By Stewart Fisher

THE names of Willie Miller and Alex McLeish must be millstones for any aspiring Aberdeen central defender to carry around. But thankfully Scott McKenna wasn’t even born when they were bringing leagues, cups and European Cup Winners’ Cups back to Pittodrie, not to mention combining on more than 50 occasions for their country. And he has never been the kind of man to shirk from a challenge in any case.

As he and his Pittodrie pal Michael Devlin press their claims for inclusion for the first time together on a Scotland team sheet against Cyprus, this doughty 23-year-old from Kirriemuir doesn’t flinch when it comes to the notion of following in such hallowed footsteps.

They may have shipped four first half goals to an Odsonne Edouard-inspired Celtic recently, but with McKenna the only left-sided central defender left in Steve Clarke’s squad, and the right-sided 26-year-old Devlin having started the last two games, there may be merit in keeping the club combination together. While the likes of Declan Gallagher and Ryan Porteous are also in the group, the Dons duo are as good a bet as any right now to get first dibs on the chance to return Scotland to a major finals after 22 years of trying.

“You always get compared to them,” admitted McKenna, who already has 12 caps under his belt. “They say we have never had any good centre-halves since then. You can see why people always say that because they were used to having that standard of centre half back in the day.

“Aberdeen right now are quite a bit away from where they were in those days,” he added. “They were competing at the highest level in Europe. We have been in Europe the last couple of years but we have not managed to get past the qualifying stages, which has been disappointing for us. But we can only do the best we can to try and bring success to Aberdeen and keep the fans happy.

“That [to play together] would be the dream for both of us,” the 23-year-old says. “But first and foremost we need to look out for ourselves. He [Devlin] will want to be the one playing and I want to be the one playing. You’ve got to try to nail down your own place in the team first. But if we both got the chance to play together, it would be something we would look forward to.

“We have probably not spent as much time on the pitch together recently as we would have liked,” added McKenna. “We had a good partnership at the start of last year but I got injured and then Mikey got injured. We are lucky if we have played 10 games together since November last year. But we have played three out of the last four together, kept a couple of clean sheets and we are both in the squad. So it’s exciting and hopefully something we can build on.”

Having played his part in a reasonable, if demanding, defensive display in Brussels against Belgium – he almost gave us a lifeline after a memorable late run through the much-vaunted Belgian defence ¬ injury kept McKenna out of the last two get-togethers. With the more experienced Charlie Mulgrew and Liam Cooper both out with injury, McKenna is determined to prove in these next two games that he is worth a spot when the play-offs tick round in March.

“I have played a few games for Scotland now and I think I need to try and get some consistency and try and show the manager – if I play - that I want left centre half to be my position.”

Not that anything can be taken for granted. “Things can change,” said McKenna. “I could play well these two games but then it’s up to me to play well for my club until March. Things changed overnight for ME. So it’s not to say it won’t happen for another young player at a different club. It is up to me to keep on top of my performances and make sure I am always the one being called into the squad.”

It is refreshing in this era of call-offs to find players such as McKenna who desire to be involved cannot be questioned. When he talks about things changing overnight in his personal story, he is referring to the first of two loan spells at Ayr United. Four years after he was struggling to make the Somerset Park side’s first team aged 18, he is regarded by many as our best hope to bed down a central defensive role for the next decade or so.

“There was one time I remember sitting at home watching Scotland, I might have been on loan at Ayr at the time, and I remember sitting there thinking ‘there’s no way I was ever going to get to that level’,” said McKenna. “Everything was going against me at the time. The way things have turned round I am here now so it’s not something I want to let go.”

Instead of Miller and McLeish, this boyhood Manchester United fan, he adored the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. He certainly doesn’t have a problem trying to compare himself to the best. “As a boy and as a Man Utd fan it was Rio Ferdinand and Vidic who I watched, they were a different level,” said McKenna. “You probably are never going to get to that level but if you can take one or two things they did or watch and see what they are doing it might improve you, you never know. It’s something I still do when watching Premier League games now – my focus is not on the game or the score, it’s on what are the defenders doing. That’s the level we all strive to be at.”