Ian McCann isn’t used to seeing his two footballing sons in the same team and is even less accustomed to them lining up on opposite sides of the pitch.
He would be thrilled if the former became a regular occurrence at some point in the careers of Ali McCann and Lewis McCann.
As for the latter? He’s about to find out what that feels like.
Brother against brother with a Betfred Cup semi-final place at stake is an achievement for the family to be enormously proud of. It just wouldn’t have been the last eight match-up dad would have chosen for his boys.
In fact, Dunfermline’s last eight clash with St Johnstone, and the McCann thread running through it, is exactly the sort of scenario the phrase ‘mixed emotions’ was made for.
“It’s a bit of a nightmare to be honest with you!” said Ian, a lawyer in Edinburgh. “It’s the one draw we could have done without.
“Lewis came running down the stairs that day saying: ‘Guess who we’ve got in the cup?’ I think they both twigged at exactly the same time.
“It’ll be tense to watch for sure. But then, it’s always tense to watch when they’re playing.
“One of my friends posted on Facebook that he hopes it’s a draw – I don’t because that would mean penalties!
“It would be beyond a dream to actually be at East End Park and see them both on the pitch together. That would have been just fantastic but it’s not to be.
“Both boys know how important the game is. It’s such a big opportunity, particularly with Celtic going out of the competition. And they will be looking forward to being involved in such a huge match with their brother on the pitch with them.
“It’s going to be a very strange one because they’ve not actually played against each other – ever.
“The boys and I used to go to the pitches next to a David Lloyd gym and play there. Ali would have been about 11 or 12 and Lewis a couple of years younger obviously. So apart from kicking lumps out of each other there and in the back garden, there’s been nothing else.”
The playing together bit, although fleeting, brings back happy memories for Ian – especially as he was the ‘coach’ who teamed them up in the first place.
Oh, so that’s why he’s playing!
“It was at Cramond Primary,” he recalled.
“I was coaching when Ali was in P7 and I brought Lewis into the side, even though he was only in P5.
“We were playing a cup game at Meggetland and one of the teachers said: ‘Why is that boy playing?’ when I put Lewis on.
“He got on the ball at the half-way line and lashed it past the keeper. She turned around and said: ‘Oh, so that’s why he’s playing!’”
Describing the McCanns as a sporting family doesn’t really do them justice. With the oldest of the four brothers, Ross, an established Scotland rugby sevens international, there are already three siblings who have reached professional athlete status.
Given the youngest, Scott, is following a familiar path to Lewis and Ali of shining at respected Edinburgh boys’ club, Hutchison Vale, there is every chance of it becoming a full house.
“All of the boys are close,” said Ian. “Ali (just turned 21) and Lewis (19) in particular, because there’s only two years between them and they’re both footballers.
“And they’ve been away quite a lot with Northern Ireland under-21s.
“Ross (23) has moved out. He was travelling the world with Scotland before Covid.
“He moved back with us during lockdown earlier in the year. He worked out in the garden, Ali and Lewis were able to do some ball work together and Scott (13) got a bit of extra coaching!
“The 5k runs started to become competitive, as you can imagine.
“’What time did you do?……Oh, OK. I was faster’. That sort of thing. I have to say Lewis was faster but he’s got the advantage of being 6’5” with a very long stride!
“Ali and Lewis are still at home now. They’re in the house a lot after training. I think it’s competitive cooking they’re into at the moment – trying to come up with better recipes than each other.
“There hasn’t been much chat about Tuesday’s game other than Lewis saying he’s looking forward to his trip to Hampden.”
They’re both very supportive of each other – until Tuesday night, of course.
There are incalculable examples of one brother inspiring another to greater heights, not just in sport. Ian hasn’t picked up on that type of dynamic between Ali and Lewis, though.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “They just wanted to be footballers.
“They had the skill, they had the chances and they’ve taken them when they’ve come along.
“I don’t think it’s been a case of: ‘If Ali’s doing it, I want to do it’ or: ‘If Lewis is doing it, I want to do it’.
“There isn’t that sort of rivalry between them. They’re very supportive of each other – until Tuesday night, of course.”
The balance of the nature and nurture equation is impossible to quantify but the genetics of the McCann boys certainly haven’t hindered their athletic development.
“My wife and I both come from pretty sporty families,” said Ian.
“Jo’s late father, Don Fisher, was at Charlton Athletic reserves. He played as a goalkeeper and then a winger. He was still playing football until his mid-60s.
“He passed away two years ago in his 80s, and he was still playing tennis at that point.
“Jo’s mum was a tennis player and Jo was sporty herself.
“I was a rugby player who played some football. I played rugby like a footballer and football like a rugby player!
“My dad was more of a footballer and played for Northern Ireland schoolboys. He played at Easter Road in 1958 for Northern Ireland against Scotland. It was a 1-1 draw.”
Lewis was the first to be called up for Northern Ireland at under-19 level, with Ali following him into the 21s and then earning two full caps at the end of the recent Nations League campaign.
