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Willing conscript McLean ready for national service

On his way out of the canteen at St Mirren's training ground, Danny Lennon stops to lift the Clydesdale Bank young player of the month award.

Feeling its weight in his hands, he squints before saying, loud enough for the room to hear, “tell him I won seven of these. All by the time I was 18.”

Standing near the door, Kenny McLean grins awkwardly, not sure how to respond to his manager’s droll humour.

It is a rare moment of hesitation for a midfielder who has reacted with aplomb to every opportunity he has encountered in his career.

A few moments earlier, one of his team-mates asked, with grave astonishment, why McLean had not been called up to the Scotland under-21 squad, but his season has otherwise been one of steady progress.

After being unable to break into the XI at first, he has established himself as an effective presence. He resembles Barry Ferguson in the way he moves around the field; head up, chest out, back straight and with a glide to his movement.

McLean is not as complete a player, but there is vision and awareness to his game and a willingness to be bold that brought his first senior goal last month against St Johnstone.

It feels like a time of reward for the 19-year-old, the moment when progress comes to seem inevitable, but McLean is still shaped by the six months he spent on loan in the second division with Arbroath in early 2010, where he was a young, quiet voice in a dressing room heavy with worldliness and unforgiving disdain, where the training was two nights a week and team-mates often turned up in their work clothes.

Under the guidance of Jim Weir and Kevin McGowne, the midfielder began to make the transition that leaves promise behind and hardens some of the softer edges. It also brings perspective to McLean when he is working every day at St Mirren’s training ground, where every aspect of his development is measured and improved.

“You can say we get it easy in comparison, and it developed me as a player,” McLean says of his loan spell. “It was tough, so I just had to get my head down and get on with it. I was in a first-team environment with older, more experienced players who had dropped down the divisions. A lot of them had played at SPL level, so they knew what they were talking about. We got relegated that season, against Forfar in the play-offs. But Arbroath have come back up now and I still watch out for their results.”

Lennon is adamant that his side must play a passing, structured game, which suits McLean’s ability on the ball. He has benefited, too, from the presence of senior players such as Steven Thompson and Gary Teale, whose arrival brought the kind of professionalism that spreads in a willing dressing room.

Scouts from English clubs, including Burnley and Crystal Palace, have begun to take notice of McLean, but in the same way that he is unfazed by being overlooked for the under-21 squad, the midfielder is not affected by his growing status.

Having worked his way patiently into the starting line-up, his focus is on remaining there and ignoring the complications that come with it.

“I wouldn’t say pressure, but I knew it was going to be tough to keep my place,” he says. “It was a waiting game to get in, because the team was playing brilliantly, but my chance came. Hopefully, in the long run, I can keep doing that.

“I wouldn’t say surprised [at being left out of the under-21s], it would have been good but I’m just looking to keep my place in the St Mirren team and, hopefully, that will come in the future. [The interest of other clubs] is just speculation, so you just need to blank it out and get on with it.”

McLean is still making his way in the game, but with an attitude that is grounded and influenced by his time at Arbroath. It has been the making of him.

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