HIS presence in the starting line-up didn’t prevent Scotland from crashing to a calamitous 3-0 defeat in their opening Euro 2020 qualifier against Kazakhstan in Nursultan way back in March.

Nor was he able to stop mighty Belgium from running amok in Brussels in June and winning by the same sorry scoreline.

But could the return of Scott McKenna help the national team to finish what has been a thoroughly disheartening Group I campaign on a high by winning against Cyprus in Nicosia this Saturday and then Kazakhstan in Glasgow three days later and finishing third in their section?

More importantly, can the Aberdeen player blossom into the reliable centre half which the country has so desperately needed for so many years and help them to secure a place in the Euro 2020 finals through the play-offs in March?

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So much has been expected of the young man from Kirriemuir since he suddenly, after fairly unremarkable loan spells at Ayr United and Alloa in the second and third tiers, established himself in the first team at Pittodrie two seasons ago, made his Scotland debut and, briefly, donned the captain’s armband.

Here at last, the eternal optimists among the Tartan Army predicted optimistically, was a lad who could excel in what had long been a problem position and, what is more, do so for many years to come.

But since making his bow in that 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica in March last year, McKenna has won a further 11 caps without ever quite justifying the huge hype which has surrounded him or living up to the high hopes that so many have of him.

Yes, he featured in the Nations League wins over Albania away and Israel at home last November which ensured Scotland had the Euro 2020 play-offs to fall back on if, as has turned out to be the case, they were unable to finish above Belgium and Russia in their qualifying section and progress automatically.

However, at no stage has he ever really looked like a worthy successor to the likes of Richard Gough, Alan Hansen, Colin Hendry, Alex McLeish, the manager who first selected him, Willie Miller, David Narey or Davie Weir. He had an off night in Kazakhstan. He looked hopelessly out of his depth against the world-class forwards of Belgium.

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It is, though, worth remembering the 6ft 3in defender only turns 23 tomorrow. Some great Scotland players in the past took a while to adapt to the particular demands of the international game and perform at their very best. There is still, then, plenty of time for him to come good.

How Steve Clarke could do with McKenna, who he recalled to his squad for this double header last week after the Dons player recovered from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for six weeks, fulfilling his potential.

He has selected Liam Cooper, Mikey Devlin, Stuart Findlay, McKenna and Charlie Mulgrew at centre back since being appointed in May. His side has shipped 14 goals in six games. They have kept just one clean sheet, against minnows San Marino at Hampden last month. A stark and rapid improvement at the back is required if they are to end a wait to reach a major tournament that stretches back to France ’98 next year.

That was obvious once again in Moscow last month. Clarke’s men performed well for almost an hour of the match and restricted Russia to just one shot on target which goalkeeper David Marshall dealt with comfortably. Then their old failings resurfaced, Artem Dzyuba ran riot against Devlin and Mulgrew and the home team netted four times with some ease.

A centre half who is good in the air, reads the game well, doesn’t get caught out of position, can cope with fast and physical striker on the ground and is an accurate passer of the ball would be an absolute godsend. AThe new Franco Baresi isn’t required, just somebody who is dependable.

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McKenna’s considerable promise has led to Celtic, Aston Villa, Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest tabling sizable bids, all of which Aberdeen have rejected, in the past 16 months. If he can start to play like the multi-million pound footballer that some shrewd judges clearly believe him to be then Scotland will benefit greatly.

This hasn’t been an especially good season for McKenna so far; he caused controversy when he handed in a transfer request back in August amid interest from down south, spent over a month out and then struggled as Celtic scored four goals in 45 minutes at Pittodrie last month.

That said, he has been instrumental in Derek McInnes’s side bouncing back from that mauling by Neil Lennon’s team with three consecutive victories and was on target for the first time this term in their 3-0 triumph over Kilmarnock nine days ago.

With Findlay and Mulgrew both out of the Cyprus and Kazakhstan games with hamstring injuries and David Bates still unavailable, he has a decent chance of reclaiming his place in the Scotland side. It is high time the experience which he gained at an early age under McLeish began to pay dividends.

Not having a decent centre half cost Gordon Strachan and McLeish dear and it is hard to see how Clarke, for all his ambition, ideas and strengths, can avoid the same fate as his predecessors, and reach the Euro 2020 finals, without one.


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