WHEN the full-time whistle rang out around Firhill on Thursday evening to signal the Jags’ imminent return to the Championship, there was one man that will have felt every shred of emotion on show by the hundred or so Partick Thistle fans camped out on the canal behind the ground, desperate to catch a glimpse of their heroes as they cantered to the League One title.

Stuart Bannigan is the very epitome of a one-club man. Barring a six-month loan spell at Ayr United in 2010, he has only ever adorned the red-and-yellow shirt of the Maryhill outfit during the 11 years of his professional career but his dedication to Thistle goes well beyond his longevity at the club.

The midfielder has had his offers to move on and test himself at a higher level over the years yet each and every one was rebuffed. And were it not for a career-threatening injury suffered a few years back, he could well have found himself plying his trade in the Premiership or the English Championship.

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: Zak Rudden delighted to find a home at Firhill as striker revels in League One title win

Bannigan stuck with Thistle, though. He watched on helplessly from the sidelines as the Jags’ five-year stay in the Premiership was brought to a shuddering halt in 2018 as he recovered from that horrific injury he sustained at Tynecastle in March 2016. He hung around as Thistle dropped into the second tier, and he entertained no other offers of employment when the Jags found contentiously found themselves demoted to the third tier last summer as civil war engulfed Scottish football.

Bannigan’s time at Thistle, particularly over the last few years, has been characterised by pain, heartbreak and the odd existential crisis after spending the best part of two years without kicking a ball in a competitive game. But on Thursday night, as Ian McCall’s side battered Falkirk 5-0 to wrap up the title, the Jags stalwart admitted that finally tasting success after so much heartbreak meant the world to him.

“I am just delighted,” said a breathless Bannigan after the full-time whistle at Firhill. “It was a brilliant performance and it could have been more. The boys were superb. I am buzzing for all the fans that we were out there and we are all delighted. 

“It means everything to me. I know we didn’t start the season very well but as we went through the season we had a bit of bite about us, a bit of character, and the boys stuck together.

“I have seen it all. I have been up at the top and then been here as we haven’t played well over the last couple of years which was our own fault. Being put down last year was really disappointing but we had to come together and show what we had. We have a good group. You can see with our celebrations how together we are and we are just buzzing. It was sweet.

READ MORE: Gary Holt apologises to Falkirk fans after Bairns humbled by five-star Jags

“I was out for a couple of years but I have had a good run at it. That has been two-and-a-half years without any problems so I am just buzzing to be playing. I know how lucky I am to be out there. I thought I might never play again after being out for so long but nights like these are what you play for. 

“I had a wee problem against Montrose a few weeks ago but I knew how important tonight was and I knew if I could get out there and get 60 or 70 minutes in then I could help the boys get a win. It was magnificent.

“Before the game we were talking about how good a night it would have been with the fans in. It would have been packed and it would have been superb but the important thing is we gave them all something to celebrate.”

Bannigan admits that while sealing Thistle’s return to the Championship at the first time of asking was particularly cathartic, given the way the Jags were treated last summer, this season’s trophy success will always pale in comparison to the second tier title delivered by Alan Archibald in the 2012/13 campaign.

“It is so sweet,” he said. “I don’t think anything will ever beat the Championship-winning season because we were all young boys and it was my first title but this is right up there. It is a tough league and there are some tough teams here like Cove and Montrose and Falkirk. We had to work hard for it and dig deep but it is sweet.

“We just wanted to get it done. We didn’t want it to go down to the last game and you never know. We knew it was down to us but even I didn’t think we would play that well. We totally outplayed Falkirk and their boys after the game were even saying so. We scored five but it could have been even more.”

Glasgow Times:

READ MORE: McCall family mark birthday in style as Jags clinch League One title

Thistle’s barnstorming surge up the League One standings over the last month or so has been remarkable as the Jaggernaut has rumbled on with each passing fixture. It wasn’t so long ago that McCall’s men found themselves 2-0 down at half-time away to East Fife, sixth in the table and trailing Falkirk by eight points in the race for the title.

The Bairns’ unravelling has played its part, of course, but Bannigan insists that evening at Bayview was the turning point for the Jags – with the midfielder reserving special praise for striker Zak Rudden and manager Ian McCall.

He explained: “We were 2-0 down at East Fife after 25 minutes up there and we could easily have given in then but we came back and got a draw and it turned out to be a right good point. It was the springboard for five or six wins and I think that was the turning point for us. Zak has had a tough time with injury but he has really turned up for us and I am pleased for him.

“[The manager] has been absolutely superb with me. He gives me that springboard to go and play. I am delighted for him because he wanted to come in and lift the club but we didn’t get a good crack at it and then the season stopped. He has done a superb job to go and get us back up and he won’t want any of us to rest on our laurels now.”