SOME young players can let the praise and adulation they are showered with when they break into the first team at a club go to their heads to such a degree their form suffers and their careers stall as a result.

Scott McKenna, the Aberdeen centre half who has been called into the Scotland squad for the friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary, has certainly received plenty of compliments and veneration in recent months.

Yet, the testing start the defender endured to his playing days will ensure he remains focused. This time last season he found himself out of an Ayr United team that was heading for relegation from the Championship and lifting weights in a gym on a Saturday instead of playing a game. That difficult experience remains fresh in his memory.

“It’s a bit surreal being here to be honest,” said McKenna yesterday after taking part in his first Scotland training session at Oriam, the national performance centre outside Edinburgh. “I didn’t expect to get named in the squad. But I’m delighted to get picked.

“I got dropped when I went out on loan to Ayr last year. I knew what I could do, but I just wasn’t able to produce it on the pitch.

“Whenever I wasn’t playing I was working hard to improve on what I already had. If I wasn’t playing on a Saturday, I’d drive back up the road to Forfar and stop off in Dundee and go to the gym.

“It meant that even when I wasn’t playing I was still doing the work that the boys who were playing were getting. I needed to get my minutes in so I wasn’t falling behind. I just hoped it would all come together.

“It was more out of frustration that I went to the gym. I lifted weights and tried to get all the anger out.

“I wasn’t playing well enough and the boys who came in did well and I couldn’t argue. It was frustrating knowing that I could do it, but wasn’t playing well enough. That happens in football and it was all about how I bounced back.

“It was the first time I’d been dropped and I had to learn how to handle it. I didn’t go moaning to the manager. I accepted it and tried to work my way back.”

McKenna added: “When I went back to Aberdeen I was flying, but the manager had centre halves he wanted to play at the time. It was after their form went a bit that he gave me my chance and I was ready.

“It’s quite crazy, to be honest, to think about the last year. I went from being in the stand at Aberdeen to getting thrown in for a game and I have managed to stay there. That led to being involved with the under-21s. I haven’t looked back too much beyond that to be honest.

“I just want to concentrate on doing well and progressing. I think I’ll look back at the end of the season at how well I’ve done.

“I would never say I’ve made it. I know at Aberdeen there are boys waiting to steal my position. If I get knocked off then I would be the one out and struggling to get back in.”

McKenna is effusive in his praise of Derek McInnes and credits the Aberdeen manager for helping him to put his disappointing spell at Somerset Park firmly behind him and force his way into the first team at Pittodrie ahead of Kari Arnason, Dominic Ball and Mark Reynolds this season.

“Ever since I went full-time at 16 he’s looked after me really well,” he said. “He always said he would never throw me in too early or too soon. He said he was going to wait until the time was right and he did that.

“Even when I was at Ayr and not playing he said: ‘Listen, don’t worry about it, we know what you’re capable of’. He told me just to try and get back to the level they knew I could reach and I’d do fine at Aberdeen. Thankfully I managed that.”

McKenna was the subject of a £300,000 bid from English Championship club Hull City during the January transfer window that was instantly rejected by Aberdeen. It is clear the player is content to stay where he is, improve further under McInnes and help them to savour success.

“It was flattering, but the manager at Aberdeen pulled me straight away and said I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “He said that unless it was a ridiculous offer he wanted to keep me there. I was on a long-term deal as it was and the manager said: ‘I want you to experience success here’. So hopefully that’ll happen.”

McInnes stated at the weekend that McKenna is capable of playing for Scotland, not just being part of the squad, and his protege admitted that backing has helped him to settle.

“The manager told me to come away with Scotland and enjoy it and it was well deserved.,” he said. “He didn’t put any pressure on me. Hearing he has faith in me gives me confidence and hopefully I can on and justify it.”

McKenna may have been born 13 years after Alex McLeish helped Aberdeen to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup with victory over Real Madrid, but he is well aware of the new Scotland manager’s achievements at Pittodrie and is hoping he can learn from the legendary former centre half when he is away in the national squad.

“There are a lot of people at Aberdeen who know him very well who have told me about him as a player and as a manager,” he said. “Hopefully he can pass on information that can benefit me. I’ve been told that Alex won his first cap at 21 and hopefully I can do the same. It’s what I want to do.”

Centre half has been something of a problem position for Scotland for some time, but with McKenna coming to prominence at Aberdeen, David Bates and Ross McCrorie emerging at Rangers, Ryan Porteous featuring in the first team at Hibernian, and Jack Hendry of Celtic being called up, the future is looking a lot brighter.

“There is competition for the position,” said McKenna. “It’s just up to each person individually, it’s about who performs the best. They’re the ones who will get picked. We just need to perform at the highest level we can to give us the best chance.”