SCOTLAND Under-21 matches are Jordan McGhee’s holy grail right now. To put it bluntly, the 19-year-old is fed up waiting for game time at Hearts.
Competitive European Under-21 Championship qualifiers against France and Iceland have therefore taken on added significance.
McGhee sits relaxing in the players’ lounge at Pittodrie and chats candidly about his frustrations. He fared well in an arduous fixture against the French on Saturday and is now preparing to face Iceland this evening. Both games are vital to his development at the moment. At club level, he remains a bit-part player and is irked to say the least.
September came and went with McGhee inactive for Hearts. He was an unused substitute in all five matches against Inverness, Aberdeen, Celtic and Kilmarnock (twice). He has held talks with head coach Robbie Neilson about the situation and has been asked to stay patient. It isn’t necessarily easy. Thankfully, he continues as a mainstay beside Stuart Findlay in the centre of the Scotland Under-21 defence.
“It’s great to come away and play with the Under-21s,” said McGhee, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “To represent your country at any age-group is an honour, but it’s great to showcase myself in big games like the one at the weekend. It’s a chance to show what I can do and hopefully prove a point to the gaffer that I want to play.
“Of course it’s hard. You see all the other boys who have played 90 minutes for their clubs at the weekend and I’m not playing as much football as them. I’m just playing in the Under-20 league sometimes, so it’s a massive step up. The game time can only help me. I go into the game tonight with better fitness levels than I did before Saturday’s game.
“Every time I’ve come away with the 21s, since I was 17, I’ve done really well. I think I deserve my chances and I think I’ve taken them all. Now, it’s just about trying to maintain the same consistency at club level if I’m given the chance.
“I’ve spoken to Robbie quite a lot. I speak to him, Stevie Crawford and all the backroom staff. Robbie says I need to be patient but I must admit it is difficult. You know you need chances to prove yourself so you need game time. I feel it would help me to step straight into these games with Scotland if I was playing week in and week out.
“Robbie says I have to be patient and I need to remember my age. Once I get my chance, then I just need to take it. I know it’s going to be difficult for me until there are injuries or suspensions. I’ll need to bide my time.”
Perhaps not for much longer. McGhee is odds-on to play from the start this Sunday when Hearts visit Dundee United. His Scotland Under-21 colleague, Callum Paterson, is suspended and the teenager is favourite to fill his right-back role. Captain Alim Ozturk has undergone a second hernia operation so Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi will continue in central defence.
McGhee isn’t satisfied merely being a back-up player, though. “I don’t really want to just be stepping in as a replacement. I want to be holding down a regular place in the team,” he stressed. “I don’t want to just come in when someone gets injured and then drop back out. I want to play in the team as a centre-back, not just to fill the space until somebody is fit again.”
Although more than capable of deputising at full-back, he sees his long-term future at centre-back. “Igor and Blazej defended really well at Parkhead and did reasonably well against Kilmarnock in the last two games. It’s down to me. If they get an injury or a red card or something, I need to be ready to step in.”
Saturday’s encounter with France pitched McGhee into a highly technical game against players from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Scotland lost 2-1 with Hearts winger Billy King scoring a late consolation. “You’re playing against some of the top players in the world,” shrugged McGhee. “[Adrien] Rabiot plays for PSG week in and week out. The striker [Sebastien Haller] I believe had scored eight goals in 11 games. It’s obviously real quality you’re up against so that gives you experience, especially for when you go in against teams in the Scottish Premiership.
“The French forwards were a cut above what I’m used to playing against. Their team had the ability to just kill the game down. They could change the tempo whenever they wanted and I think that’s something we need to learn. You can learn to see games out better and try to keep the ball.
“Everyone’s delighted for Billy getting his goal. It’s not easy to come on in a game like that. It’s high-tempo against top-class opposition but he came on, did really well and grabbed himself a goal. That will do his confidence the world of good.”
Iceland are no less daunting having won three and drawn one of their first four qualifiers. They are top of the group, seven points ahead of fourth-placed Scotland but have played two games more. “They’ve been flying to be fair. They beat France at home,” said McGhee. “We’ve touched on the Icelandic team briefly so we’ll do some video analysis on them. We’ll try to improve from Saturday.
“I feel as if we’ve got a really good chance of qualifying. We’ve got a right good squad here. You saw that when we were fighting towards the end on Saturday and we almost got a point against a really good French team. We need to take the same passion into tonight’s game and make sure we brush up on our technical side.”