A GROUP of young Ukrainians will feel the full force of Jordan McGhee in Paisley this evening. The defender is at peak capacity after a long-awaited run in the Hearts first team.
Now he aims to showcase his talent in Scotland’s European Under-21 Championship qualifier, watched by national coach Gordon Strachan.
McGhee will likely partner Reading’s Dominic Hyam in central defence. For the first time this season, he feels fully prepared to do himself justice. He was forced to wait for his first league start of the campaign, which came only four weeks ago at Tannadice. Since then he has been a mainstay in a watertight Hearts defence. Four clean sheets in that period underline such progress and the teenager doesn’t intend Ukraine halting it.
He enters tonight’s game knowing he is a key player for Scotland at under-21 level. He remained a linchpin of Ricky Sbragia’s side this season despite his game time being restricted at club level, playing every minute against Northern Ireland, France and Iceland in the first three qualifiers. Tonight is another challenge as Strachan seeks candidates for the senior squad, and McGhee feels as ready as ever.
He last spoke to the Evening News in the players’ lounge at Pittodrie following Scotland Under-21s’ 0-0 draw with Iceland last month. He looked the epitome of frustration at the time, having been an unused substitute in Hearts’ previous five matches. Fast forward a few weeks and he is a different animal after five consecutive starts.
“Last time we spoke in Aberdeen, I wasn’t really getting much game time,” recalled McGhee. “I had to go straight into two really big games with Scotland Under-21s against France and Iceland. Now, I’ve had five games under my belt so I’m looking forward to playing Ukraine to see what I’m like with a run of matches behind me. It just shows what can happen if you get a chance and you take it. You start doing really well, playing full of confidence, and I think I’ve done that. I’ve been given an opportunity and I’ve taken it.
“I knew my chance had to come. I didn’t think I was going to sit on the bench and not be involved for the entire season. That would’ve stopped my progression and I knew I had to develop. I knew my time would come, I just had to be patient. Luckily, it came sooner rather than later.
“Of course you always question yourself. If you haven’t played any games in quite a while, you always feel unsure whether you’re ready to step back in. Once you get a chance and you take it, your confidence gets rebooted. I feel I’m playing really well at the moment.”
That last Scotland Under-21 double header kickstarted the upturn in McGhee’s fortunes. “It was probably after those two Scotland games that my confidence grew. I wasn’t involved for so many matches before that. I went straight into the game against France and did reasonably well. Then I felt I did really well against Iceland.
“Playing in those games without being involved for weeks at Hearts showed me I was good enough to play at the top level. The week after, I was in the Hearts team against Dundee United and I carried my form on. Since then, I haven’t looked back. I’ve probably experienced a lot since last season. I had a lot of ups and downs because we won the league, which was great, but sometimes I wasn’t in the squad. It’s all a learning curve.
“There’s no point feeling sorry for yourself. My family have been great, ever since I was a kid, and my girlfriend as well. The boys and the coaches at the club helped me stay positive. At the same time, it’s difficult. You know you’re good enough to play in the first team but you’re not getting that chance. I’m just thankful it’s come now.”
With it comes pressure but McGhee enjoys that intensity. “It’s massive having Gordon Strachan here to cast his eye over the boys and take training. It’s a chance to catch his eye. We’ve seen Andy Robertson move up to the full squad. It’s a big week for me to try and show what I can do and to show my club what I can do in my [best] position.
“You need to deal with pressure as a footballer. If you can’t deal with it or don’t want to, there’s no point being in the job. A lot of people thrive on it and I’m probably one of them. I’ve always set myself high goals. A lot of the boys will thrive on the pressure of playing in front of Gordon Strachan in a big game that we want to win.”
Scotland need to beat Ukraine, the section’s bottom side, tonight to keep in touch with Group Three leaders Iceland. “We got a win in Northern Ireland, then it was a difficult game against France, then we drew with Iceland when we could’ve won,” said McGhee. “We passed the ball well and created chances. We just need a bit of composure in front of goal. We need to get Jason Cummings sorted out, get him scoring goals like he does for his club.”
He bursts into laughter at that point. Yet tonight is a serious matter as McGhee aspires to fulfil his potential and become one of Scotland’s top defenders.