As England and Scotland prepare to meet at Wembley on Friday in their second Euro 2020 group game, the midfielder is expecting plenty of interest in his decision to play for the country of his family’s heritage rather than his birth. Privately, though, McTominay says the debate is “irrelevant,” even though some of his friends love to make fun of this English accent. Still, he’s always felt more of a connection with his roots north of the border.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho were keen for McTominay to choose Scotland over England, with both at one stage ready to offer their input, though in truth, they didn’t need to. His mind had been made up since he was 16, when he attended a Scottish FA training camp for England-based players in Leicester.
In early 2018, then-Scotland manager Alex McLeish battled through the snow and ice brought to the UK by the “Beast from the East” to meet McTominay at Manchester United‘s Carrington training base, while Gareth Southgate tried to put forward England’s case by text message. The effort McLeish made to travel to Manchester through weather that had cancelled flights, shut roads and closed schools was appreciated by McTominay, but unnecessary. McLeish had his argument prepared, but in the end, the conversation was short and simple.
After making his debut in March 2018, McTominay has since become part of a resurgent Scotland side playing in their first major tournament since the 1998 World Cup. Defeat to Czech Republic in Glasgow on Monday has given coach Steve Clarke’s side a mountain to climb to qualify from Group D, but Scotland have often delighted in doing things the hard way.
McTominay’s career is a story of grit and determination. Associated with United from the age of five, he was a late developer physically — he is 6-foot-4 now, though was considered “small” for much of his teenage years — and was never nailed on to reach the first-team squad in the way there were always high hopes for his fellow academy graduates Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, even from a very early age.
Speaking to a group of United youngsters last season, Nicky Butt was asked which academy graduate in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first team squad gave him the most satisfaction. His answer? McTominay.
“With Scott, that’s just character,” he said. “Character with talent, and not talent with character. It’s a never-say-die attitude, a will to win.”
He’s versatile, too. Before being handed his United debut by Mourinho in May 2017, McTominay was playing up front for the under-23s because he was tall and there was a striker shortage. On a preseason tour of the United States in 2018, he put his hand up to play at centre-back against Real Madrid. After starting in midfield against Czech Republic, he played the last 20 minutes in a back three when Clarke reshuffled in an effort to trigger a fight back.
Despite the damaging result on Monday, Scotland had their chances and will need to be more clinical against an England side considered one of the favourites to win the tournament.
To his credit, McTominay looked composed against the Czechs on what was a huge occasion for Scottish football after a 23-year wait for tournament football. One crunching tackle in the first half prompted one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon from the fans lucky enough to be inside Hampden Park.
Scott McTominay explains how he got Lionel Messi’s shirt, despite Messi thinking McTominay had elbowed him.
McTominay will be more determined than anyone to bounce back quickly against England, even if the odds appear stacked against them.
Speak to people who know him best, and they will tell you that it’s his focus that sets him apart. He spent the first COVID-19 lockdown last year doing home workouts so intense that United’s coaching staff had to remind him it was OK to take days off. He has already watched back United’s Europa League final defeat to Villarreal to see where he could improve, despite being Solskjaer’s best player on the night When Mourinho was in charge, he would follow the former boss of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Inter Milan around asking him about the some of the superstars he’d managed and how they compared at the same age.
Mourinho appreciated how humble McTominay was, but was quick to make a joke when he had to be encouraged to swap the academy car park for the one outside the first-team building after his promotion to the senior squad.
At the start of each season, McTominay, 24, writes down notes about what he hopes to achieve over the next nine months. At the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, his objective was to cement his place in the United squad. Out of the team over the first half the season, McLeish contacted McTominay’s agent and suggested a loan move to further his development. McTominay declined, instead backing himself to win Solskjaer over and, in April 2019, he started both legs of the Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona.
McTominay is used to overcoming the odds and he will need to again. Defeat in their first game of Euro 2020 means Scotland will start the second round of fixtures bottom of Group D, but with three teams qualifying from four of the six groups, there remains a chance they can progress to the knockout rounds through the first stage of a major tournament for the first time in 11 attempts.
From here, Scotland aren’t meant to make it to the knockout rounds, but then McTominay was never meant to become a United regular, either, and last season passed 100 appearances for his boyhood club during the 2020-21 season. Battling through adversity is something they have in common.