Cole McKinnon only needed one chance to make a good first impression but he has had to wait some time to prove that he is no one-hit wonder. His patience has paid off and the belief in his ability – both from himself and those closest to him – has not been misplaced. The backing of Philippe Clement must now be repaid.

McKinnon marked his debut for Rangers with the final goal of the game in a Premiership victory over Hearts in May 2022. His next appearance came in the Europa League draw with Benfica earlier this month. The time in between – including the departure of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the entire Michael Beale era and the arrival of Clement – has challenged McKinnon on and off the park. The midfielder is no stranger to dealing with adversity. If he makes it at Ibrox, if he is part of the Clement story, it will be a rags-to-riches tale.

McKinnon has been shaped by his environment but he is not a product of it in some regards. So many of those that he grew up alongside in Cambuslang have been held back by their surroundings, but McKinnon has a talent that has allowed him to make something of himself. He has an opportunity to be different, to be better, and he is determined to make the most of it.

McKinnon has relied on the guidance of football mentors since his formative years. Sandy Tacey, his coach at Drumsagard Boys Club, is perhaps the most significant, filling the role as something of a father figure to guide a kid with a goal along the right path and to his dream destination. It was as part of Tacey’s side that McKinnon won the Scottish Cup and the advice to bide his time and wait for the right moment to move was taken on board.

A free-scoring, attack-minded midfielder, who was also capable of playing as a striker, McKinnon was wanted by a host of clubs in his early teens. Even then, he was a player who was spoken about as having a real chance of making it. As is the case with most prodigious talents, there was interest from both sides of the Old Firm and Rangers were eager to bring him into their Academy setup as soon as possible to take part in their games programme. A boyhood supporter of the club, McKinnon always had his heart set on Ibrox but he followed the advice of Tacey and bided his time, only committing himself once he was ready on and off the park. Several years on, he is living his dream.

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That outing against Benfica was followed by another in the Scottish Cup victory away to Hibernian. The visit of the same opposition this weekend gives the 21-year-old another shot at glory as he looks to retain his place within Clement’s squad and the closing weeks of the campaign could bring memories and medals for McKinnon. It was Van Bronckhorst who gave him his big break, but it is Clement who has shown more faith in a player who has always been highly-rated within the youth system at Auchenhowie.

“He has been great with everyone,” McKinnon said of Clement after coming off the bench at Easter Road. "As soon as he came in the building there has been a change in mentality of the players and everyone is buying in to what he is trying to do. I know myself, especially, I feel a lot better working under him and he is making me a better player in lots of different ways. So I have really enjoyed working with him and I am thankful that I am there training and thankful that he has obviously given me those opportunities. It is down to bad reasons, a couple of injuries but you need to take your opportunities when they come.”

That was the case that afternoon at Tynecastle. It was the eve of the Europa League final and Van Bronckhorst pitched in a handful of kids for the last fixture of a Premiership campaign that had unravelled against the side Rangers would later beat to win the Scottish Cup. McKinnon later commissioned a tattoo on his leg to mark his maiden goal. An image of a stopwatch - with the hands pointing to the time the ball hit the net - sits above the date of May 14, 2022. 

The fortunes of those players since serve to highlight just how difficult it is to make it at Ibrox and McKinnon has had to wait a long time for another opening. Leon King started that day but has endured more difficult moments than defining ones since, while Alex Lowry, the scorer of the second goal in a 3-1 victory, faces an uncertain future on the back of an unfulfilling stint with the Jambos. Adam Devine is now on loan at Motherwell and Charlie McCann, Kane Ritchie-Hosler, Tony Weston and Murray Miller have left Ibrox on a permanent basis. Robby McCrorie and Robbie Fraser, the B Team captain, may well follow come the summer.

One of those kids has gone on to establish himself. Ross McCausland was in the right place at the right time in the aftermath of Beale’s sacking and he has become an important part of Clement’s squad and side. McKinnon and McCausland both put pen-to-paper on professional terms with Rangers on the same day and now find themselves – having taken divergent paths at times – with the same ambitions once again. McKinnon penned an extension to his contract in June 2022 on the back of a term that saw him named B Team Player of the Year. He will soon enter the final 12 months of that deal.

