Ards ace Michael McLellan on family scares, contract not being renewed at Preston, and how he took Irish League too lightly.
Q. Where did you start playing football?
A. I started in the soccer camps in Sydenham and Shorts Playing Fields. Raymond Alexander took some of the youth sessions and he brought me to Holywood when I was seven, but played for the Under-10 side. I was quite big for my age. I went to Glentoran for a few years but in my early teenage years I moved on to Linfield. I also had trials at West Brom and Birmingham City. The Blues' youth set-up was respected and I enjoyed it. I was a central midfielder, then right wing, but I was scoring goals too. In my early years I was a right-back and I loved tackling. Now I'm older I am a better talker than mover on the pitch! But I always wanted to score goals.
Q. Who was at the Blues when you were breaking through?
A. Ross Clarke, a good friend, was there. He was always one of the better players along with Carl Winchester. Ross is one of the best players in the league when on form.
Q. Was it a good education for you at Linfield?
A. They signed the best players and there was always a surplus. Luckily for me, I was captain and played most weeks. I used to take football home with me and was quite aggressive on the pitch. Manager Tommy Harrison changed me as a player. I was talking back to referees from the age of 12 and it wasn't good. I just wanted to win. Tommy grabbed me one day and said to me, in his own way, I had to cut it out. He helped me hold in my anger and channel it in the right way.
Q. So where did that anger and aggression come from?
A. Just a desire to be the best. I always believed I would go across the water and I was desperate to do everything right. It was anger with myself rather than other people. Even when I was at Preston I needed to calm down and, looking back, I'm embarrassed to see that guy behaving like a spoilt child.
Tying knot: Michael McLellan on his wedding day with wife Nicole
Q. How did the move to Preston come about?
A. I had trials with Everton, who were keen, then I scored quite a few goals for County Down in the Milk Cup and around 25 teams were interested but Preston weren't on the list my dad had. We played England in the Victory Shield on Sky TV and although we got beat 6-0 against a team that included Ravel Morrison, Preston offered a contract. At that time there was a strong Northern Ireland connection with Neil Dougan, Jamie Douglas, Seanan Clucas, Conor McLaughlin, Dan Devine and Scott Davidson involved. I scored two goals against Everton and they wanted me back. Alan Irvine was Preston boss and while I was away on Northern Ireland duty he rang me and assured me I would get a chance.
On the ball: Michael McLellan aims to put Ards on the front foot
Q. How did you find Preston?
A. Josh Carson was going to bigger teams but it was probably the best decision I could have made because it felt like home and we stayed together in the same digs. I was 16 and straight into the football but I hit the ground running. I played a lot of reserve team games and obviously the professional contract was a real boost. Over time I became a little too comfortable and probably didn't adapt my game enough.
Q. Did not having a specialised position hold you back?
A. In the Milk Cup I was centre midfield but when I was scoring goals it was a case of 'stick him up front'. I wasn't really taught how to play there, you just had to learn from experience. The Preston players offered advice and when Warren Feeney was Linfield manager he was brilliant that way.
Q. Was your Preston departure a shock?
A. I knew I wasn't getting a contract as Alan Irvine was replaced by Darren Ferguson, then Phil Brown, then Graham Alexander and David Unsworth. They wanted the job full-time but Graham Westley came in and he was a nightmare. He had us in the gym at 9am and you didn't leave the training ground until 5pm. Everyone was burned out. There was a big turnover of players and the young players were overlooked. I had offers to train with Conference teams but an agent told me League of Ireland clubs were interested. I came home thinking I would return to the professional game but once you started playing again reality bites in our physical league.
