Aberdeen defender Scott McKenna captained Scotland against Mexico in front of 70,000 spectators at the Azteca Stadium to cap off a remarkable 2017-18 campaign.
Only 12 months ago, the 21-year-old returned to Pittodrie following a miserable loan spell at Ayr United where he had struggled to get a game for the team that finished bottom of the country’s second tier.
Few could have predicted McKenna’s rapid ascent a year later.
The Kirriemuir-born player has established himself as the Dons’ first-choice centre-half, signed two contract extensions with the Reds following several rejected bids from Hull City and captained the Dons at Hampden in their 3-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Motherwell.
But donning the armband on only his fourth appearance for his country is surely the highlight so far – even if the occasion ended with a 1-0 loss against the Mexicans in Mexico City.
It was a narrow defeat and Scotland manager Alex McLeish will be able to take encouragement after watching his young and inexperienced side running the Mexicans close at the Azteca. All Scotland’s outfield players who started the match were born in the 1990s and the entire team had only 29 caps between them in comparison to a Mexican line-up that boasted more than 500 international appearances collectively.
Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin earned his first start for his country at the age of 30 following an impressive season for Hearts, with Celtic’s Scott Bain coming on as a half-time replacement, ensuring every member of the squad on the trip to the Americas made at least one appearance.
Giovani Dos Santos scored the winner with a shot in the 12th minute and Mexico had several chances to increase their lead, hitting the woodwork twice, albeit the spirited Scots improved markedly after the break and might have sneaked a draw had Oli McBurnie’s header not hit the post.
The two matches will not linger long in the minds of those with a Scottish persuasion and with so many regulars absent, and two hugely inexperienced teams fielded in both games.
The stadium, which hosted the 1970 and 1986 World Cup finals and which also witnessed Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 tournament, took time to fill up but the excited home fans were looking for encouragement from their side before they fly out to Russia.
McLaughlin was one of seven changes, coming in along with Dons captain Graeme Shinnie, Jack Hendry, Johnny Russell, McBurnie, Ryan Christie and Callum Paterson.
Mexico, who had eight changes from their goalless draw against Wales, did not have to work too hard for their early goal, with former Arsenal player Carlos Vela having time to lay the ball off to Dos Santos and from the edge of the box he stroked the ball low past McLaughlin and into the far corner.
Miguel Layun curled a shot against the post from the edge of the box in the 27th minute and then McLaughlin made a save from Hirving Lozano’s long-range effort as the Scots struggled to assert themselves.
Bain came on for McLaughlin for the start of the second half and made two saves in a minute from powerful drives, first from Lozano and then from Hector Herrera.
Moments later, though, in a rare Scotland attack, McBurnie got on the end of a Russell cross but crashed his header off the post. In the 55th minute, after the Scots goal had survived another close call with some desperate defending to block a Layun shot, Charlie Mulgrew, Chris Cadden and John McGinn came on for Christie, Kenny McLean and Paterson.
The game opened up and, in a Mexico break, Lozano hammered a drive off the Scotland crossbar and the substitute Oribe Peralta had the ball in the net after Bain had parried Lozano’s header but was ruled offside.
A tiring Scotland side struggled in the final stages to contain Mexico – Mulgrew headed clear off the line – but the Scots can hold their head high with their second-half showing.