The importance of Liam Donnelly to Motherwell is summed up by a simple statistic.
When he has been in the side this season, they have averaged 2.15 points a game. When he has been out, the figure drops to just 0.75.
“Tactically, he has given us a real balance in midfield,” admits manager Steve Robinson.
“Liam is very creative, and Allan Campbell’s energy brings so much to the side.
“But Liam gives us a steadying influence. He’s aggressive in front of the back four, and he does many simple things that go unnoticed.
“We concede a lot more goals when he is not playing.”
Donnelly came very close to not playing at all.
In 2016, when just 20 years old, he was released by Fulham, and found himself wondering whether the harsh realities of life in England’s fourth tier were what he wanted from life.
“We had just got relegated into the Championship,” Donnelly recalled.
“A lot of young lads who had been on the run to the Youth Cup Final – a team that included Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele – were promoted up to the first-team squad.
“I would have been one of them, but in pre-season I got a bad pelvis injury.
“Then, a season later, I got released and had to get myself a club, which for me was Hartlepool.
“It probably wasn’t the level I thought I would be at.
“You are going into a dressing room of men who are playing for their mortgage and playing for their families. So it is completely different from youth football.
“It is not easy. There are times when you wonder whether you will get to the higher level you thought you were heading to.
“But you have to try and drag yourself through.
“A lot of people said to me at the time that I was in Last Chance Saloon – but I never thought it myself.
“I have always been confident I had ability to play at the highest level, so that helped me.”
What has also helped is his relationship with Robinson.
“I’ve known the manager since I was 15, when he was my Under-16s manager for Northern Ireland,” said Donnelly.
“He was also in charge of the Under-21s and gave me my debut at that level when I was 16.
“I got my first full cap against Chile off the back of that FA Youth Cup run with Fulham.
“I probably didn’t merit that cap, and if it was now I probably wouldn’t get the chance. At the same time, I felt I was doing really well.
“The Youth Cup run, captaining Fulham, getting the cap – I planned to go back to my club and break into the first-team.
“But for the injury, who knows what might have happened. I do look back and wonder what might have been.
“I try to block it out because things could have been a lot different.
“I didn’t really have a break that pre-season. I had two weeks off before a very tough German pre-season with the first-team under Felix Magath.
“He’s made a name for himself for being a hard taskmaster.
“I was young and hadn’t had any proper time off. I ended up needing an operation, but I’d been out for three months, trying to manage it manually.
“It wasn’t dealt with properly. I should have had the operation earlier.
“I felt the injury straight away, but had probably felt it while I was away with Northern Ireland.
“In pre-season, it blew up and I could barely walk.
“I won’t name any names, but a senior member of the medical team told me not to show the manager any weakness.
“That was the mentality, but I could barely jog around the pitch.
“Your career can hinge on moments like that but these things happen.
“Now I have to try and look forwards instead of backwards.”
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