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Max Johnston was inspired to move abroad by Lewis Ferguson and Aaron Hickey

Scotland U21 right-back Max Johnston has admitted that going to Euro 2024 is a realistic ambition for himself and any of his young teammates. 

The defender received his maiden senior call-up last year and is hungry for more: “I think every player, if you asked any player in the squad just now, the Euros would be amazing for them”, he said.

“That’s obviously everybody’s dream, isn’t it, to go to the Euros.

“I understand it’s a good team they’ve got just now, and a team that’s doing really well as well, I need to understand that. I’m just going to keep doing as well as I can for the 21s and time will tell, you never know.”

Johnston will be looking to build upon his five U21s caps this Thursday. The Scots welcome Kazakhstan to St. Mirren’s SMISA Stadium in a crucial Euro U21 qualifier.

In the mind of the 20-year-old, the clash is nothing short of colossal: “Every game is huge”, he quipped.

“We’re second in the table now and we’ve had a few good results but that doesn’t stand for anything yet. We’ve got to make sure we get another good result on Thursday.”

In their qualifying group at the halfway stage, Scotland sit second, just three points behind leaders Spain. Manager Scot Gemmill always prioritises the development of talent over results, but there is no getting away from the position his side are currently in.

Making it to next summer’s finals tournament in Slovakia is a realistic ambition, and Johnston has admitted that he and his teammates can take some inspiration from the first team and their qualification for Euro 2024 in Germany.

He said: “It’d be amazing for us but it’s not something we want to get too far ahead of.

“We just need to take each game as it comes and we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the right results.

“You see the first team doing so well and you can use that as motivation for us to say well, we can do that as well’.”

If the current crop of U21s makes it to Slovakia, they would become the first since 1996 to make it to a Euros for their age group.

Such an achievement would be quite notable, and it would give the former Motherwell man back-to-back end-of-season tournaments to attend because even if he isn’t playing this summer in Germany for the first team, he will be going as a fan: “I’ll definitely try and get across for a few games”, he said.

“All my mates are going over.”

Heading to Germany wouldn’t be that long of a journey for young Johnston. He plays his football for Austrian Bundesliga outfit Sturm Graz.

The full-back joined Die Schoawzn from Motherwell last summer and is enjoying life in mainland Europe: “[I’m] still loving it”, he said.

“Obviously I’m beginning to get in the team more now which is a bit more enjoyable for me.

“I feel as though I’m improving. 

“I’ve always got a lot to learn but I feel as though I am improving which is what I’m looking to do.”

This season for Graz, Johnston has made 28 appearances, grabbing three assists in the process. He’s played in all three major UEFA competitions throughout the campaign whether it be in qualifying, the group stage, or knockout rounds.

On the domestic scene, though, is where things are intriguing for the Scot and his side. 23 games into the season, Sturm Graz sit just two points behind league-leaders RB Salzburg, whom their next game is against.

Being involved in such a hotly contested title race is something Johnston relishes:

“It’s exciting”, admitted the defender. 

“Hopefully we can just keep winning our games, putting our best performances in there and try to catch them [Salzburg].”

Johnston is one of many young Scots making their mark on the continent. Ibane Bowat, who has six U21s caps to his name, plays for TSV Hartberg, also of Austria.

Josh Doig recently joined Sassuolo from Hellas Verona but standing out above the rest is Lewis Ferguson. The 24-year-old has been incredible for Serie A surprise package Bologna this season, even captaining the side on several occasions.

The former Aberdeen man and one of his predecessors at I Rossoblu, Aaron Hickey, showed Johnston that moving away from home at a young age to one of Europe’s top leagues can be hugely beneficial.

He said: “Aaron Hickey, you see how well he went and done now he’s playing in the Premier League and Lewis Ferguson is absolutely flying  just now.

“You see boys like that who have been brave enough to take the step and move away and that obviously encouraged me to do it as well.”

In the coming years and throughout his time abroad, Johnston will look to replicate the successes of the likes of Hickey and Ferguson, who are now both regular members of Steve Clarke’s senior team.

Ferguson played 11 times for the U21s in his younger years while the Brentford full-back went straight from the U17s to the A squad. Johnston thinks there is a route to the top level: “Definitely, I think it’s a great pathway for the boys in the 21s to go and if they’re doing well, go up to the first team”, he said.

“[There’s] definitely some similarities.”

Johnston’s quest for a place in the 23-man squad that will go to Germany in June continues versus the Kazakhs on Thursday. Kick-off in Paisley is at 7 pm and Clarke will almost certainly be keeping a close eye on proceedings.



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