Irish League Lives: Paul McKnight on soul-destroying injury that ended meteoric rise at Ibrox
Even though he rubbed shoulders on a regular basis with Paul Gascoigne, Mark Hateley and Brian Laudrup, Paul McKnight admits he had to pinch himself from time to time, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming.
The Ballygowan man had two lifetime ambitions. One was to become a footballer which he achieved in those halcyon days at Rangers; the other was to resurrect an education he abandoned when offered a full-time contract by Walter Smith.
At 42 years of age, Paul is now as successful in business as he was on the football pitch, being a partner in eye4education, which helps deliver innovative and inspirational educational programmes to teachers, students and parents in a diverse range of topics.
Paul was a protege of Joe Kincaid at St Andrew's Boys Football Club. As a kid, he had the best of both worlds, travelling to either Old Trafford or Ibrox on a regular basis at holiday times.
When he was 16 and, having just finished his GCSEs, he made the decision to move to Rangers and was soon on a flight to Glasgow.
"I'll always be indebted to Joe," says Paul.
"Looking back, I don't think he got the credit he deserved. He was a very forward-thinking guy. The country was gripped by civil unrest, but Joe went into areas, both sides of the divide, just to help kids play football.
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"It just wasn't in and around Belfast, he used to drive all over the country. We were all the best of friends, regardless of our background. A testament to Joe's commitment to football was, at one time, there were 10 players in the Northern Ireland squad that came through St Andrew's, which was phenomenal."
When Paul moved to Glasgow, he made an instant impact.
"I was training with the first team pretty quickly," he recalls.
"I had been in and around the squad and I made my debut against Partick Thistle in May 1995. It was quite an experience lining up with boys like Laudrup, Alexei Mikhailichenko, Ian Durrant, Trevor Steven, Richard Gough and Hateley.
"It was one of those perfect days - it was hot with a packed house at Ibrox. I couldn't have played any better, it was what dreams are made of.
"At that time, I was also involved with the Northern Ireland Under-17 side. We defeated Germany out there and Bryan Hamilton, the first team manager, paid me a great compliment, telling me I wasn't a million miles away from a call-up."
Paul had a nagging feeling that everything was falling into place almost too well and his worst fears became a reality soon after that impressive Rangers debut when he sustained a serious hip injury
"It was a freak accident," he says.
"I fell awkwardly after a tackle and landed on my hip. The way I hit the ground, it shattered. Doctors insisted it was fixable and I had numerous operations.
"I couldn't have been treated better by the club. The medical people arranged all my operations. The boss, Walter Smith, and his assistant, Archie Knox, were brilliant, they kept reassuring me.
"I suppose it could have been an easy option to push me away because of the severity of the injury and the length of time I was out, but that was never the case.
"Although I began playing again after being over one year out, it still wasn't right. It meant I never fulfilled my potential at the club, after starting so well."
After seven years, Paul was informed his contract wouldn't be renewed.
"I've some marvellous memories, playing with the likes of Ally McCoist, Gasgoigne and Charlie Miller, who was an up-and-coming star back then," smiles Paul.
"In my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn't right. It was so difficult watching the boys train every day, it was soul destroying.
"I was in a lot of pain and I was really at a low ebb. I had good friends in John Douglas, Darren Fitzgerald and Lee Feeney, who were all Northern Ireland lads. But I didn't dare tell them that I was depressed, it wasn't the thing to do.
"Some people say players shouldn't be paid when they are out injured. I would argue against that because that's when you go through your most difficult of times.
"I'd five-and-a-half good years under Walter and a year-and-a-half under Dick Advocaat, who took over as boss. He had a different personality than Walter, he was like a little general.
"But he was always good to talk to. When it came to training, he was very structured and he introduced a lot of new concepts."
Paul made the move to St Mirren in March 2000, making his debut against Airdrieonians.
He adds: "They were in a league below us, so I just wanted to see if I could hack it at that level. Playing for Rangers came with its own pressure and stress - there is a demand to win every game. I thought it wouldn't be as severe at St Mirren. I started really well. I got a few goals to help the club gain promotion. But it was only a matter of time before my hip began playing up again."
After two years, he was on the move again, this time returning home to join Linfield.
"David Jeffrey brought me back to the Irish League, it was a good move for me," he adds.
"I played quite a few games for the Blues. I got away with the hip problem because I wasn't training every day."
In fact, his impressive performances again alerted St Mirren boss John Coughlin, who decided to bring Paul back to Scotland, hoping the injury had gone.
"I married a Scottish girl and we had a house in Paisley, so it made sense to move back," he explains. "I loved it at Linfield, but it meant Leigh was on her own over there.
"In all honesty, the injury flared up again because of the full-time training and it actually got worse. I was duly released in November 2003."
Glenavon manager Tommy Kincaid offered Paul the chance to move back to the part-time game, agreeing for him to fly in for weekend games.
"Michael O'Neill was playing for Glentoran at the same time," smiles Paul.
"We would meet regularly at the International Airport on Saturday night and both flew home together.
"I spent a couple of seasons at Glenavon, but the injury and the pain were getting worse. Football wasn't as enjoyable any more, the writing was on the wall."
After severing his links with the game at a relatively early age, Paul decided it was time to be re-educated.
He adds: "I wanted to challenge myself in other fields. I decided I wanted to get educated because I never got the chance to sit my A Levels as I headed off to Rangers very young.
"I decided to get stuck in and managed to achieve a first class Honours Degree in Sports Science. I also completed a Masters Degree in business.
"I qualified as a teacher in Business Studies and Physical Education. It would probably have been easy for me to feel sorry for myself after what happened, but I had my family to think of.
"I've been a partner in eye4education consultancy business since 2011, along with my former Ards team-mate Darren Nixon. The business has gone from strength to strength."
Paul and Leigh have three children - 11-year-old Sophie, Maisie (9) and Charlie (7). It's perhaps no surprise that Sophie is a budding footballer and is currently on the books at Linfield.
"I spend a great deal of my time watching Sophie play, which I enjoy," adds Paul, who hasn't ruled out a return to the game in some capacity because he is the current holder of an A Licence coaching badge.
"I was a professional for 11 years and I've had the experience of being coached by the likes of Walter Smith and Dick Advocaat, so I think that made it a bit easier for me when I was studying for my coaching badges.
"I've still three young kids. There are a lot of birthdays and a lot of taxiing to do, but at some point I would like to get back and put something back into the game."
÷ Originally from the Four Winds area of Belfast, Paul began his playing days at Santos Boys Club.
÷ He represented Northern Ireland at every age group but failed to earn a senior cap, even though he was called into the squad on a few occasions by manager Sammy McIlroy.
÷ When Paul's playing career was coming to an end, he aborted attempted comebacks at Distillery, Newry Town and Larne.