Dave McKay could not have asked for a better colleague and confidante during the most challenging 16 months of his short career.
Raith Rovers striker Lewis Vaughan has suffered cruciate knee ligament damage three times and displayed staggering mental and physical strength to battle back to full fitness on each occasion.
So when McKay, 23, endured the same set-back in February 2020, he knew he was not alone. Vaughan was always on hand with support, guidance and, when necessary, some candid truths about the path ahead.
“I leaned really heavily on Lewis,” said the Rovers defender. “I can only look up to someone like him. I’ve only been through this process once and I know how hard it has been — so to come back three times is incredible.
“Lewis was honest with me and told me that there would be some bad days; that there would be some set-backs after the rehab. But the message was: keep working hard and there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
“He’s the example that you can bounce back from anything and get back to normal.
“I was upset for the first few days after finding out the extent of the injury, but once I got my head around the situation, it was about looking forward and approaching the next day.
“Eventually you start to feel stronger and see the difference.
“I’m really close with Robbie [Thomson] — we travel through together — and he had a serious, long-term achilles injury, too. Boys like that are invaluable and know what you are going through.”
‘The moment I’ve been waiting for’
There were indeed some dark days. Due to the Covid outbreak (McKay recalls how ‘people thought that might be over within a few weeks’) he did not go under the knife until August 2020.
He had limited contact with his teammates due to the footballing bubble in which they existed and was not allowed to travel to away matches as Rovers mounted a shock promotion charge.
As such, there was an overwhelming sense of catharsis when he stepped onto the turf at Central Park against Cowdenbeath on Saturday, helping the visitors see out a 1-0 Premier Sports Cup victory.
Of the 778 supporters in attendance, a healthy portion were of a Raith persuasion and as McKay took to the field — perhaps more than any other moment — they made a hell of a din.
“It feels like I’ve been out forever and it was special to hear the fans cheering when I came on,” he smiled. “That is the moment I’ve been waiting for.
“I remember when the news came out that I needed an operation, I got loads of messages from fans and, along with my friends and family — who were there every step of the way — I always felt supported. It meant a lot to me.”
Now McKay is desperate to put a lamentable 16 months firmly in the rear-view mirror.
‘Let’s go one better’
Such has been the length of his absence that it is easy to forget that McKay played 69 senior matches for Rovers before the age of 21, displaying ample potential.
As a teenager emerging through the ranks in Kirkcaldy, he was considered every bit as promising as players like David Bates, Ross Callachan and Sean Mackie who have gone on to play top-flight football.
He is a welcome addition to John McGlynn’s match-day options — and is a young man seeking to make up for lost time ahead of Tuesday’s visit of Brechin.
🙌 David McKay sent Raith Rovers into the Tunnock's Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup Semi-Finals with this strike on Friday night!
— SPFL (@spfl) November 18, 2019
“I just want to get a good season under my belt and get back into the swing of things,” continued McKay.
“It was a great campaign last season and I was at every home game. I wasn’t allowed to go to the away matches so I watched those online — and it was great to see how well the boys did.
“But of course, there is an element of being desperate to be on the pitch and it just makes me more determined to be a part of the team this season. Hopefully, we can replicate what we did and maybe even go one better.”