derby, on penalties in a cup tie, but he was able to return home afterwards rather than live with the reaction in Kilmarnock. "I stayed out of the town for a couple of days," McLaren grins sheepishly. "Some of the Ayrshire boys got a bit of stick, though."
It was in a League Cup tie at Somerset Park that Kilmarnock lost to their local rivals in October 2001, and it remains McLaren's only experience of the derby fixture. He spent three years at Rugby Park, then the final months of his senior career with Ayr United, and so he will watch Saturday's meeting between the two sides in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final with "divided loyalties".
He expects the game to be as passionate and unnerving as it was when he played in it, even if Hampden provides less intimidating surroundings than Somerset Park, where the four sides of the old stadium seemed to leer over the touchlines of the pitch.
"It was pretty intense," McLaren says. "People had told me about it, going to Somerset, an old style ground, where the fans are right on top of you, and it added to it when it was p***ing with rain and windy. It's like any derby, you don't realise how intense it is until you get out there and see the veins in the supporters' necks sticking out."
McLaren remains friendly with some of his former team-mates at Rugby Park, while Jonathan Tiffoney, the Ayr United midfielder, is also one of the coaches for McLaren's A & M Training project, which uses football as a means to address social problems and crime among young, disadvantaged children. "I've got a foot in both camps," McLaren says. "[Tiffoney] is usually up at a thing in Royston on Thursday nights, but big [Brian] Reid [the Ayr United manager] might have him tucked up somewhere. I know they're staying in a hotel on Friday night."
He believes Kilmarnock might benefit from their defeat to Dunfermline Athletic last weekend, since it will sharpen the players' minds. As the Clydesdale Bank Premier League side, they are expected to win the semi-final, even although Ayr have an impressive cup record in recent seasons, particular against top-flight teams. Yet the match, and the occasion, will he shaped by the local rivalry as much as what is at stake.
"There's local honour to be lost, and it's going to be massive," McLaren says. "They're talking 25,000 to 30,000 fans at a time, especially down in Ayrshire, when money's tight. There are a lot of [business] closures, so it will be a welcome distraction for the people of Ayrshire as well and a good day out. Killie are going into the game as the massive favourites, they're the SPL team and they're full-time, which makes a massive difference. Hampden suits them, with its big open spaces where they can get it down and play it.
"Let's face it, Ayr United need Kilmarnock to have an off day to get something out of it. But, listen, Ayr United have proved over the years that they can keep churning out results in the cup. They've put Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren out already, three big scalps, so they'll be going into it with no fear. They've nothing to lose, which can make them more dangerous."
Ayr also have a player with plenty of experience of playing at Hampden. Just never like this. Alan Trouten spent three seasons with Queen's Park earlier in his career, jogging down the tunnel every fortnight to play in front of 300 fans. It will be somewhat different tomorrow; at Queen's games every shout from the players echoed around the near-empty stadium. Against Kilmarnock, Trouten will be lucky to hear himself think.
"I've not been back in a playing capacity since I left Queens Park so I'm looking forward to going back," said the midfielder. "It was a bit eerie playing in front of so few people but you got used to it. This weekend, though, it should be a lot different with a big crowd expected with the rivalry between the two teams.
"I had a lot of good times at Hampden with a lot of good memories so hopefully Saturday will be another one. Out of the two teams I'll probably be the one with the most experience of playing there so hopefully that will help. I'm sure I'll still be nervous, though."
This is one of the most eagerly-anticipated cup ties in some time given how infrequently their paths cross in competitive matches. Trouten is well aware of what is expected. "I've been speaking to some fans since the draw was made and they've been telling us what this game is all about," he said. "According to them the rivalry is right up there with the best and it sounds like it could well be pretty nasty. I played in Garry Hay's testimonial last year and we took some amount of abuse that night and that was just a testimonial."
Ayr, having come this far, believe they have nothing to fear. "We've beaten three SPL teams to get to this stage so we're here on merit," said Trouten. "That can't be put down to luck."