Rewind to early March and Steven Bell feared he wouldn’t kick another ball all season as East Kilbride were unable to play with the Lowland League suspended.
However, news quickly emerged that League One and Two would return and the 36 year-old received a call from his former manager at Dundee United and Ayr United, Ian McCall.
The Partick Thistle boss wanted to add experience and depth to his squad for a title push and Bell was just delighted to be provided the opportunity to lace up his boots again after the strangest of seasons.
Although the veteran centre-back was brought in to provide cover, Bell established himself as an integral member of a dominant Thistle side that clinched the League One title in style.
“It’s been a bit surreal,” Bell admitted. “My last game for East Kilbride was on the 27th of December and I was left thinking that my season was finished which was a tough one to take.
“I got the opportunity to come to Thistle through the gaffer and I’ve not looked back since. He gave me a call and asked if I’d be interested in coming in to add to the squad and I jumped at it.
“In our first conversation, he told me that Thistle had a set team and that I’d be used as back-up due to the amount of games in such a short period.
“It was never set in stone that I’d play that often but football is very competitive and if you play well then you will stay in the team - that’s what happened.
“Thistle is a really big club. I’m born and raised in Glasgow and a few of my mates are Thistle fans so to be given the opportunity to come here, at my age, was something that I couldn’t knock back.
“I didn’t realise the size of the club until I arrived but although there’s been no fans, you can tell how big a club it is - it’s still got that Premiership feel about it.
“I’m absolutely over the moon about how it’s turned out for everybody.”
Bell’s introduction at half-time against East Fife on Tuesday, April 6 was the catalyst for Thistle embarking on a remarkable run of clean sheets.
The Jags were trailing 2-0 at the interval and sitting in sixth position with their title dreams in tatters.
But, Thistle rescued a 2-2 draw before recording five consecutive clean sheets during five wins as belief grew that automatic promotion to the Championship was still achievable.
Bell added: “I came on against East Fife, played well and I’ve managed to maintain that throughout the season.
“You could see the confidence increase as the results picked up and the team just picked itself for that run of form.
“I was watching players around me performing to such a high standard and the demands we put on each other was such a big factor in winning the league.
“The strikers were watching the defenders put their bodies on the line which puts pressure on them to score goals - which they did.
“It was a real team effort. The management team deserves a lot of credit because they kept believing we could win it and that kept us going at a few difficult moments.”
Bell is an experienced campaigner and possesses leadership qualities which enhanced a close-knit squad that developed a winning mentality.
“It’s a really good group of boys,” Bell added. “Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of good dressing rooms but this is definitely up there.
“If you’ve got a good dressing room then you always have a chance of achieving something special. That’s not just the starting eleven but every member of the squad and coaching staff.
“There is a real togetherness in this team and it’s the senior players who have helped form that in the dressing room because the younger lads look up to them.
“Obviously, I can bring my experience but it’s down to the players around me like Richard Foster and Darren Brownlie.
“I’ve also had Stuart Bannigan and Ross Docherty in front of me who help protect the defence and create passing triangles.
"I’ve played with Ross for a few years and we have a really good relationship and we understand how to play together.
Thistle boss McCall has praised Bell’s calming influence in the dressing room and his impact since earning a starting berth.
The pair have enjoyed a close relationship for almost 20 years and Bell believes McCall’s man-management - which he believes has improved over the years - was a vital component in Thistle’s success.
He said: “I’ve worked for him at three different clubs. I was with him when I was just 17 at Dundee United and he won’t mind me saying this but he’s changed for the better.
“He’s got excellent managerial qualities. The way that he speaks to his players is really impressive but one of the main things for me this season was his calmness.
“In games that we weren’t winning but should have been, he was a really calming figure and he’s all about encouragement.
“He wants all the players to support each other and he’s done a great job. There’s been a couple of games where we’ve been losing and some fans were shouting for his head but he’s been there and done it before.
“You need that figure at the top of the club to lead the rest of the boys and that’s what he’s done.”
Bell will celebrate his 37th birthday next season but his performances since joining Thistle indicate that he’s still capable of performing at a high-level.
Although he previously left full-time football to concentrate on work outside of the industry, Bell has enjoyed his spell at Thistle and he would love to stay next season.
He said: “I’ve not had a chat with him yet. I was just in to back up what they had but obviously I’ve managed to do a little bit extra - I came into the team and never dropped out.
“I know he’s been happy with my performances because I’ve heard him in the media and he’s said to me that he’s really on several occasions.
“We’ve got plenty of time to talk about my future. Would I like to stay? I’d love to stay but it needs to be right for everybody.
“This club next year has to be challenging to win the Championship because of the size of the club.”
The Maryhill side sealed the title with an emphatic 5-0 win over Falkirk which sparked euphoric celebrations from delighted Thistle fans outside Firhill.
During an unprecedented season where fans have been unable to attend matches, Bell believes Thistle supporters, fuelled by a sense of injustice, were justified in their celebrations.
“It was a special night,” Bell added. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and we don’t want fans to gather but I can understand why they did it.
“Sometimes your emotions just run high, I know that some of the players were up at the window and we saw that at Ibrox earlier on this season.
“This is probably the best one for the fans considering how the club was treated last year. So it’s understandable why they celebrated the way they did because the club was unfairly put down.
“Fortunately, we’ve got the club back into the Championship and hopefully we can push on for another promotion next season.”
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