Rhys McCabe recently unpacked his belongings in a new flat near Sheffield Wednesday's training ground, and there is still some furniture to be bought. Yesterday afternoon was spent buying a suit for matchdays, although he first had to check what colour would be most suitable. The chores are mundane, but they bring a welcome bustle to a life that had become marked by anxiety.
For several weeks during the summer, McCabe trained with his friends and their local team in West Calder. To make sure that they understood he was not messing around, he wore his heart monitor and worked at the same intensity as he would have done at Murray Park with Rangers. There was an element of therapy in the physical work, particularly the six or seven-mile runs at 11 o'clock at night to clear his head.
Having taken the decision to object to his contract being transferred over from Rangers Football Club plc to Sevco, the company set up by Charles Green's consortium when it bought the business and assets of the club and was waiting for permission to change its name to The Rangers Football Club, McCabe was effectively a free agent. At 19, the circumstances were deeply unsettling and his parents noticed that his mood was more sombre than usual.
There ought to have been a period of satisfaction, but breaking into the starting line-up and controlling the midfield in games against the likes of Hearts and Celtic coincided with Rangers being in administration. The squad agreed to take pay cuts so that non-playing staff would not lose their jobs, with McCabe and the other youngsters losing 25% of their wages. He made do by sharing petrol costs with his friend and team-mate, Darren Cole.
Even then, he did not envision a sudden break in his relationship with Rangers, where he had played since he was nine. There was no dialogue from anybody at the club during the summer, however, until a letter arrived one week before pre-season training began informing him that if he accepted his next pay packet, and returned to work at Murray Park, that would constitute agreeing to the transfer of his contract. Under employment law, all Rangers staff had the opportunity to object, and depart, which McCabe took because he felt he was being railroaded into a decision he wasn't clear about. There were too many uncertainties.
"I never wanted to leave," he says. "[Rangers] were waiting on the SFA getting back to them and votes being held. Would it be first division, second division, third division, having a team at all? So we thought we'd wait to see what would happen. I'm still a Rangers fan, I still check on the results every week. We were here [at Hillsborough] doing a charity day when Rangers played Brechin and I went into one of the boxes to watch the game on television. It all happened too quickly and there was a lack of communication, so I had to make a decision."
Had somebody from the club met with the player, outlined what might happen and discussed his options, he could have considered a different choice. Unlike other players who left, he had no release clause and his contract ran to 2015.
No footballer in Scotland is oblivious to the hold the game has on supporters. McCabe understands that fans were frustrated, and he is only speaking about his decision now, for the first time, to recall it from his perspective. While the likes of Steven Naismith, Steven Whittaker and Jamie Ness were signing for new clubs, McCabe and his advisors had yet to speak to any teams and he was training with his school friends, waiting for developments at Ibrox.
"I was doing my off-season programme," he says. "And every day I was checking the news. We thought about if the club was in the first division, that would be more appearances, getting noticed. In the third division, it's three or four years and I'm 20 now. What if I have an injury? It could be 26 before I played in the top flight again. It was better to play at a higher standard, so I had to make a decision for myself."
McCabe believes he owes a debt of gratitude to the coaching and playing staff who helped him at Rangers, in particular Bobby Russell and Alan Kernaghan, who worked with him at a critical age. His family intend to show their gratitude to all the individuals who influenced his career. His father, Kevin, is an outgoing, unabashed personality, while Rhys is more contained. There is a quiet self-assurance that suggests he also possesses a single-minded purpose.
After being granted full clearance to play for Sheffield Wednesday last Friday, he hoped just to make the squad for the opening game of the season against Derby County. Yet McCabe played all 90 minutes and was widely considered to be the best player on the pitch in a 2-2 draw. He might have joined Everton, but was more comfortable with the surroundings, and the opportunities, at Hillsborough,
"Going to a club wasn't about how big they were," he says. "It was the fact they showed an interest in me. Having played for Rangers, it would mess with your head to go to a Premier League side in England and not be playing."
There has been much to rationalise in recent months, but McCabe will always value the nine games he played for his team. A career awaits, but he would never rule returning to Ibrox. "I'll keep supporting them," he says. "Maybe one day I'll get to go back."
Contextual targeting label: