Extolling the Scotland manager’s ability to rouse players, the Nottingham Forest centre-back claims the national boss even had a roundabout role in influencing the City Ground club’s return to the English Premier League for the first time in 23 years.
The former European Champions and erstwhile sleeping giants defeated Huddersfield Town in the Championship play-off final with one of Clarke messages proving a galvanising force.
“Obviously with a play-off game there is a different atmosphere,” said McKenna. “I didn’t play in the play-off games that got us to the Euros but I was part of the squad and saw how the boys prepared.
“I have Steven Reid [a former member of the Scotland backroom staff] as a coach at Forest as well. He actually stole a couple of Steve Clarke’s quotes when we were having team meetings heading into the play-off semi-final and final.
“There was actually one a lot of the lads bought into. I think having that sort of bond and that sort of experience helped us get over the line.
“It was: ‘Don’t play with the fear of failure, play with the anticipation of success’. That was one that was plastered all round the dressing room going into the semi-finals and final and it was one Steve Clarke put up before the Serbia game.
“For a lot of people, going into those games, it’s hard. ‘I don’t want to be the one that makes the mistake. I don’t want to be the one that costs the team’. But, you can’t play like that. You’ve got to play with freedom and try to think about the positives and what you can do to impact the game instead of just floating through, not wanting to be the one that makes a mistake.”
Although the domestic season brought McKenna plenty of joy, it has been tougher to tap into positives in recent days after Scotland were, once again, unceremoniously ousted from the World Cup stage, suffering a play-off defeat at the hands of Ukraine.
“Obviously, there was a lot of disappointment after last Wednesday night. Thursday was quite flat. We trained Friday morning and then we had a couple of days away.”
And rather than wallow on their own, the tight bond that helped them to their first major finals since 1998, when they qualified for Euro 2020, and then edged them to the brink of their first World Cup in 24 years, helped them navigate the collective despondency.
“Quite a lot of us went away golfing together and spent a bit of time together and came back Sunday with all the focus on the game against Armenia.
“It’s not normal for that to happen with the national team, but, with seven days between the games, it was the correct thing to do, to try and get everyone’s minds off it and then come back in and have a fresh start.
“It was at Archerfield. I played with John Souttar and Scott McTominay. We were terrible on the front nine and better on the back nine, but there’s no way Scott plays off 14. It’s more like 34! But, after the disappointment on Wednesday night, it was very helpful.
“A lot of the boys have been in a lot of squads together now and there is that club atmosphere. We’ve had success in the past which, obviously, helps.
“You all need to stick together through the good and the bad. There are important games coming up and, hopefully, that sort of team bonding will help us going forward.”
Wednesday night marks the beginning of a new campaign and recent history shows just how crucial the Nations League could be to Scotland’s latest Euro ambitions
“Obviously as we qualified for the last Euros through that,” said McKenna, “so, I think it is important that we try to finish the season on a high with three wins.
With no time left to lick wounds or wonder what might have been, the home encounter with Armenia will be followed by an away trip to meet the Republic of Ireland and then the return fixture against tonight’s opponents and with Keiran Tierney still a notable absentee, the 25-year-old former Aberdeen player is hoping he will be given the chance to play a crucial role in getting the latest qualification journey off to a flying start.
“Kieran Tierney has been a mainstay in the team and has been doing so well, but with him missing hopefully I can do enough in training to give the manager a decision to make. Hopefully I can push for minutes on the pitch now.”
It was Leeds United captain Liam Cooper who was given the opportunity against Ukraine but McKenna, who gained his first of 24 caps back in 2018, hopes he has done enough to add to his number of starts.
“Do I feel more ready now? Definitely because most of my caps came under Alex McLeish and then at the start under this manager. But I knew that with Kieran coming back it was always going to be difficult, then there’s Grant Hanley playing well, and Liam Cooper is the captain of Leeds in the Premier League. So it was always going to be difficult for me.
“But hopefully now, [with Tierney out injured] I can force my way in and get more minutes as we go on.”