THIS has been a year like no other for Paul McGowan.

For assaulting two police officers, the St Mirren player was sentenced in January to carry out 130 hours of voluntary service in the community. Given he already had a prior conviction for a similar offence, there is a school of thought that he was perhaps fortunate to stay out of jail.

Football people like to give off the impression that they are immune to the strains and stresses of everyday life, that nothing that happens away from the game could ever affect their performance on a match day.

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McGowan, though, is honest enough to admit that hasn't been the case for him. From the initial incident last August, through his decision to plead guilty in court, the wait for sentencing and now his punishment - painting, picking up litter and the like every Wednesday - the 26-year-old has been living under the shadow of his misdemeanour. This has not been his most effective season in a St Mirren shirt and little wonder.

The impression now is of a remorseful figure, full of regret for his actions. He reveals he is "slowly but surely" getting back to something of a normal life, desperate to put the actions of the past behind him.

"Personally it's been a tough season," he says with considerable understatement. "I've had a lot of off-the-field issues and I'm starting to slowly but surely get it all back together. It's been hard. It's one of those things I'll learn from. It was [a worrying time]. Trying to play again and worrying about the other side of things. It was stupidity on my behalf [what happened]."

McGowan, a gifted player who started out with Celtic, insists lessons have been learned. The prospect of having not only his livelihood taken away but also his freedom served as a sudden jolt to the system. "What have I learned? That's a hard question. You take things for granted is the main thing. Things happen. When they happen you realise what you've got.

"I'm grateful for everything I've got in football but I've worked so hard for it. It's not as though it's been given to me on a plate.

"In training I put in 100% every day so nothing has been handed to me. Anything I've got I've probably achieved on my own merit. But the club have been great with me and hopefully I can repay them by helping them stay in the league. I'll just be glad when the final game ends and I can clear my mind."

He admits he has found his voluntary work - at the court's behest - rewarding. "You're giving back to the community. It's not ideal that you're out there every Wednesday doing it. But I've got my punishment and I'm getting on with it. I've not long to go so hopefully I'll be done with it."

More pressingly for McGowan is St Mirren's match this afternoon against Hibernian in which they will look to ease their play-off worries. "Every point we get is going to be crucial," he adds. "If we go and beat Hibs they're back in it as well.

"Everyone is in a dangerous position, just hopefully we can get the result against Hibs to give us a bit of breathing space. It's the most nerve-wracking end to a season I've known."