As a small child, Ross McCausland honed his skills at Allen Park and dared to dream.

More than a decade on, he returned to Antrim to help him realise those ambitions in the blue of Rangers and green of Northern Ireland. In what looks like it could be a defining summer in hindsight, McCausland used the same Allen Park facilities to gear up for a breakthrough season at Ibrox

Entering the final year of his contract with Rangers, McCausland knew that it was potentially now or never for him this season. His debut had come on the eve of the Europa League final as Giovanni van Bronckhorst handed several academy prospects their bows in the win over Hearts. It was not the springboard that it could have been. After replacing Amad Diallo with half an hour remaining, he marked the occasion with an assist as Cole McKinnon rounded off the victory.

In the months that followed, McCausland found his chances limited and he was no longer a kid with a burgeoning reputation and time on his side come this summer. It is perhaps telling, though, that many of those who also featured that day at Tynecastle are either no longer on the books of Rangers or have not made the inroads that McCausland has at Ibrox this season.

On Sunday afternoon, he took his most important step yet as he made his first start for Philippe Clement’s side. It came just a couple of days after Clement had confirmed that a contract offer was on the table for McCausland and it was evident what he thought was best for the 20-year-old.

“As long as there is no signature there is no signing for me but it's clear that I'm giving him good chances,” Clement said ahead of the trip to the Tony Macaroni Arena. “He knows that I believe in him for the future so it's about him and his family to make the right choice and I think the right choice is staying here.”

McCausland’s rise and rise this season could very well have never materialised. He owes his breakthrough to his own talent and his own mentality, but a decision taken several months ago has influenced his path after Rangers opted to withdraw from the Lowland League.

That decision was, in part, taken as a result of the club’s frustrations at how their Under-20s could be utilised and embarking on their own games programme has allowed them to retain players longer rather than sending them out on loan or seeing them confined to a Colts squad. There is every chance that McCausland could have found himself earning his stripes in the lower divisions of Scottish football and, therefore, not in the right place at the right time to make his name under Clement’s guidance.

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As he prepared for a pre-season campaign that could have fallen into the make-or-break category, the Northern Irishman returned home and returned to Chimney Corner FC. It was with the Antrim outfit, who are members of the Ballymena and Provincial Football League, that McCausland first fell in love with the game and showed an aptitude for it at just five years old.

There is something almost romantic, then, about McCausland training at Allen Park once again. Alongside his father, Alan, he put in the hours over the summer on home soil, racking up the miles to improve his fitness while going through drills to work on his passing, crossing and finishing. Those endeavours have paid off for McCausland. His chance for Rangers has come through injury for some of his teammates and adversity for former manager Michael Beale but he has made the most of the opportunity when he had to.

Every player has to start out somewhere. As it has transpired, McCausland needed to take steps back to where it all began to stride forward and make a name for himself. For Simon Brown, his coach in his early years at Chimney Corner, the talent has always been there.

“The first thing you noticed was that he was a lot more clued in than anybody else, Brown tells the Rangers Review. “At that younger stage, half of the kids are just there to be babysat, really, while the mum goes to Asda. You could see that Ross wanted to learn, that he took on what you were saying and he was invested in the drills while others were running about everywhere. It was that concentration and wanting to learn and his general level of interest was far higher than anybody else at that age. As a coach, there were times he was a nightmare because you could have put the rest of the kids together against him and he would still have won.”

As McCausland’s investment in the game steadily increased, he looked to explore other avenues in search of improvement. Within a couple of seasons, he was also playing for Ballymena and went on to represent them in the Lisburn League. A move to Linfield was the precursor for the life-changing switch to Ibrox in the summer of 2019.

Brown acknowledges that it was impossible to predict with certainty that McCausland would go on and reach that level. The path of any player cannot be mapped out in such a manner but it was clear that McCausland had a gift that could keep on giving.

“There were times I was having to tackle him just to let the others have a touch in the game,” Brown continues. “From that point of view, you could see early on that he wasn’t going to be around Chimney Corner for long. He was already going to Ballymena in the morning as well as us. He went there in the morning and then to us just to get extra training sessions and spend time. Even after training, he would stay to watch the first team game and do keepy-ups. He was always around football, you always saw him with the ball at his feet. You could just tell he was at a different level to the rest of them, even from the very start.”

The promise and potential that were spotted by Chimney Corner and Ballymena soon came to the attention of Linfield. The attributes that have endeared him to Rangers supporters in recent weeks were evident even then and his performance against Livingston was perhaps the most complete and most impressive of his career given the significance of it.

Glenn Ferguson, the head of youth at Windsor Park, recalls McCausland’s formative years with fondness and tells of how he ‘scored goals for fun’ while being utilised in a more central role rather than from a wider area. His fine side-footed finish on Sunday, which was ultimately and unfortunately ruled out after a VAR check, was evidence that McCausland can score goals as well as create them and Cyriel Dessers – who opened the scoring before James Tavernier’s penalty secured the points for Rangers – predicted that the first strike will come sooner rather than later for McCausland. That has long been the belief of his former mentor.