St Johnstone fans didn’t need to see McCann excel against Austria and then Romania to learn he was a natural for that environment. To their great frustration, the SFA’s talent-spotters hadn’t been paying the same close attention.
“There was no decision to be made because Scotland never showed any interest,” said Ian.
“Northern Ireland moved very quickly to get both boys in. I have to say they’ve been great with the two of them.
“There may well have been a choice had Scotland showed an interest but it’s all academic. That didn’t happen.
“We (Northern Ireland) are a very small country when it comes to a sporting pool. It’s good that they cast the net wide but Ali isn’t that far removed.
“We used to go over there every October and pack all the boys into the car. You can imagine that wasn’t the most pleasant drive with four boys in the back.”
In view of his performances in green and white last month, and manager Ian Baraclough’s satisfaction with them, nobody expects Ali to be stuck on two caps for long. You don’t get a second chance for a first, however, and it has been one of the costs of this Covid-19 year that the McCanns of Edinburgh couldn’t make more of the momentous occasion.
“Given half a chance I’d have been out to Austria,” said Ian.
“A few years ago Ross was playing for Scotland in the under-20 World Cup in Georgia. Their last game was against Australia in Tbilisi and I flew out to watch that.
“So it would have been great to have been in Vienna for Ali.
“I was so excited to watch him play in Austria and against Romania. In fact, particularly Romania, because that game was in Belfast.
“My brother-in-law and his daughter got to watch it live because they’re die-hard Northern Ireland fans.
“I was just so proud of him. We’re proud of both of them.
“We’ve been over to see them play for the under-21s (20 minutes for Denmark away has been their only shared game-time). My mum and dad came to the Malta match. It was the first time my dad had been to a football game in about 40 years.
“Believe me, there’s been a lot of WhatsApp chat with my mates about when we’re going to Belfast to watch a game when things improve – Bulgaria in March is high on the list but Italy in November at a full Windsor Park sounds pretty good to me as well.”
The logistics of two parents trying to see four children on the sports field in normal times isn’t straight forward.
“There are a lot of miles covered, that’s for sure,” said Ian.
“With Ross, Scotland sevens are generally abroad so you can watch that on the TV. That takes him out of the equation in the main.
“Scott plays on a Sunday – usually in the morning – so we’re normally both free for that.
“With Ali and Lewis, myself and Jo would generally go to different games. We’d mix and match who goes where.
“Because Ali has been a regular starter with Saints there’s been more of an opportunity to see him on the pitch. With Lewis it has been more hit and miss. He hasn’t been getting as many minutes as he would like at Dunfermline. But they are doing well and Stevie Crawford is keeping him involved.
“Poor Scott gets dragged to one of the games.
“If either Ali or Lewis isn’t playing, they would come with us to watch their brother. Ali’s been to East End Park and Lewis has been to McDiarmid.
“Unfortunately neither of us were in Aberdeen when Ali scored up there but I was at Hamilton when he got his first goal. It took me a while to realise it was him who scored, mind you, because they all piled on top of him.”
That Ali and Lewis have been able to continue their careers during the pandemic has been the good news. Stadium doors being closed to friends and family has been the bad.
“It’s been terrible to be honest,” said Ian. “There’s so much you miss about not being at the game.
“Apart from the obvious of not seeing the boys play, I hadn’t realised how much we’re starting to enjoy the whole experience, particularly going to McDiarmid Park.
“It’s small things like Jo getting to know Jamie McCart’s grandad which we’re missing out on.
“I started to take a couple of friends to games as well. One of them has been demanding to go again ever since he was at the Hearts game last February when Ali scored.
“Apart from live streams we’ve seen nothing.”
For Pars’ fans who need a pre-match introduction to Ali, he’s an energetic and composed central midfielder whose mastery of the fundamentals elevate him above his peers. For Saints’ supporters new to Lewis, he is a tall and powerful centre-forward with a turn of pace and touch you don’t often associate with strikers of his physique.
Their positions on the field are different, as are their professional clubs, but the early-age football education they got was of the same variety and quality.
“Both Ali and Lewis played with Hutchy until the end of under-14s then they moved,” Ian explained.
“Lewis initially went to Hearts and then Fife Elite. It was absolutely fantastic there. I couldn’t speak highly enough of Fife Elite.
“Ali had a coach at Hutchy, Alan McConnell, who unfortunately passed a few years ago. He coached Ali in the under-13s year when they won all the cups and the league.
“Ali was Alan’s captain. From that Hutchy team four of the boys went to St Johnstone at the same time.
“They’ve both worked incredibly hard all their lives and both come back from bad injuries. Lewis broke his leg when he was younger and Ali broke his arm – both playing rugby. Ali has two metal plates in his arm as a result of it.
And young Scott?
“Scott’s an interesting character,” said Ian.
“He’s a central defender who can play with both feet. He’s really tall and not afraid to put his head in.
“He’s the sort of centre-half who will suddenly say: ‘I’m going for this’ and bomb forward.”
A football name and pedigree, with talent to back it up, is sure to mean scouts will be keeping an eye on him.
Planning those weekends on the road isn’t going to get any easier.