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Thistle's Bannigan proves early rejection need not spell end

STUART BANNIGAN has alighted at the same destination as Dylan McGeouch but the paths taken to get there by the two players have been very different.

Stuart Bannigan has taken a circuitous route to the Scotland under-21 squad
Stuart Bannigan has taken a circuitous route to the Scotland under-21 squad

The pair were friends and team-mates in the Celtic youth set-up until the age of 15, only to be separated when Bannigan was deemed not good enough to continue. McGeouch progressed to the fringes of the Celtic first-team, after moving to Rangers for a few years and then back again, and has become a regular fixture in the Scotland under-21 squad. He has been joined there for tomorrow's friendly in Greece by Bannigan, the pair re-united after five years apart.

Bannigan is proof that being rejected by one of the Old Firm clubs need not be a fatal blow to a young player's career aspirations. He also embodies the argument that you do not need to be playing top-flight football to be worthy of international consideration.

The midfielder's disappointment at being released by Celtic was forgotten when Partick Thistle gave him the chance of a fresh start. He has progressed through their ranks, via a spell on loan at Ayr United, to become a mainstay in a side pushing for promotion this season. His form has impressed Billy Stark, the national under-21 coach, who has called upon both Bannigan and Stephen O'Donnell –another player thriving at Firhill after being released by Celtic – for the final warm-up match ahead of the start of the Euro 2015 qualifiers next month.

It has come as something of a surprise to Bannigan but it is an opportunity he hopes to make the most of. "This is my first involvement at any level with Scotland so I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I didn't expect it this year playing with Partick Thistle but it was a pleasant surprise. There are some good players in the first division so it's getting the recognition it deserves. Scotland are looking for players who know what it's like to play in different types of games and challenging for titles. It's been a great year so far for me. I'm just happy to be playing football and this is a bonus. I'll concentrate on trying to do well this week and then get my head back on the rest of the season. If added call-ups come it's a bonus."

The 20 year-old credits Jackie McNamara, who left Thistle last week to fill the managerial vacancy at Dundee United, for helping him reach this point. "Jackie got us playing a good brand of football and playing every week has helped me a lot," Bannigan said. "In his first year at the club, I wasn't playing a lot but I came on to a game at the end of the year. He gave me confidence I could play in different in positions, he's trusted me to play left or right-back and trusted me to do a job for him.

"He said to me he shuffled about positions as a player and he said it's just a game of football and assured me I could play any position. So this is down to him. He phoned me and told me there was a possibility I'd be called up but I waited until it was official and kept my head down."

Bannigan has no regrets about how his time at Celtic ended. "You take it hard when you're released but looking back it wasn't a big deal," he said. "It wasn't the end of the world as there were other clubs you could go and play for. It maybe helped me. I might not have had the experiences I've had if I had stayed. I've been promoted with Ayr and got regular football at Partick."

This will be Scotland's final warm-up match before they begin their qualification campaign with a home match against Luxembourg and Stark expects a tough challenge from the Greeks. "It will be a big test because they're a big team," he said. "You look at their senior team and there's good pedigree there and their under-19s got to the final of the European Championships, so we're expecting a tough game. That's why we took it.

"When we took it we thought we might have a championship game in March and that's the way it's turned out. I'm glad we've got a tough fixture to stand us in good stead for that one."

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