Northern Ireland star Shayne Lavery started the season on fire. He was scoring goals for Blackpool quicker than they could sell rock on the pier in the seaside town.
Then came an unfortunate hamstring injury that ruled him out for six weeks, missing important Championship games and four World Cup qualifiers.
In midweek, the ex-Linfield favourite, an inspirational figure in the Blues winning the double last term, returned to the starting line-up for his club in a goalless draw against West Brom and is keen to continue where he left off before that spell on the sidelines.
It’s been an eventful start to life in Blackpool for the 22-year-old from Aghagallon, who kicked off his Championship career in England with an injury-time goal on debut to earn his team a 1-1 draw at Bristol City in August.
With more goals following and his all-action style in giving everything to the cause, Lavery has quickly become a popular member of the squad amongst team-mates and fans.
“When I came over to Blackpool, I didn’t really want to change much from what I was doing at Linfield,” Lavery told Sunday Life Sport.
“That’s what got me the move in the first place and then getting a goal on my debut in the last seconds of the opening game of the season helped with my confidence that I could score in the Championship. Thankfully, I scored a few more goals quickly after that which was another boost.”
It wasn’t just at club level where Lavery was delivering.
In September, he scored in a 4-1 win in Lithuania and, after a 0-0 draw at home to Switzerland when he almost netted a spectacular goal and caused the visitors problems all night, he was the player being talked about post-match in the away dressing room.
Had he been fit, Lavery would surely have started the October and November internationals, including the final World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park when Northern Ireland drew 0-0 with mighty Italy.
“The injury was frustrating. It was almost tougher being on a good run and playing well and then getting an injury,” said Lavery.
“It was just bad timing but the days went by quickly after the first couple of weeks when I was out. I can’t complain because there are other lads at the club who are out a lot longer than me.
“I’d have loved to have been involved in the internationals. I watched the Italy game and it looked and sounded like some atmosphere in the stadium. When it is like that, it is class.
“Starting against Switzerland, I got to soak up all the atmosphere and seeing the Italy game it hurt even more not being able to go to the last camp because of my injury. Hopefully I’ll be involved again when we play friendlies in March.”
Until then, Lavery will focus on producing for his club.
“I was talking to David Campbell (Shayne’s representative) a few weeks ago and we were saying I have had a good start just like I did at Linfield when I moved there but it’s important to keep doing well and being consistent for the rest of the season,” said the ex-Everton player.
“I know I’m not going to score in every game I play in but it’s about maintaining a good level of performance and trying to take chances when they come along.
“In the Championship, you come up against different types of opposition every week and there are no easy games at all. You have to be on it every game or you will get turned over. I’ve been loving how competitive it is.
“I’m really enjoying everything about being at Blackpool, including the video stuff we do leading up to games. I like the detail and am buzzing because I’m playing at such a good level.
“The manager (Neil Critchley) is unbelievable. I think everyone at Blackpool would tell you that. The way he has us playing, all of us enjoy it. We aren’t just enjoying it because we have got some good results. We like the way we play. There is a feel-good energy around the club. There are good players and good staff here and they are good people as well which helps. I feel I have been welcomed in really well just like I did at Linfield by David Healy, the staff, players and supporters.”
At international level, Lavery reckons Ian Baraclough is the right man to lead the Northern Ireland team forward.
The Irish FA and Baraclough are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the manager’s new contract which will set him up for a shot at next year’s Nations League and the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
“I was pleased when I heard that Ian was staying on,” said Lavery.
“I believe Ian can help us improve in the future. The lads coming through in the Under-21s will also be happy he is staying because he has shown he is not afraid to bring young players in.”
Much has been said about bright young talents such as Lavery, Daniel Ballard, Ali McCann, Conor Bradley, Ethan Galbraith and Dale Taylor being the future for Northern Ireland, though the Blackpool ace insists more experienced players still have a huge part to play.
“The squad was going through a transition period with the manager feeding younger players in,” he added.
“There were quite a few of us who came in but I think we will still have the likes of Jonny Evans and Stuart Dallas and other experienced players for a number of years so I don’t think the young players should feel the pressure that it’s all on us the next few years.
“There’s also Steven Davis. We are all hoping he will carry on because he still runs the midfield every time he plays. I think it is going to be a collective thing as it is always is with Northern Ireland. The senior lads and the younger lads all have a part to play.”
Throughout his football career, Lavery has always spent Christmas with his family in Northern Ireland. This time, the home comforts will be in Blackpool.
“Mum and dad are coming over for Christmas and so are my brothers,” he said.
“We are having Christmas in Blackpool. I’m not cooking but I have to get everything so my mum has made a list and I have to get all the food in. This will be the first year we have ever been away because, while I was at Everton when I was younger, we always got Christmas off and I could go home. It will be great to see my family and spend some time with them.”