Q. So was it hard for you coming home?
A. I knew my time at Preston was coming to an end and I had a trial with Oldham where Paul Dickov was the manager. He ended up losing his job, so it was another 'What if?' Part of me thought I could walk the Irish League when I came home but I got a wake-up call. I went to Ballymena United on trial but the wages on offer were much lower than I hoped as I still wanted full-time football. I went to Linfield but then Portadown offered me better wages. I didn't really see eye-to-eye with Ronnie (McFall) and struggled to make an impression. I was thinking, 'I'm too good for this' and it took me two years to figure it out. Ballymena United signed me and I scored a winner on my debut. People won't look at me as an Irish League great but in my mind I should be up there with the better players. I've just been inconsistent but I've always had confidence in myself, you must have that to succeed.
Q. Your scoring rate with H&W Welders was frightening… 74 goals in 56 games. Was that your happiest time?
A. One hundred per cent. The Portadown experience killed me and I went to Ballymena with dwindling confidence. I left Ballymena and thought, 'I'll give this up'. I had a job and felt I was finished with football. Spike (Glenn Ferguson) told me about Bangor and Welders' interest. If Scott Davidson, one of my best friends, hadn't persuaded me to go to the Welders I might have played for Bangor for six months and quit. Gary Smyth was in charge and I loved playing for the Welders.
A. Relegation with Ards was tough but being released at the age of 19 was hard as I didn't know what I was doing with my life.
Q. How do you reflect on your time at Linfield?
A. Gary had told me Coleraine were interested but I didn't want to leave. I didn't care about money but the goals kept going in and then Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter rang me. But Linfield and Windsor Park was always a big pull for me. I nearly said yes to Stephen because he was very persuasive and part of me regrets that a little but the chance to work with David Healy was hard to turn down. I had glandular fever and tonsillitis before I went there and was very skinny and unfit. My debut was against Glentoran on Boxing Day and that was a tough start. In truth the Welders were going for the league title and I didn't want to leave but Linfield wanted me immediately. Perhaps I wasn't ready to go because I was enjoying it so much. I wasn't playing enough and my confidence took a hit. Tough times, but a good learning experience.
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
A. Near the end of my time at Preston, I could have been more selfish in terms of behaving the right way. I went out with friends when I should have respected my talent a bit more. I could have achieved more, perhaps played in the lower leagues. I was a professional footballer but only made the Preston bench twice. In the final few months I gave up on things and ended up coming home. The one thing I would say to players coming home is don't think you're too good for our league because you will get a kick where it hurts.
Q. How supportive has your family been?
A. Mum Joan and dad David went to all the games, until I was about 10 when my mum was shouting at me and she wasn't welcome! Dad took me everywhere, all over the country and paid for everything. Maybe I should have listened to them more! Dad had a heart attack a few months after I returned from Preston. That was a big scare, I can remember racing to the hospital. My mum had bowel cancer two years ago. I know people who have lost parents and I'm just thankful they are still with me and I have their support.
Day to remember: Michael McLellan on his wedding day with dad David, wife Nicole and mum Joan
Mum has got the all clear and is well. Dad went onto a health kick after his heart attack and he's sticking to it. I have a brother and two sisters but I was in town when I found out dad had his heart attack. I knew he was recovering from it but in mum's situation you hear the word 'cancer' and don't know what to think. She had an operation and after the good news, I was crying with excitement. Both my parents have had big health scares and I don't know how I would cope without them. It's a blessing they are both still here.
Q. Do you still live at home?
A. No, I live with my wife Nicole. We got married last summer and have known each other for five years. Nicole is also very family-orientated and she used to watch the Linfield games. I was joking with her to come along towards the end of the games for a chance to see me play!
Q. You're with Ards now, how do you see the future?
A. I've just turned 27 so hopefully I can still hit top form but I need to reflect on what I have done. I would love to be more consistent and with that, comes opportunities. Before the season was stopped Portadown were out in front but there isn't much between the top few teams. I would say the top six in the Premiership are a different class, while I feel the best Championship sides could compete with the bottom four in the top flight. The Ports are a big club and have always had big players with a proud tradition. My career did hit a downward curve but I've a few years left and I'd love to play consistently well and score goals. I still love the game but want to achieve so much more. I can't see football being back soon during this health crisis but I just hope we can save as many lives as possible and get back doing all the things we took for granted.