'My head was gone': Coleraine hero James McLaughlin's delight at 50 goal mark after injury hell
There were days when James McLaughlin wondered when he'd ever score a goal again let alone notch his 50th for Coleraine.
The striker left the Showgrounds with the match ball on Saturday, giving nobody a chance to chalk his first down as an own goal by Glenavon defender Caolan Marron.
The smile told the story of a recent road to recovery after a cruciate ligament injury put his career on hold in July 2017.
While it would rule him out of the following campaign altogether - missing the title challenge and the Irish Cup win - he started only nine league games last term, the long journey to full fitness not yet complete.
But, although he rejects the notion it added pressure to his shoulders, Jamie McGonigle's departure for Crusaders in the summer meant McLaughlin would have to step up.
His three on Saturday took his tally for eight Premiership goals for the season and marked 'only' his third hat-trick for the club.
"There should have been a few more before now," he laughed.
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"It's great to score hat-tricks but the main objective was to win the game and stay top for as long as possible. It doesn't matter who scores."
The Bannsiders are still a point clear of Cliftonville at the league's summit, with McLaughlin hoping to make up for that lost season and play his own part in a real title tilt.
"The last two years - it's been a hard, hard time," he said. "Just to get back playing is great after watching for so long.
"The first four to six months out, my head was gone. It was just the same thing, over and over. Obviously you're strengthening but I didn't see an end to it. Then once you get to a certain point, you see progress and you believe in yourself again. You just keep ramping it up then."
After all that, it's little wonder he's so adamant that it was a hat-trick rather than a brace on Saturday afternoon.
"It's 100% mine," he said, the match ball already signed by the squad and stowed away in his kitbag. "The ball came into the box, I challenged for it and felt it came off the back of my head so it's my goal."
52 and counting.
"48 more to go - we'll set another wee target maybe," he concluded.
At 29, James McLaughlin's career is well and truly back up and running.
Belfast Telegraph Digital