Had Derek McInnes departed Aberdeen this week, it would have been a desperately sad way…
Inches away he was. A year on from David Gray writing himself into Hibs folklore, Kenny McLean was agonisingly close to being elevated to the same sort of platform.
With the 2017 Scottish Cup final locked at 1-1, Jonny Hayes robbed Callum McGregor on the right touchline and raced towards goal. Celtic could not get the numbers back quickly enough. Had McLean taken just one less step, just one, Hayes’ ball would have been perfect for him. A neat side-foot into the net, and he may well have been remembered as the man who took the Scottish Cup north.
Instead the ball went behind him, McLean ended up flat on his face, the chance was gone, and the headlines would go to Tom Rogic who made no mistake when his golden opportunity came at the other end.
That moment sums up McLean’s Aberdeen career. He did a decent job, but he never quite grabbed the back pages the way he should have.
McLean was never known as particularly prolific when he arrived from St Mirren. However, he had a decent return rate of 24 goals in his previous three and a half seasons before moving to Pittodrie. He managed 25 in three and a half at Aberdeen. Sure, many were from the penalty spot, but considering manager Derek McInnes could never quite settle on where to play him and often had him in a deeper role, it is a record not to be sniffed at. Especially when compared to other midfielders he played alongside – Ryan Jack (5) or Graeme Shinnie (7) for example. Even Ryan Christie, considered a more attacking midfielder, in a combined Inverness, Celtic and Aberdeen spell over four years, has managed 22.
Many critics commented that McLean did not stand out in a particular position. Playing just off the striker would likely be his preferred role, but on his arrival he had to contend with an on-form Peter Pawlett who had more pace and skill about him, then James Maddison, and latterly Christie.
Out wide was never an option with Hayes and Niall McGinn, and even when they left it was a role he could not fill. He never looked that comfortable sitting deep alongside either Jack or Shinnie. He was so often out of position letting the game pass him by. He was always one of McInnes’ favourites though. Always picked, even when his form suggested he would be better sitting on the bench.
It is a problem McLean now has with Scotland as he attempts to break into Alex McLeish’s side. We all know he is a good player, but where exactly does he fit in? Who do you drop to accommodate a player like McLean?
Since signing from Norwich City and rejoining the Dons on loan, we have seen the best of the midfielder. Suddenly he found a freedom. He could buzz around the pitch dictating play, his passing could be a joy, and as time went on he toughened up, battled and won headers against bigger opponents.
One of his last acts as a Dons player showed the player he had become. He came short for Shay Logan to make a pass, shrugged off the bigger and more imposing Olivier Ntcham, turned and strode forward despite three Celtic players circling him, before coolly picking out Andrew Considine to score the game’s only goal.
Yet for all the plaudits of his performances the past few months and the Scotland recognition he has acquired, there does not seem to be a feeling that McLean is irreplaceable. Should Shinnie, Joe Lewis or Scott McKenna leave in summer, you feel the impact on the team would be felt a lot more. Even the loss of the often pilloried Jack left a bigger gap.
For all of McLean’s attributes, he leaves having never quite made the Aberdeen fans fall in love with him. As good an impact he made in the four points taken from the Old Firm in his final week at the club, he was one of the many who went missing in other big games, and that is how many will remember him.
Aberdeen are crying out for a midfield enforcer to allow Shinnie to return to left back – which is something McLean never was. In Dean Campbell, who played the final 25 minutes of the win at Celtic Park, they have a very capable 17-year old able to play both the deep and forward roles McLean has occupied for the past three or four years.
They already have Lewis Ferguson signed up from Hamilton, while McInnes seems keen to pair Sam Cosgrove with another striker – perhaps rumoured signing Tony Watt – with McGinn and Gary Mackay-Steven providing the creativity.
I liked McLean as a player though. He did not always stand out in the big games when we needed him, but it was never for lack of effort. It was clear when he left Paisley for Pittodrie that it wasn’t for the pay check but for the ambition: he wanted to improve as a player, he wanted trophies, and he wanted Scotland caps. Two out of three ain’t bad, and although he may not win many medals at Norwich, I’m confident – injury permitting – he won’t be one of the many who come crawling back to the Premiership on loan in 18 months time looking to get their career back on track.
For now though McLean slips out the door with a pat on the back, especially for the transfer fee and good form since January. But by the time the Europa League qualifiers roll along in July he’ll be forgotten about. Should McInnes get his recruitment right, even on Aberdeen’s limited budget, they should be able to improve the midfield.
On the Pittodrie walls which are adorned with cup winning teams, McLean’s face will be absent. If only he had taken one step less.