“When we first brought him into the club, there were a few players that we tried to identify at that age group and Ross was one,” Ferguson tells the Rangers Review. “We went and met up with him and his dad and he was very forthcoming about wanting to join Linfield, which was great. We had watched him a few times and the thing I liked about him was, even now when I have watched him in the last couple of games for Rangers, it is the way he glides with the ball. He glides across the top of the pitch, effortlessly, and he has got a lot of skill. Through game time, he will pick up more strength. He is not muscular in build, he is quite slight, and that will come from being in the first team more.”

Calls for McCausland to be given a starting spot had steadily grown in recent weeks and with every encouraging cameo from the bench. His latest came on Thursday evening and he did not look out of place when introduced against Sparta Prague, a cutting pass through the lines and a couple of efforts on goal proof of his confidence and his quality.

Those traits were evident once again in the final match before the international break. His turn of pace saw him burst clear midway through the first half, while neat footwork allowed him to work the space for a shot. Just minutes later, McCausland won the penalty that James Tavernier missed. An impressive afternoon came to an end with 13 minutes remaining

READ MORE: Analysing Rangers' 'perfect' game plan that secured victory against Sparta Prague

"He did what I expected him to do, he's very disappointed his goal was disallowed of course," Clement said afterwards as he assessed McCausland's performance. "I think he can do better, he has more potential. I'm also somebody who gives chances to young players who show the right mentality in training, who do the right things and work hard for the team, That is what he has done in training and in the moments he's come on, he's been bright and lively. He played with personality and worked hard for the team so then I give chances. That will continue if he continues in this way."

It is four years since McCausland embarked on that journey after moving across the water and becoming the latest kid to benefit from the links between Windsor Park and Ibrox. The route represents a natural pathway for many but it is no guarantee of success, no assurance that the dream will turn into the reality. 

The strides made at club level have been mirrored for his country. Under-21 boss Tommy Wright has included McCausland in his squad for the European Championship qualifier with England at Goodison Park next week. For Ferguson, his standards and standing come as no surprise.

“A great lad, a great kid, always wanting to learn in training and on the pitch,” Ferguson adds. “He never missed training, he travelled all the time to the games. From that perspective, we knew he was going to be a good player and get a move because of his attitude. Some players pick and choose when the want to come to training and that goes against them but Ross was always on the money, always wanted to train, always wanted to play and always wanted to learn. He played with a smile on his face. He will be quiet in certain respects [in the dressing room] in that he won’t be shouting and bawling but he will speak his mind when he has to."

McCausland would not have made it as far as he has without an attitude to match his ability. Those factors feed into two of the four pillars that Clement has spoken about since replacing Beale in the dugout and the former Genk, Club Brugge and Monaco manager has addressed his willingness to give young players a shot at glory. It will be earned rather than given out.

There could have been a train of thought which suggested that McCausland had missed his moment at Rangers, yet his patience and perseverance have paid off. Ferguson has never doubted McCausland’s make-up.

“We had Chris McKee, Lewis MacKinnon and Ross over there over the last number of years and they did an interview with the three of them,” Ferguson says. “Basically, it was ‘who is the best player?’ and Chris and Lewis were a bit apprehensive about committing themselves but Ross said ‘I am’. He was confident in his ability and said he was the best player. It wasn’t arrogance, it was just confidence. It has proven to be true because Chris is playing for us at Linfield and Lewis is back at Carrick. He is a great lad and I really do hope it works out for him.”

Rangers Review: Ross McCausland made his first start against Livingston

When McCausland signed an extension to his contract in September 2021, Craig Mulholland, then the head of academy at Auchenhowie, referenced his ability to be a ‘dominant player’ in one-v-one situations and spoke of the potential that he still had to realise at his boyhood club, with the help of his strong family unit. Ferguson had a close working relationship with Mulholland before his departure in the summer and the bond with Phil Cowen will be broken, in a way, when he moves to a role with Arsenal in the coming weeks.

“We make it easy for kids to go to Rangers,” Ferguson says. “When they do, to have the likes of Steven Davis or Kyle Lafferty there, it always helps. It is always good to have people from around your area to help your settling in process. I am sure Ross is at Steven all the time asking questions about how to get better, what to do to be more professional and I know Steven will help out in that respect.”

That factor was one that McCausland addressed himself earlier this season, several weeks before he found himself on the plane to Cyprus and on the pitch during the closing stages of the defeat to Aris. On a wretched night for Rangers, the decision from Davis to hand McCausland his European bow has proven to be a shrewd one. It was the latest act of assistance in McCausland’s fledgling career.

“Of course, being the Northern Ireland captain you look up to [Steven] as inspirational for all the Northern Irish boys that are here,” McCausland said as he detailed the support he had received from many players during his rise through the ranks. “He is a great guy as well. Whenever you go around he will talk away to you and give you as much feedback on you and help you. He has had one of the best careers.

“Of course, it spurs you on getting that feedback from someone that is so well thought of at the club. Especially with him being Northern Irish as well, it is something in common with him that you can get along with him.”

Those links with home have always been important to McCausland. He has come a long way but still has so far to go. Right now, he is living his dream.