DANNY Harvie wanted the ground to swallow him up. A little more than 30 minutes into an away match at Wigan Athletic, the electronic board went up with his number on it. In truth, any one of his MK Dons team-mates could have been taken off such was the paucity of their play (they would go on to lose the match 3-0) as they grappled with the new, intricate tactical system that manager Russell Martin was attempting to implement. But, it wasn't anyone else, it was the Scotland Under-21 defender.

Harvie trudged around the perimeter of the pitch, feeling the sting of every shout from the crowd. It took him a long time to return to the visiting dugout. Just 10 months earlier he had been Ayr United's player of the year, exhibiting the kind of form that had persuaded Dons to sign the left back.

If that sorry vignette told part of Harvie's story in the 2020/21 season, there has been an entirely different narrative this time around. Martin is no longer the MK Dons manager after he was poached by Swansea City at the start of the season and succeeded by Liam Manning a week into the new campaign and Harvie is no longer the left-back turned wing-back struggling to adapt to an alien system. Harvie – an Aberdeen youth academy product who starred for Ayr during their return to Scotland's second tier – has been a virtual ever present as the Buckinghamshire side have mounted a sustained assault on the automatic promotion places in League One. He is an energetic presence as he bombs up the left flank in Manning's dynamic formation even if some would like to see a little more risk taking from the 23-year-old when he finds himself in advanced positions.

It has been a steep learning curve for Harvie but two things have altered greatly since those difficult, fledgling days of last spring: he has got up to speed with League One and his manager has given him the freedom to express himself.

“I think [for Harvie] it is just about the understanding of what League One football is all about,” says Toby Lock, who watches Dons every week as sports editor of the MK Citizen. “It's not quite as agricultural as some of the stereotypes are about lower league football. I think understanding what the demands are of playing football in League One took him a little bit by surprise and the style of play wasn't ideal for him either. Liam Manning taking over probably played into his hands as well because Dons all of a sudden started to play with more intent, more so than just sticking rigidly to their [previous] style of play, there is slightly more freedom on the ball to express yourself, not constantly having to think 'right, what's the next pattern I've got to play', there's a little more spontaneity been added back into MK Dons. Everything about the new style of play has played into his strengths and has made him undroppable, really.”

Harvie's example is in contrast to the fortunes of two other recent products of Scottish football who found themselves at MK Dons when Robbie Neilson was manager.

“We saw it with Robbie Muirhead and Aidan Nesbitt when they came down from north of the border. They never really settled in Milton Keynes and I don't know if they ever really got fully to grips with what League One football was about. I know they were playing some pretty horrible football under Robbie Neilson at the time but they never really got going. When it comes to Danny, he looked at it and saw it as an opportunity and said 'do you know what, I'm not going to let this beat me'. It's made a man out of him and I think that weird season that we had last year, keeping him isolated, not being able to see his family, stuff like that, made him grow up an awful lot.”

Now, rather than sheepishly scuttling off the pitch at the end of matches, Harvie is the first to lead supporters in the after-match celebrations. There have been plenty of those this season. Dons finished 13th during the last campaign but this time around are in that purgatorial position of being in third - one place outside of automatic promotion to the Championship. Today, they take on Morecambe hoping for a slip by Rotherham who sit in second. Defeat would consign Dons to the play-offs which, nevertheless, would represent significant progress on last year's mid-table finish.

The gutsy Scot has more than played his part and in more ways than one. Fans on one MK Dons forum run a weekly poll in which they ask for score, goalscorer and first booking predictions. After 13 yellow cards and one red this season, it is no surprise that Harvie's name regularly appears in the latter category. Lock sees that as a bonus and a reason why he has endeared himself to his manager and the supporters.

“He loves a challenge, he loves getting stuck in. He doesn't shy away from giving the referee a piece of his mind, other players a piece of his mind or even his own team-mates a piece of his mind, sometimes. He is a great character in that sense and I think every team needs that feisty character, that guy who won't shy away from a scrap. I think that's what MK Dons lacked for many seasons. They just didn't have that somebody who had that little element of nasty every now and then.”

John Samuel, who moved to Milton Keynes from Scotland in 1972 and is vice-chairman of the MK Dons Supporters Association has a particular soft spot for his compatriot even if not all of those sitting around him are completely won over yet.

“He can be frustrating, a lot of fans are 50/50 on his style. He's got a lot of speed but he just won't go that extra yard and take a guy on, he'll always stop, cut back and knock a ball back to Dean Lewington or find a midfielder that is coming from deep. It is frustrating at times but I give him the benefit of the doubt, the guy has only missed about five or six games. He is a fiery guy, that's the Celtic blood.

“I know that it is a bit of a stretch but he is like a [Kieran] Tierney sort of player in that he likes to get as high up the line as possible but Tierney would cross 90% of the time. Danny tends to play it back to be safe. I like him, I wouldn't say a bad word about him and the manager obviously likes him because he's an ever-present in the team.”