Stephen Dobbie admits it feels as if he’s never been away. After seven years in England, he’s returned “home” to Queen of the South where, he freely concedes, a career which was heading for the rocks was given the kiss of life.
An impressive 54 goals in 98 games for the Dumfries outfit – and helping the Doonhamers to reach the Scottish Cup final for the first time in their history – prompted Swansea to swoop, sparking a remarkable journey south of the border during which he played in three successive Championship play-off finals, enjoying promotion with the Swans and Blackpool.
However, throughout that time, he was intent on keeping a promise made on leaving Palmerston Park that he’d return one day to take care of unfinished business – taking Queens into the Premiership.
And just six games in, Gavin Skelton’s side sit top of the Championship knowing Saturday’s visit from Hibs could see them go four points clear of the club made firm favourites to clinch the title before a ball was kicked.
Dobbie, now 33, has marked his return with nine goals, six of them in the league, the prodigal son welcomed back with open arms by the fans who idolised him first time round.
“I always said I would come back,” revealed the former Hibs kid. “Queens gave me my chance when I went there on loan from Dumbarton. Ian McCall was the manager then and he was brilliant with me. I got my head down, worked hard and the rest was history.
“When I left I said I would come back and try to help the club get into the Premiership and hopefully we can do that. To be honest, it feels like I have never been away. The playing staff, of course, has changed. Seven years is a long time in football, there’s always a turnaround in players but there are still people here, in the backroom staff and who work in the stadium, from my first time round.”
Dobbie admits few might have tipped Queens to make the start they have given they finished seventh last season having made the play-offs the year before only to lose a clutch of players such as Dan Carmichael, Gavin Reilly, Mark Durnan, Kevin Holt and Ian McShane as well as manager James Fowler, the job going to his assistant Skelton.
He said: “That’s what happens in football, the best players move on and you have to replace them. There’s always a transitional period at every football club but we’ve started well and are sitting top of the league.
“I didn’t know the gaffer before rejoining the club but since I’ve come in he’s been great. It’s his first job but every player, even guys of the age of Derek [Lyle] and myself, are learning. He’s always there encouraging everyone.
“But it’s only six games in, we’ve had an excellent start and hopefully we can continue to keep that going and to stay at the top. It’s not about me, though. The players are buying into what the manager is looking for which is important. Everyone is on the same page and working well as a team.”
Dobbie has struck up an immediate partnership with another veteran in Lyle. The 36-year-old, now into his fifth season at Palmerston Park, has scored eight goals this term.
He said: “I’d never played with Derek before but he’s really impressed me with his hold-up play, his calmness about the box and ability to finish.”
Queen of the South stunned Hibs as Dobbie sparked a storming second-half fightback to knock the Capital club out of the Betfred Cup earlier in the season, his first goal since returning north of the Border and he believes they can bounce back from a 5-0 mauling by Rangers on Tuesday night to repeat that win at home on Saturday.
He expects, though, that having played under Neil Lennon at Bolton Wanderers last season, he knows the Hibs boss will be desperate for revenge as they seek to get back on the winning track after their surprise defeat by Ayr United.
Admitting he and his team-mates were as shocked as anyone to hear that result, Dobbie said: “Hibs could have been out of sight against us but you need to get goals at the right time in games. If the other side scores, the momentum shifts and that’s what happened when we won at Easter Road.
“You need to get that second goal to kill it and we’ve done that quite well ourselves. It could have been a case of Hibs heading for Dumfries hoping to go five points clear of us but now we’ll be aiming to get four points in front of them.
“Neil will have them up for this one, he’ll want revenge on us but despite losing to Rangers our confidence is sky-high. We look at the table, know we are top and we don’t want to give that up. We’ll be ready for a battle to try to extend that lead.”