The stars have aligned for both he and McCausland, who earlier this season agreed a contract until the summer of 2027. If it was not for the appointment of Steven Davis as interim manager, there is a chance that McCausland would not have been involved at first-team level. The injury jinx that has cursed Rangers this term saw the Northern Irishman rise to prominence on the flanks and McKinnon has now benefited from the same situation in a different area of the pitch. Had the cards not fallen in this way, he would have had to carefully consider his future at Ibrox.

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That would have hurt McKinnon. It is said that he lives and breathes Rangers and it is not a cliché to state that he would play anywhere for the club that he grew up supporting. That affinity with the support and affection for the club are invaluable but McKinnon, like any player, needs more than that to make it at Ibrox.

The guidance of first-team players will be important for McKinnon and he has been urged to switch his mindset so that he now sees himself as a member of Clement’s squad rather than a B Team player on the fringes of it. McKinnon reported to Auchenhowie the morning after the Hibernian match for treatment on his ankle after receiving a kick in the capital and he stayed to watch David McCallum’s side against Brentford B, supporting those he has shared a dressing room with from the sidelines as they lost 2-0 in a friendly fixture.

In McCausland and McCrorie, McKinnon has players that he can learn from in all regards and the keeper, in particular, is all too familiar with the trials and tribulations of life at Rangers after emerging through the ranks. The coming weeks will determine if Clement believes McKinnon has the talent to be part of his plans once he has a full complement of players available to him once again. McKinnon’s case has also been helped by the requirement for a quota of homegrown selections in the UEFA squad list but Clement is not the sort of manager to hand out jerseys just for the sake of it.

“I am very positive about Cole otherwise you do not give him minutes against Benfica, otherwise you do not come in today also,” Clement said after the Scottish Cup quarter-final victory. “He is still a young lad but he has shown really good mentality and work rate in training and he has been growing on the ball month by month and that is positive. It is important to try and win all the games or try to, that’s my ambition.

"But it is also important for me to develop young players and give them chances and let them grow. It is important for Scottish football also to give chances to young Scottish players and let them grow. We need to look into that for our European squad because we missed several players in this squad because we did not have enough Scottish players on the list or we need to buy them – but we maybe need our money for other things. Or we need to build them ourselves over the next couple of years and that is one of my objectives, to get players out of the academy who can grow to become Rangers first XI players.”

McKinnon was an assured presence in front of the cameras as he conducted his first press conference just minutes after his manager had left the room following a 2-0 win, earned thanks to goals from John Lundstram and Fabio Silva. The media training that Rangers undertake with their Academy kids was undoubtedly helpful in that regard and the midfielder has always had an academic aptitude to back up his physical talent. Craig Mulholland, then the head of academy, ensured that McKinnon – a former Cathkin High pupil - stuck in at school, and he sat Higher exams as he earned qualifications at the same time as striving for his sporting aspirations. A humble, down-to-earth lad who has not become cocky at the first sign of potential fame and fortune, he asks questions of himself and those around him and is honest about where he is in the game.

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That could so easily have been away from Rangers. A loan stint at East Fife – agreed three years ago this month – was McKinnon’s first taste of life outside of his boyhood club but it was the switch to Partick Thistle last term that was more indicative of his potential. The positive and platitudes were plentiful in the first half of the campaign, but McKinnon’s influence tailed off as the months elapsed and Thistle’s promotion hopes faded.

A long-standing bacterial issue left him continually fighting viral infections and his fitness and form naturally suffered. McKinnon ended the season with three goals and 31 appearances and Thistle were eager to strike another loan deal for this term. Given the turnaround in his fortunes, McKinnon can now look back at the summer as something of a sliding-doors moment.

“That is football,” McKinnon said when asked at Easter Road about his chance to earn match minutes coming off the back of misfortune to others as Clement dealt with a decimated squad. “Injuries happen and it is not nice when so many players... We are very unlucky with injuries this season but I need to step up now. It doesn't matter where on the park it is, if In need to fill in in goals I will. That's the type of player I am, I will play wherever I am needed.

"So hopefully I can keep on taking my chances if they come and just be humble about it. I am not getting too far ahead of myself. It is only the two appearances so I need to keep working hard in training every day and hopefully it will come."

The hard work has only just started for McKinnon. He knows that better than anyone. In more ways than one, McKinnon has emerged out of adversity. Time will tell when he is given his next chance.