WITH league reconstruction now dead in the water, Partick Thistle must now turn their attention to League One and prepare for life in Scotland’s third tier. The re-jigging of the playing squad has already begun with Scott Fox and Dario Zanatta exercising clauses in their contracts to leave Firhill, while Ayr United midfielder Ross Docherty has completed his move to Glasgow’s west end after agreeing a pre-contract move back in January.

However, there are two players already on the books at Thistle who will be hoping to make an impression in Ian McCall’s starting XI when – and indeed if – the new campaign gets under way: Mouhamed ‘Sena’ Niang and Blair Lyons.

Sena was shipped out on loan to League One to play for Montrose at the start of the 2019/20 season while Lyons was bought by the Jags in January before being immediately sent back to the Angus club for the remainder of the club’s tilt for the play-offs. The coronavirus pandemic ensured that never came to fruition, of course, yet the pair both played significant roles in the club’s unlikely fourth-paced finish.

So, what should Jags supporters expect from the two promising youngsters upon their return to Firhill?

There are fewer better placed to offer some insight than Montrose’s Ross Campbell. As a player, he has lined up alongside the pair and knows their strengths and weaknesses. But in his role as a player/assistant manager, Campbell is also able to provide a coach’s perspective on what they can bring to the Maryhill outfit.

Lyons, in particular, is a player who has seemingly came out of nowhere. After spending his late teens in America, the winger returned to Scotland and was playing for Stirling University in the Lowland League. A series of standout performances led to Lyons being recommended to Montrose and, as Campbell points out, he has made the most of the opportunity presented to him.

“Blair was playing at Stirling Uni and I’ve got a good relationship with them,” he explained. “[Manager] Chris Geddes reached out to me and said, ‘Look, I’ve got a player here who is not as motivated by his academics and is wanting to kick on. Loads of clubs are interested, could he come in and train?’.

“He came in and trained for something like three months, showed really good signs and he was really interested. Blair was really sought after and clubs were willing to pay him more and credit to him, he really enjoyed what we were doing and I think he trusted us.

“He signed a one-year deal with Montrose and he was great. He started to do really well and improved his game so we gave him a second year. Again, he didn’t take much by way of persuasion because I think he trusted us. When he did sign it was fantastic and showed glimpses of what Partick Thistle have signed him for but it was still early days. Our club are really good at looking after people and that’s evidenced by the number of players we’ve managed to retain in our recent four-year success.”

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Making the step up from the Lowland League to League One is one that Lyons took in his stride. Campbell was quick to point out that while there was a bedding-in period where he adapted to his new surroundings, Lyons had received a grounding in the Scottish game in a testing environment with huge demands – all the while racking up a staggering number of games at a crucial stage of his development.

“Stirling Uni play in the Lowland League and they also play in the Bucks Premier League, so the standard of football is reasonable and it’s adult football,” Campbell said. “Between both leagues you’re easily playing 50 games in a challenging environment so when you add that together over a three or four-year period, you end up with people who have played a lot of adult, serious football.

“If you were to compare it to reserve leagues, which are played at a relatively monotonous pace without major outcomes, you can see the difference. We signed Blair and there was a gap in where we played, we fell on a style but as a result he was like a duck to water. He got on well with the lads, he got a run on the team on the left-hand side and made it his own.

“I don’t want to be derogatory about the Lowland League, it’s only two divisions away and with respect to the Highland League, there’s a lot more strength in a lot more teams. A bit like how I expect him to make the step to Thistle, we were patient and we trusted him and I think he liked that. He’s in good shape.

“He’s not the most complicated guy and I think that’s one of his biggest strengths. He plays like a kid in the street and what I think Montrose deserve credit for – Blair obviously delivered it, of course – is that we let him do that. We didn’t overcomplicate things with structure, we took him out a couple of times and weren’t playing him every week, and that ultimately paid dividends.

“We were highly successful and he was a major part of that. Montrose had a poor start to the league campaign last season, we had one point from our first seven games so it wasn’t like we were sitting there flying and having a really good season. That illustrates that patience and we give people time.

“If I could say one thing to Partick Thistle fans, it would be that you’ve signed an excellent young player but he is a young lad and he’ll need a bit of time to adapt. I’m sure Ian [McCall] will help him with this. Our fans were brilliant with him and they allowed him to make mistakes and learn, and he advanced as a result of that. He advanced pretty damn quickly and went on to become a huge asset for the team and we went on to sell him for a reasonable amount of money, which was great.”

When Thistle finalised their move for Lyons during the January window, the 23-year-old was very much in demand with a host of clubs chasing his signature. But Campbell says that the Jags were always at the front of the queue; they were forthright in their determination to get their man and pulled out all the stops to ensure that they did.

The fact that Thistle were willing to loan him back to Montrose to see out the season was a bonus, Campbell admitted, but he was adamant that this was not the deciding factor in the deal.

“There was a bit of that but we weren’t selfish,” he said. “In fairness to Gerry [Britton] and all the team, they did their due diligence ahead of everybody else. He hit a rich vein of form about November and his name started to get banded about.

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“But Gerry and his team – and maybe it was because we played them in the Challenge Cup – they had earmarked him and watched him a number of times before. They were far more willing and up front. It wasn’t that Montrose said, ‘They’ll give us him back so we’ll sell him to you’, it was more the fact that they showed a real ambition to get him.

“Other clubs had shown an interest but they were wanting to have their cake and eat it. They were wanting to wait and see, to see if he develops and asked to be kept in mind and all that. Brutally, Thistle showed a lot of ambition and they deserve a huge amount of credit for that.”

