AT the age of 20, Steven Lawless’ career had arrived at a crucial crossroads. On the books at Fir Park, the winger had spent the previous two seasons on loan at Albion Rovers where he gained an all-important foothold in senior football. His contract was set to expire in the summer of 2012 and he had two distinct options on the table: to stick it out at Motherwell and hope to break into the first team, or to twist and seek a new employer elsewhere.

In the end, he opted for the latter – and it proved to be a shrewd decision from the wide player. With no guarantee of first-team minutes on the table, Lawless decided to sign for Jackie McNamara’s Partick Thistle.

Lawless’ insists that his experience out on loan further down the pyramid was vital to his development – and was quick to single out his former manager Stuart McCall for the role he played in securing a move to the Jags in the summer of 2012.

 “I think that [going out on loan] was the best thing that I’ve ever done,” he said. “I was doing OK at Motherwell but it’s important to go out and get games. It’s good playing reserve games but there’s not the same edge to it and there’s not the same physicality.

“To go out to that level was brilliant for me. It brought me on leaps and bounds and I could see the difference. I was still training with the Motherwell first team at the time. The difference between me before I went out, and during and after my loan spell was night and day. It really pushed me on a lot.

“[Leaving Motherwell] was a strange situation. Stuart McCall was the manager at the time and he brought me into his office and said he wanted to keep me. But he gave me the choice and said he could offer me a contract. The rules mean that if they were to offer me one, if anyone else tried to offer me a contract then they would have to pay a fee.

“McCall was quite honest with me and quite straightforward. He said he wanted to keep me but that I would be doing the same as before, waiting for my chance. I didn’t get the chance before though, so he said he would be willing to take the contract off the table if I wanted to go. He knew Thistle were interested because Jackie had been on the phone to him.

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“It was really good of him to do, he could have kept me there and stifled me a little bit but he was really straightforward with me. I just really wanted to play first-team football at that point so he done me a turn.”

The lure of more game-time – coupled with McNamara’s vision for the Firhill club – sold Lawless on a move to the west end of Glasgow, where he made an immediate impact. As a player who had came through at a Premiership side before moving on to a team outside the top flight, Lawless felt that he fit in well with the squad that McNamara had assembled – many of whom arrived in Maryhill at a similar stage of their careers.

“I wasn’t really guaranteed minutes [at Thistle], I was told I’d be in the first-team squad,” Lawless explained. “I knew I would get more minutes at Thistle than at Motherwell but I had other options as well – Falkirk were trying to sign me, too. I met with both the managers but Jackie really sold Thistle to me. That was the biggest factor. I knew a lot of the boys there and I knew the style of football would suit me down to a tee.

“It was a great start. In the position I play, you always want to get a goal early on to get up and running. I scored in the Cup against Forfar and after that you just want to get your first league goal. I think I scored in the first 10 minutes against Falkirk which was a great start for me.

“When you look through the team, there were a lot of boys who were released or didn’t get a chance. Myself, Sean Welsh, Conrad Balatoni. Aaron Taylor-Sinclair was a wee bit different – he had been at Aberdeen when he was younger but he was building himself back up. It was a good opportunity for him and he had a slightly different motivation. Stephen O’Donnell had been released, too.

“I think a lot of the boys had that mentality where we wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and I just wanted to show that I was good enough for the Premiership. We started off brilliantly and had a wee wobble here and there but the boys showed a bit of grit. That’s maybe where the older boys came into it. The younger boys had that motivation through wanting to prove people wrong whereas the older boys helped to steady us when we were under the cosh a bit around Christmas.”

Thistle would just about get through that mid-season wobble before McNamara would leave for Dundee United with the Jags eight points behind leaders Morton with two games in hand. Alan Archibald, already working as a coach at the club, was promoted to the hot seat and took charge for the remainder of the campaign with a simple brief: to win promotion.

Archibald’s tenure would be a case of evolution and not revolution. The Firhill favourite was chosen to steady the ship and to build on the foundations laid by McNamara – with Lawless admitting it was pretty much business as usual from his perspective. And with the free-flowing, attacking brand of football that was on offer, he reckons that the tactical system that was already in place was bringing the best out of the players Thistle had at their disposal.

