It’s the word that sends shivers down the spine of every footballer to have ever walked this planet: Pre-season.

A time when many will, in that very moment, regret those seven pints a day and steak dinners every night while on their holidays in Dubai. Other sunny climes are available. The dreaded bleep test would be enough to make anyone want to pack up and go home, especially after several weeks of rest and recuperation next to the pool or by the beach.

Long gone are the days of running up and down sand dunes at Irvine Beach until players were physically sick, in fairness. If you listen to anyone who played the game from the 1980s, 90s or 00s they’ll tell you it did them ‘no harm’, mind you. Believe of that what you will.

Despite pre-season not being quite as gruelling as it was in bygone days, the lengthy runs do still fill players with the sort of fear that your average Joe experiences the night before going back to work after a fortnight of annual leave.

Liam Donnelly bucks that trend this year, though. Admittedly, it would be a stretch to say the 28-year-old is excited about the prospect of all the runs Kilmarnock’s fitness coaches will have in store for him and his teammates come the end of June. However, after missing the last two pre-seasons, the Northern Ireland international is keen to get one under his belt.

The Killie midfielder – who has enjoyed his longest run without a niggling injury in quite some time since December – joined the club in 2022 after their promotion from the Championship.

READ MORE: It started with Rangers - and it could end there for Killie

He signed from Motherwell where he was eventually hampered by fitness issues. Some of those niggling problems have continued into his time at Rugby Park, albeit he seems to be over the worst of them.

Donnelly blames the lack of a pre-season as the main factor in his susceptibility in picking up these muscle knocks, so that’s why Derek McInnes’ go-to ball-winner feels it’s essentially to go through the rigours of it in 2024.

 “I’ve missed both of the last pre-seasons,” he said. “That’s affected being at the right level to start the season, my fitness hasn’t been where I needed it to be.

“That’s when you tend to pick up some niggly injuries. I haven’t had anything major since I’ve been here but it’s been a couple of weeks here and there, then back in and out for a couple of weeks.

“That obviously affects your chances of getting a good run of games. Thankfully, I’ve been able to get to the stage, since Christmas, to be regularly available and had a good run.

“I’ve enjoyed it, I’m feeling good as well so hopefully, it stays like that, I can get a good pre-season under my belt and the same issues don’t crop up. It’s difficult being injured. It’s not nice for anyone. You do just want to be fit and on the pitch and be available for selection.

“In terms of letting your mind wander, I never thought of anything other than football. It’s a bit too early for that. But you start to maybe question your own body, it can be frustrating.

“You always try and look at the positives, do everything you can in terms of getting in the gym, working with the physios to make sure you don’t keep going back to there once you’re back on the pitch.

“It’s nice to be under contract for another season. The last two summers were a bit up in the air. Even missing the two pre-seasons, I’m actually looking forward to having a pre-season under my belt. I won’t look forward to the running but looking forward to being at a good fitness level once it’s all over.”

The defensive midfielder has made 27 appearances so far in the 2023/24 campaign. He’s played a crucial role, alongside partner Liam Polworth, in providing defensive cover but also a platform for Killie’s attacking outlets to cause damage to opposition teams.

These sorts of unsung roles have helped Killie all but secure a fourth-place finish in the Premiership, which could be secured this weekend. Given his prominence in the starting XI, it’s hard to believe he didn’t start a game this campaign until November. Brad Lyons, Kyle Magennis and David Watson were the midfield trio keeping the likes of Donnelly on the sidelines. He never doubted he’d take his chance when it came his way, though.

READ MORE: Will Dennis to Kilmarnock return chances rated by manager

He added: “Obviously we’ve put ourselves in the position after the split to be playing all the best teams in the league. Now we want to fight for the European spot and that’s a lot better than where we were this time last year.

“It’s something to enjoy. Everyone would say that. The whole atmosphere around the club is a lot more enjoyable. Coming into training, to be looking forward to every game knowing that we’re fighting at the right end of the table.

“At the start of the season, Brad was doing really well, Kyle Magennis too. Both played consistently, although Davie was in quite a bit then too.

“It’s been quite settled recently with me and Poly playing together, which we’re more than comfortable with. We’ve always had a good relationship on and off the pitch. We know each other well and we’ve both been doing quite well.”

Donnelly missed out on the chance to play in Europe for Motherwell when they secured a third during the curtailed 2019/20 season due to the pandemic.

So, the chance to play in the Europa League this summer with Killie is an exciting prospect.

“With Motherwell, that was the Covid year and it was a bit strange,” he commented. “We were in a bit of a precarious situation at the time. Aberdeen were maybe only a point behind us when the season stopped. We were obviously glad at the time to get the third spot but looking to now we are all delighted to be in that position. But we can’t ease off just yet.

“I think it was based on points per game up until that point. We were due to play Aberdeen on the Friday that the season got cancelled. That would obviously been a big game in terms of who was going to finish third or fourth. It would be a lot nicer to finish the season knowing that you’ve done it the full way.”