When asked precisely what Thistle fans should be expecting from the wide player, Campbell was full of praise for Lyons – but urged supporters to show a bit of patience in order to bring out the best of the precocious talent.

Campbell replied: “Tremendous pace. Frustrating. Exciting. Edge of your seat. And everything in between!

“He takes people on sometimes like they’re not there and other times he’ll be in a dead end and you’ll think nothing will be there and he’ll get out. Other times there’ll be something simple and he doesn’t do it and that’s just part of his learning. As soon as he learns that, he is going to be such an acquisition for Thistle. I hope that he has an amazing year but not when he’s playing against Montrose next season! We know him inside-out, maybe we’ll put two players on him.

“What I would say is that if he is given the space and the time – from the coaching staff, his fellow players and the supporters – I’m excited for Blair. They have signed a really promising young prospect that is really exciting but he’s not the finished article. Blair knows this and he would be the first one to tell you that there’s so much he wants to learn. I hope that he’s playing every week and that he’s a huge asset to Partick Thistle because he’s a tremendous guy and I really want the best for him.”

The stats would suggest that like Campbell says, Lyons is a player who can produce a moment of magic out of thin air. Despite operating on the left flank, he finished the season alongside a few others as League One's fifth-top scorer, finding the net on nine occasions.

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But what is perhaps more impressive is the fact that the winger outperformed his expected goals (xG) by a significant amount, indicating that he was finishing chances that based on probablity, he should have missed. His cumulative xG for the 2019/20 league season was calculated to be 5.83, leaving a differential of 3.17. Only two other League One players outperformed their xG more; East Fife's Scott Agnew, who scored on 10 occasions with an xG of 6.78, and Lyons' team-mate Graham Webster, who bagged nine goals with an xG of 5.71.

While Lyons was flourishing out on the wing, the other Jags loanee found himself in and out of Stewart Petrie’s starting XI. Sena, a central midfielder by trade, found himself competing with another five players for three spaces in the line-up each Saturday afternoon. He might not have racked up as many minutes as Lyons, who was a beneficiary of Montrose’s lack of depth on the flanks last season, but the 20-year-old still left an impression on Campbell at the heart of the Gable Endies’ midfield.

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“Sena was slightly different,” Campbell said. “What happened with him was that while Blair had space in the team because we ended up with a few injuries and we didn’t have much in the wide-left area, so Blair got a good run at it. Sena was probably suffering a little bit from our squad rotation policy.

“There were six players for essentially three slots so rotation didn’t work in his favour. He was really patient, worked really hard on the pitch and is very industrious but again, he’s pretty young. To summarise Sena’s season; he was patient and broke into the team, then he came out of it and at that time he was playing a lot of games for Thistle’s reserves in the cup and things like that.

“Sena got an injury at an unfortunate time and it meant he went back down the pecking order. Because he wasn’t getting game-time, he struggled a little bit to come straight into the team but we were really excited about the last quarter [of the season] because physically, he was outstanding and he was getting back to that fitness.

“It’s a tale of four quarters. The first quarter doesn’t count because he wasn’t really there yet, the second quarter he flourished, the third quarter his game-time was limited because of the injury and the squad rotation. The fourth quarter is always where loan players blossom for us because they understand we’re a wee bit different in our methodology. We’re patient and physically, we work hard at our conditioning so that we’ve running over the top of teams in the last quarter. He would have been an integral part of that but then the season fell to pieces.

“Can he be a player that can challenge and complement [at Thistle]? Definitely. He’s a really good lad, really industrious in how he is and how he works. If that’s what Ian needs then great. What I’ve heard from Sena is that Ian has been really supportive and nurturing and encouraging to him, so hopefully that means that he is really keen for him to be involved in the team. He’s just recently extended his contract so they are all things that suggest that he will be part of Ian’s squad. It’s brilliant for Sena and Blair. I think it’ll be really interesting to see how they could flourish at Thistle and under Ian.”

It is perhaps Sena’s reaction to missing out on matchday squads that impressed Campbell more than anything else. Rather than moping about the changing room or letting his head drop, the former Pollok man would look for pointers and ask what he could do to force himself into the first-team picture.

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Campbell said: “He’s quite mature for a young man and he’s the sort of player where if he wasn’t playing, he would always ask why. He’d do it in a good manner, asking what he could be doing better in order to get into the team. You can definitely tell he’s very focused. He came in and worked like everyone else and once we explained why he wouldn’t be playing, he would accept that and use it as feedback as to how he could improve.”

Campbell reckons the experience that Sena and Lyons have accrued in Angus should stand them in good stead for whenever the third tier is up and running once again. And while the Montrose assistant is disappointed not to see the pair plying their trade in the Championship as he thought they would, he believes that the lessons learned in League One – of playing in front of a demanding crowd, with points at stake and real-world ramifications – are the perfect preparation for turning out for the Jags.

“It certainly won’t present any fear or anxiety,” he said. “I don’t think either of them have that anyway but playing at Montrose has probably given them a different perspective: to play with responsibility, particularly at home.

“Thistle will be the strongest team in the league by a mile and with that comes responsibility. They know the league inside-out and if anything, I was hoping otherwise. They’ve proven themselves at our level and I was excited to see what they could do in the Championship. Obviously when Blair signed, we were expecting Thistle to stay up and to have survived which they didn’t get the opportunity to do. I was excited about seeing them test themselves at that level above.

“There’s positives to that as well. My preference would be to see Sena and Blair up a division but they’ll make the best of it and it may allow them to flourish and be ready for the season after this one. That’s the positive way to look at it.”