“It wasn’t that big a difference for me to be honest,” Lawless admitted. “When I had signed Archie was already in the coaches’ changing room because he was taking the reserves. It would have been a bit different for the likes of Dools [Kris Doolan] and [Chris] Erskine because they were there when he was a full-time player.

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“I already saw him as a coach and I had only played with him for six months. It was strange for me because I was out injured when it all happened. My face got caved in against Falkirk and I had to get surgery. I only missed one game and then Jackie was away! A few games got suspended because of the weather so my first game back was Archie’s first game in charge away at Morton, so I didn’t really miss much.

“A lot of us had the same [attacking] mentality, which helps. A lot of us were the same age, too – I came through playing against Welshy [Sean Welsh], Conrad [Balatoni], Sincy [Aaron Taylor-Sinclair], SOD [Stephen O’Donnell], [Aaron] Muirhead. We had all played against each other and I think that brought us all together even more.

“The style of play was brilliant, too – I think that suited a lot of us down to a tee, with attacking full-backs and things like that. I don’t think any other style of play would have suited us. It was a perfect fit with Jackie’s style of play so Archie just continued with it. He tightened us up a bit and we needed that if I’m being honest with how we were doing away from home. Who knows if we would have won the league if Archie didn’t get the job?”

Thistle would go on to seal the title – and promotion to the Premiership – by the end of the 2012/13 season, with Lawless playing a starring role. So much so, in fact, that he had attracted interest from Dutch outfit Willem II, recently relegated to Holland’s second tier. That eventually manifested in a five-figure bid from the club to pry him away from Thistle – something that Lawless only discovered after receiving a call from his grandmother.

“That was the one that interested me, just because it was over in Holland and the age I was,” Lawless said of Willem II’s interest. “I think the style of play over there would have suited me and improved me as a player.

“The first I actually heard of it was when it was on the news! My gran phoned me and told me to put the news on and it popped up but the club rejected it. Then I got a phone call saying why it was rejected and I just had to accept it and get on with it. That would have interested me because I think it would have improved me as a player massively because of the coaching over there.

“It’s one of these things in football that you have to take on the chin and move on. The club obviously wanted a little bit more money for me – I don’t know how much the bid was but the club must have thought that I was more important than whatever they were getting for me.”

Lawless would once again play an important role for Thistle as Archibald’s side cemented their top-flight status with a tenth-placed finish come the end of the season. The step up to the Premiership took a little getting used to, he admits, and he credits Archibald with improving the defensive side of his game – even if Lawless wasn’t entirely happy with his own attacking output.

“We started off well but I think this happens with every team that comes up,” he recalled. “It can take a wee bit of time for other teams to figure you out and we started pretty well.

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“We had a very good game against Dundee United who ended up being a brilliant team. We didn’t know it at the time but they had some very good players but we undeservingly didn’t win that game. There was a shocking decision on Banzo [Stuart Bannigan] in the penalty box and we didn’t get a penalty. Teams then started to figure us out a little bit.

“For myself, I didn’t have the best season – I still had a good goal return rate and at that point of my career, I was trying to be an attacking threat. That year I learned I had to do a bit more defending, especially with Archie. Jackie just let you do what you wanted attacking-wise, but Archie wanted you more defensive. That took a wee bit of getting used to, having to do more work tracking back. But after that season I kicked on again after I added that to my game. The first season wasn’t the best for me.

Thistle would consolidate their Premiership status for the next few seasons before finishing the 2016/17 campaign in sixth – the club’s highest league finish in around 40 years. The fans enjoyed the Jags’ unusually lofty position in the league standings but for Lawless, the achievement was not quite as significant as some believed.

“[Finishing in the top six] is always in the back of your mind,” he said. “It seems to be a big thing in Scotland because of the money but as a player, it’s not really a big deal. I’d rather get a run in the cup than finish top-six. No one’s going to remember that in particular, it’s not the sort of thing I’m going to brag to my kids about when I’m older.

