PAUL McAreavey is recalling a harrowing tale of life growing up in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. Aged nine, he was sitting in his living room when he heard shots fired from outside. His father Danny, an avid reader, had just left to pick up his latest collection of books from the library. Panic struck the McAreavey household.

“We all ran outside because we thought it was him,” McAreavey says. “He was sitting in his car; it was our next door neigbour who had been shot by loyalist paramilitaries. His brother was a paramilitary and they couldn't get to him so they went after our neighbour. A couple of years later they shot him again.”

To the average listener McAreavey's story is remarkable, to anyone born into a family on the Republican Ballymurphy estate during the Troubles it was one of every day life. McAreavey, now 36, remembers the riots and the daily patrols by the British Army through his estate.

“I threw stones at the Brits, yeah, I was 12 or 13, everyone did it. I lived near the Henry Taggart Fort, the big RUC station on the Springfield Road. It's gone now, you wouldn't recognise the place these days but I still remember it. There were mass riots, buses burned, people pulled from cars and blockades set up.”

When McAreavey was 22, he signed for Linfield. It was the most obvious choice for a young up-and-coming midfielder looking for his next career move in Irish League football but not for a Catholic from the predominantly nationalist west Belfast. The midfielder had spent the previous season at Portadown after his return to the local game following five years in England at Swindon Town. He arrived in the summer of 2003 with another Catholic, Aiden O'Kane, who himself had just been released by an English club, York City.

A few years earlier Pat McShane had become the first Catholic from west Belfast to sign for Linfield. Legend has it that he would walk through the nationalist estate of Twinbrook wearing his Linfield tracksuit much to the chagrin of the locals.

“Pat just didn't give f***,” recalls Chris Morgan, a Linfield team-mate of McShane's from the early 2000s. “It wasn't like it was a secret that he played for Linfield. Everyone knew it.”

While McShane had blazed a trail which had earlier been set by Dessie Gorman, the first southern Irish Catholic to sign for Linfield in five decades, McAreavey says he did question his sanity when it came to his decision.

“I didn't know anything about Dessie when I first arrived at Linfield but I knew Pat was there. Aiden signed at the same time as me. He was from Ardoyne and I was from Ballymurphy. Aiden got a bit of stick from local people in Ardoyne, nothing threatening or anything like that, but it was a bit more serious than what I got. Before I signed I did think 'Aiden's from Ardoyne and I'm from Ballymurphy, are we mad?'

“I went to see my dad and I asked 'what do you think I should do?,' I really wanted to sign. David Jeffrey [the manager] really impressed me and everything about the club was very professional. My dad said 'do, it son'. I had been at Portadown, who had won the league the previous year, and some nights there were only 10 at training. I was shocked. But I went to Linfield and it was a different world. Everything was down to a tee. It was the most professional club I played at and I include Swindon in that.”

McAreavey never regretted his decision to sign on at Windsor Park and stayed at the club for six years.

“I got stick, too, but it was mostly banter. I still drank in the same local pub in Ballymurphy that I had always drank in. One day, I was sitting having a few beers after we had won the league and someone threw a wee, plastic money bag at me. It had thirty 10 pence pieces inside it. I just laughed and threw it at the barman and said 'here, get another round in'.”

When his time at Windsor Park came to an end in 2009, McAreavey left for Celtic, Donegal Celtic that is, via Dundalk and Ballymena United. He went on to manage the club, too, and says that there was never any trouble when Linfield visited Celtic Park. On the contrary.

“The DC management and supporters went out of their way to extend a welcome to Linfield. Times have changed here. You see kids around the area I came from wearing Northern Ireland tops. The matches were fine and Linfield supporters would mix in the social club with DC fans before and after matches. We lost 4-1 but that was Donegal Celtic, not Glasgow Celtic.”

As someone with a foot in both camps, McAreavey is disappointed that Celtic supporters will not get the chance to buy tickets for the Champions League qualifier at Windsor Park should Linfield beat the San Marino side La Fiorita over two legs.

“I'm a Celtic supporter. My first match was a 6-0 win over Montrose in the Scottish Cup in the 1990s. I used to get the boat over to games when I could but when I started playing football on a regular basis on a Saturday I couldn't go as often. I remember one year going over on the plane for an Old Firm game after I'd signed for Linfield. I was wearing a green-and-white Celtic jacket and when I got on to the plane it was full of Linfield supporters who were also going over for the match. I was getting a slagging: 'What are you doing wearing that?' that kind of thing and I just said 'Linfield on a Saturday, Celtic on a Sunday.' It was a good laugh. My mate's a big Rangers fan and when the draw was made he sent me a half-and-half scarf on Whatsapp with the message 'which one?'

“I'm disappointed for the Celtic fans in Ireland who have to travel over to Scotland every week to see their team. This was a chance for them to see Celtic in their own backyard. I understand the reasons for it. The club will have been in contact with Linfeld, PSNI, Police Scotland and the IFA and they will know there is the potential for trouble in city centre bars as there was when Poland played Northern Ireland a few years ago. But I don't think it would have been a problem around the ground. The fans could have been walked in.

“I'm sure I'll ask Linfield for tickets, I'm still treated like a king there. I can walk down the Shankill and everyone shouts out to me and I could walk down the Falls and no-one would have a clue who I was. I never have to put my hand in my pocket on the Shankill.

“A few years ago, I went to the Boyne with around 30 Linfield fans and a couple of former players and their wives. We got a history lesson on the Boyne and had a great day out. As the day was coming to an end most of the boys were sitting on or around a bench that the back had fallen off. I walked behind them at one point and accidentally stood on the nail that had been holding the back in place. It went right through my foot. I had to be driven back up the road for a tetanus jab at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I took a hammering for that. Someone shouted 'there's another Catholic taking a beating at the Boyne'.”

“When I went to Swindon I saw a different way of life and thought about people differently. Football helped to change me. My uncle was from the Shankill, my granny came from London. We were taught everyone was the same and it didn't matter where you came from, at the end of the day if you're a good person, you're a good person and if you're a balloon, you're a balloon.”