Ross County supporters never did get to see Gary Mackay-Steven play a first-team game in Dingwall.

They will get their chance this afternoon, even if they will hope the winger's burgeoning talents are not as evident as they were when he rose through the youth ranks at the Highland club.

He was just 16 when Liverpool parted with a six-figure fee to take him down to Anfield, the trips Mackay-Steven had made dutifully from his family's home in Thurso to training at the Highland Football Academy rewarded by an exciting journey at the start of his career.

There have since been a number of twists and turns along the way – injuries curtailed his progress at Liverpool before an unsuccessful spell at Fulham – but Mackay-Steven has found new direction with Dundee United. He returns to Dingwall today as one of the most potent threats in the United ranks and perhaps the most exciting talent in the Scottish game. Some things never change.

Now 22, Mackay-Steven is remembered fondly by Derek Adams, the County manager, even if he could cause the greatest harm to the home side. "Gary was in the youth system and went full-time with the under-19s," said the County manager, who yesterday named Neale Cooper as his new assistant manager. "We sold him to Liverpool for a lot of money – a good bit of business for the club. He was always a dedicated lad with a great attitude and it is always good to see a boy from this area do so well.

"I watched him on Friday night against Kilmarnock and he performed exceptionally well down the left-hand side. He provided a lot of good crosses and he has that trickery to his game. He has been able to get over the injury problems – broken legs and ankle trouble – and is showing his ability this season. Unfortunately, at 16 he was not ready for our first team."

His reputation tends to go before a rather hefty challenge, though. Peter Houston, the United manager, has even go so far as to urge match officials to offer his winger greater protection, but Mackay-Steven would appear to be far less concerned by the close attention of opposing defenders.

"I think it's hard for referees. I'm a player who likes to dribble and that invites challenges," said the Scotland under-21 internationalist. "That's part and parcel of the game. I won't be changing the way I play. It won't stop me taking guys on as I enjoy the physical side of the game as well. You take knocks and there are always a few bruises the morning after a game but I will just dust myself down and keep going.

"I have bulked myself up in the gym over the last year and that's helped a lot. Everyone's different but I wouldn't like to bulk up too much as it would maybe affect my speed. There is a fine balance but I have been given a good gym programme by the club and it has helped me a lot. We do strength and conditioning [in training] and I do a few bits extra myself which helps and I am feeling the benefit of it this season."