“It’s always in the back of your mind and it’s a little target but at the start of the season it’s about getting as many points on the board as possible. We were quite unlucky the year before, we had just missed out on it so we knew it was always possible. We had decent players that could get there and we managed to do enough that year. I always remember the Motherwell game where we did it, that was a great feeling.”

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Lawless added that his chief regret from his time at Thistle was the club’s inability to make a real dent in either of the domestic cup competitions – but feels that his club were unfortunate when it came to the latter stages. Reaching the quarter-finals of either competition wasn’t that unusual for Partick Thistle at the time, but the draw at that stage of the competition regularly saw the Jags facing a daunting away trip to one of Scotland’s most difficult venues.

“That’s always what me and the boys that were there at the time have said,” Lawless explained. “When you look back at them – and I’ve not been through our record – the amount of times we got the Old Firm in the quarter-finals away, or Aberdeen away, is shocking. It’s incredible.

“It seemed to always be that when we got to the quarter-finals, we would be massive underdogs in the next game away from home. The amount of times we would make that stage, and it would be 50/50 if you got a preferable draw, and we managed to miss it every single time.

“We still had a chance of doing it but on nights like that you need to be on your game 100 percent and need things to go against them. It’s just one of those things. Even now I can’t seem to get a good run with Livingston! Maybe it’s me and it’s not a Thistle thing.”

The following campaign would be a disastrous one for Thistle. Less than a year after that historic high, Archibald found himself at the helm of a side that were relegated to the Championship via the play-offs. Even with the benefit of hindsight, Lawless struggles to pinpoint where it all went wrong – but suggested that Archibald’s team selection may have played a crucial role.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it. To this day I think that team was a very good team,” he insisted. “Losing Liam Lindsay was massive, he was so steady and he bailed us out so many times. I think we missed that. We gave away too many sloppy goals and I think we chopped and changed a lot if I’m being brutally honest.

“I don’t think we gave boys who we knew could do the business as much game time as we could have. I think my longest run in the team was at left wing-back when I was covering for injuries. It’s the same with Chris Erskine, Kris Doolan. Whereas I think if you gave the three of us a run in our actual positions as much as you possibly could then I think we would have been slightly better off. We might not have stayed up but we would have given ourselves the best possible chance and I think we found that out in the play-offs.

“We went with boys we knew and boys we could trust but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. We were playing against a Livingston team that had physicality in abundance but they were also a good team. We were the perfect team for them to play. I think that if they didn’t win that game against Dundee United, we would have beaten Dundee United.

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“Livi had boys who weren’t afraid to mix it up and after taking Liam Lindsay out the team I don’t think we had that in abundance. We had boys who were willing to put their bodies on the line, don’t get me wrong, but it’s different from boys where that’s their game. Being physical isn’t my game – I’m willing to put my body on the line and try it – but at the end of the day if you’re putting me in a battle with someone and that’s their game then I’m not going to win it.”

That play-off defeat to Livingston would affect Lawless in more ways than one. With his contract up, he had decided he would leave Thistle and went away for his stag do the following day. Relegation took some of the shine off the celebrations, he says, and although he was doing his best to take his mind off of work – he left his phone in the hotel room each day – there was one club in particular who were doggedly chasing his signature for the upcoming season.

“I had other offers but the Livi one came about the quickest. That’s what swayed it for me,” Lawless admitted. “I was getting married that year which was brilliant obviously, but my stag do was the day after the play-offs which put a bit of a dampener on it. I went home that night depressed and my mates were all buzzing, texting me about going on the stag do and I really didn’t want to go.

“I was away for four days and during my stag do, I would just leave my phone in the room. I kept getting missed calls from the same unknown number and eventually my agent phoned me and said it was Livingston and another team that were trying to get me. Livingston had been pestering me if I’m being honest.

“Once I got back I spoke to them and they made their feelings known but I wanted to wait until they had a manager in place. Not long after the play-off [David] Hopkin left so I wanted to wait and once Kenny [Miller] got the job, they got in contact again and I was basically signed up two or three weeks later.”