Adam Eckersley may wonder if he is fated not to experience any Scottish football glory. Released by Hearts after promotion and denied a Premiership chance, he also left Hibs just four months before they lifted the Scottish Cup. Understandably, he is now utterly determined to seize his moment of distinction with St Mirren.
The left-back is 32, living with his family in Renfrew and preparing for likely promotion to the Premiership this summer. It has been a long wait since that fateful day in April 2015 when Hearts told him there would be no new contract despite his role in a record-breaking Championship title win. He joined Hibs but chose to leave for Canadian club Edmonton in January 2016 – four months before the Scottish Cup curse at Easter Road ended.
Eckersley is entitled to feel he has earned any success this season. St Mirren are ten points clear atop the Championship and firm favourites to return to the top flight.
“I wanted a crack at the Premiership, so this is an important year for me,” the Englishman told the Evening News. “If we kick on this year and get this team promoted then we get a shot at the Prem. I never got that chance with Hearts and I feel I deserve it. Hopefully, if things go right, I will get that chance to play in the top league next season. That’s the goal.
“I had a chance to stay at Hibs a couple of years back. Alan Stubbs wanted to keep me but I just felt I needed to try something different. I was probably still a bit upset by the Hearts thing. Not that I went to Hibs because of what happened at Hearts, I just wanted to get out of Scotland basically because I felt like I got burnt.
“We went to Canada but I actually missed the attention around football. It’s not the same over there. My wife didn’t enjoy living there either because I was away constantly. That’s why we came back and the fit with St Mirren and [manager] Jack Ross just felt right.
“Now I feel like it’s my time to get an opportunity to play in the Premiership. I felt I deserved it at Hearts and I feel I’ve done well this year. Hopefully I get rewarded for that and get to play in the top league next year.”
Wearing the same No.44 which brought him success at Tynecastle, Eckersley has made 21 St Mirren appearances so far this season.
“I don’t want to tempt fate right now and say we’re definitely going up. It’s looking good and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I want to play at the highest level in Scotland against the best players. I want to measure myself against them and keep myself on my toes. I want those challenges.
“I don’t want to go out on a pitch thinking: ‘I could take my foot off the gas here if I wanted to.’ I want to know I’m in for a tough task. There have been some games in recent years in Scotland and Canada where my mentality maybe hasn’t been great. That’s because I haven’t had that fear factor.
“With the amount of fans there, I’ve not been up for it as much as I know I could be. Playing for Hearts was a bit easier because you’re playing in front of a massive crowd every week. It’s easier to get up for it. I like to keep myself going and get the best out of myself. I’m not ready to hang my boots up yet. I feel I’m in great shape and I still have a lot to offer.”
The irony in Hearts struggling to properly replace him at left-back after three years of trying isn’t lost on the Mancunian.
“A lot of people keep tweeting me and sometimes when I bump into Hearts fans they’re saying: ‘We still haven’t replaced you.’ Sometimes it still burns a little bit, what could’ve been,” said Eckersley. “If only they could have nurtured the squad they had at that time and added to it, I think it could have become some squad.
“They chose to go down a different route and bring in foreign players. I don’t personally feel they’ve really kicked on that much. However, that’s in the past now. I’ve got a project here and I’m enjoying myself. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to play Hearts next year.”
Ross, the former Riccarton youth coach, has surrounded himself with Tynecastle connections in Paisley. Eckersley aside, he has Liam Smith on loan from Hearts, plus strikers John Sutton and Gavin Reilly on permanent contracts.
It is impossible to write about St Mirren without mentioning the manager’s breathtaking overhaul. He took charge in October 2016 with the club bottom of the Championship and winless in eight matches. They lurched to the point of sitting 11 points adrift of guaranteed safety near the end of the January 2017 transfer window. Ross reshaped his squad, including signing Eckersley, and Saints lost only one more league game. They finished seventh.
“I knew Jack from Hearts and at the time I signed I was thinking: ‘This is going to be some task. If we can get ourselves out of this, it will be a hell of an achievement,’” recalled Eckersley.
“After a couple of months, once I’d seen the players he’d brought in, I was thinking: ‘If we can manage to avoid the drop here then we will have a real chance next year.’ He had assembled a good squad with experience and some youth. It was a good blend.
“I never said anything to anybody but I had it in my mind and it’s come to light now. I always knew we would be able to challenge. After just a few games, I felt we had a real good chance of staying up. And we did. Finishing seventh was unbelievable from the position we were in.”
And they haven’t let up since. Ross has been able to put a winning team on the park which applies his own footballing philosophy.
“Whenever we stand in a tunnel next to the other team before a game, we’re a bunch of midgets,” said Eckersley, who is 5ft 9in tall. “We only have a few players above six foot and the rest of us are midgets. Our style of football is ball-on-the-ground, passing, moving and interchanging positions.
“That’s the way the gaffer wants us to play. When we’re moving the ball around we can really cut teams open and destroy them. There was more pressure on us last year but, with the pressure off, we’re playing some really good stuff. It must be great for the punters to watch.
“I didn’t work too much with Jack at Hearts. The reason I signed for him was because I knew he was a nice guy. I’d spoken to him in and around the Hearts training ground and I knew I wanted to work with him because of his personality.
“He’s very good with his players and he gets the best out of them because of his relationship with them. He is honest, and honesty is the biggest thing for me. He tells you when you aren’t playing and gives you the reasons why. He’s always truthful with you and I think that’s quite a rare thing in football.”
The blunt truth of the matter now is that St Mirren need to get over the line and end their three-year absence from Scotland’s top league. Eckersley’s deal runs until summer 2019, so provided they finish the job he will be there to sample it. He has waited long enough.