After so many years of unknowns and so many false hopes and starts, you sense when speaking to Lewis Macleod the relief of closure and new direction.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the 29-year-old who returned to Ibrox a decade on from leaving in spring, as an academy coach and not a player back to make his mark in the top flight of Scottish football. Having left a 20-year-old with Ally McCoist’s outfit still languishing in the Championship both parties' worlds are unrecognisable from when they parted.

After years of what Macleod regards as injury ‘traumas’ he can finally plan for the future. His focus is no longer on solving injury puzzles and maybe, with time, that word won’t become so synonymous with the former player’s name. The future is where Macleod’s mind travels in our conversation rather than focusing on a forced early retirement late in 2022, just eight years on from a spell of form at Ibrox which earned a transfer south of the border and international call-up. Back then, Macleod’s career seemed certain to reach far greater heights than it did.

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“The projection that I was on… I’d been called up to the national team and a couple of months later I had a really bad hamstring injury. That’s sort of it, the 'what-ifs' you think about,” Macleod says speaking exclusively to the Rangers Review, having now returned to Glasgow as an academy coach at Rangers.

“The projection for me was to play for my country and, when I eventually did move south, to play in the Premier League but unfortunately that wasn’t meant to be.

“The goal now? It’s to help others make it. If I can pass on anything I’ve learned at a young age to the boys who are coming through just now then I’ll be delighted to see a couple of them play for the first team.”

The boy who lived his dream is now focusing on the ambitions of others. Macleod was a rare shed of light in dark days for Rangers fans from 2012 to 2014. When the club were demoted to the third division and the senior squad dissembled, the creative midfielder grabbed his opportunity to fill a gaping void of quality and entertainment. During years that were so very demoralising, Macleod always played with a spring and spark that was unique.

“My memory is hazy because so much was going on at that time. It is a lot to process,” he says reflecting on breaking into the Rangers team during a tumultuous period in the club’s history.

“You never had the time to sit and think ‘This is amazing what I’m doing’. I haven’t really had the time until now to sit back and think about what a good achievement it was to play for the first team at that age, under different circumstances. It wasn’t difficult at the time because I didn’t know anything else. You quickly realised the expectations. Looking back I think I handled myself well.

“It was great for me because I was playing so much football but for the fans, it was very difficult. I played out wide for Ally [McCoist] even though I’d come through the youth system playing in the centre of midfield. That was a challenge for me in itself but I had a good relationship with Lee Wallace and enjoyed playing with him. It was easy for me because he had the legs to get up and down and I just cut inside and passed it to him! Those times were the best memories of my career.

“I’ve come back and done a few games for RangersTV since retiring and when you feel the atmosphere, you see the boys walking onto the pitch, although it’s slightly cliche that’s my biggest memory. Being in the tunnel, hearing the music and the fans. That will always be what stands out.”

Things started to go wrong around the time of Macleod’s move to Brentford in the winter of 2014. Just after receiving a call-up for the Scotland squad, the midfielder sustained a hamstring tear that would trouble him for the next two years. Little did he know this issue would only be the start of a long journey to regain full fitness.

By the time a 20-year-old Macleod left Ibrox to move to London he’d amassed 76 games for Rangers. Across spells at Brentford, Wigan and Plymouth over the following eight years, tragically only 72 more would follow.

“It was really disappointing to only play that amount of games. Plus, I was in and out of the team whenever I was fit,” he continues, having left Brentford in 2019 for Wigan and joined Plymouth the following year.

“I tore my hamstring which took me two years to recover from and then I went back, played 10 games and tore my ACL. In the space of four years, I’d played about 10 games of football.

“I just wanted to play football and that’s why I eventually left Brentford because they were a magnificent club. I went to Wigan and probably had a disagreement with the manager [Paul Cook] - who I still have a lot of time for! But I never played as much as I would have liked.

“I signed on for a year at Plymouth. I had only spent a year at Wigan and it was the first time in six years I’d been fully fit. I was chomping at the bit to play and then two months into the season at Plymouth I tore my ligament, the injury I eventually retired with. I didn’t realise until the end of the season that I required surgery. That year, I’d been in and out of the team trying to get fit I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. Ultimately after I had the surgery I still wasn’t the same and that was me. I realised it was time to call it a day.”

The opportunity to return to Rangers in a coaching capacity arose over the festive period. Macleod was and is mindful of the need to learn a totally new skill and being on the other end of training sessions has offered him fresh perspective. Now working with the Under-14 age group at the Rangers training centre, a new journey is starting in the same location.

“Coaching is completely different to playing. It’s hard to explain it,” he adds.

“You sort of have to switch your mind to almost being a teacher, trying to explain the way you want something done.

“I have been reflecting on what type of player I was when planning sessions. I always wanted to play with the ball at my feet, short passes, playing with other players. Working in two-vs-twos and three-vs-threes. I want to be a ball-playing coach.

“It sounds very simple but it’s not until the shoe is on the other foot you realise how hard it is. It gives you a lot more respect for the coaches you’ve worked under. When you’re a player you just turn up and the session is on. It’s only when you become a coach yourself that you realise how much time goes into it.”

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When Macleod was preparing to leave Glasgow in 2014 nobody could’ve foreseen the fact that he’d already played over half of the games in his professional career.

Years of battling against circumstances have led him back to where it all started. And, if he can lend a new perspective to creating a couple more creatives in his mould over the coming years then Rangers will once again get their returns. There are still a few what-ifs left in Lewis Macleod’s footballing journey yet.