Dungannon Swifts midfielder James Knowles insists his spell at Stangmore Park is one of his most enjoyable of his career to date.
The 28-year-old made the switch to County Tyrone in the summer after a three-year stint at Ballymena United.
With the Swifts’ faith in youth players well documented, Knowles is fully aware that he is seen as a leader both on and off the pitch.
“When I originally spoke with Dean, I was impressed and I watched them last season when he initially took over and I was amazed by how well they kept and moved the ball,” he said.
“They probably just needed that know-how in terms of winning games and that’s why he brought in a few more experienced players like myself, Joe McCready and Keith Cowan.
“Dean is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with and I’m already seeing parts of my old form coming back.
“I feel like a leader as it’s a very young team, and to be honest, I thought at the start that would make things difficult for us to compete.
“However, when you see guys like Darragh McBrien, Terry Devlin, Ben Gallagher, Ethan McGee, Oisin Smyth and Adam Glenny to name a few up close and in training, then you quickly realise age is just a number as they are all very talented.
“Thankfully, we have managed to pick up a few results in the last few weeks and I think the 1-0 win at Larne might push us a bit further as it gives us belief that we can get points from the so-called bigger teams.
“I’m definitely enjoying my time at Dungannon and its arguably the best spell of my career, alongside my two stints at Cliftonville and my first year at Ballymena.”
Knowles’ journey in football would start at Lisburn Youth before coming to the attention of the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton.
However, a move would materialise at another then-Premier League club as Blackburn Rovers won the race to sign the coveted midfielder.
Despite the glitz and glamour of professional football, Knowles admits it is easy to fall into a trap of not having a back-up plan for the future.
“I started playing football at eight-years-old for Lisburn Youth and was there the whole way through until the age of 16,” he recalled.
“It’s bizarre to say this but my head was pickled as I had to make a choice between the likes of Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal – but an Everton scout Terry McPhillips made the move to Blackburn Rovers and I spent a week there in 2009 and I loved it.
“Blackburn were in the Premier League at that time under Sam Allardyce and I was training with the likes of Steven N’Zonzi, David Dunn, Michel Salgado and Chris Samba.
“During my final year there, I was in pre-season with the first team and didn’t have a great game in one of the fixtures and suddenly I was in and out of training with the first-team.
“Steve Kean had just been appointed and he let me go and to be honest at that time I thought it was the worst thing in the world.
“However, looking back I wouldn’t change a thing as you would need to be playing at Championship level in England to make things work financially.
“The money in terms of the present and the future won’t last forever in League One and League Two, so my mindset switched over time with massive help from my partner Camille who needs serious credit and today we run two successful businesses.
“When you go over to England at such a young age you have no idea about the concept of money and I returned back home with nothing as I tried to live up to the footballer lifestyle.”
Knowles would return home in 2012 and made the switch to Cliftonville with a club legend playing a part in the negotiations.
“After coming back to Northern Ireland, I was put in contact with Tommy Breslin through George McMullan,” he stated.
“I loved how Tommy wanted the game to be played and it was an easy decision to sign for Cliftonville and we won the Irish League and League Cup.
“I felt sharp, I was in good form and it was a shame we were beat by Glentoran in the Irish Cup to win the treble."
The Northern Ireland youth international would swap the Reds for the Blues as he joined rivals Linfield a year later - before spending half a season on loan at Ards.
“My mindset back then was to move to England again and that’s why I only signed a one-year deal at Cliftonville,” he acknowledged.
“It was a massive decision to leave Cliftonville as we just won the league but I felt I could get Linfield back to winning the title and move my game onto the next level.
“I started well for Linfield in Europe and the first few games of the season but then I was out of the team which was a new experience for me.
“I knocked on David Jeffrey’s door in January 2014 and asked to go on loan to get some game time and I’m grateful Ards were willing to do that.”
Knowles’ stay at Windsor Park would only last a year as a reunion with Cliftonville was agreed in July 2014, with more success following in the form of two League Cup triumphs.
“I probably shouldn’t have left Cliftonville in the first place and I was on the phone to Tommy asking to take me back and thankfully he did,” he explained.
“I was nervous going back to Solitude as I left after winning a league title to go to one of their rivals but I was welcomed back.
“I also worked under a great coach in Gerard Lyttle and I was able to add more silverware to my collection over the three years.”
In 2017, Knowles would swap North Belfast for East Belfast at Glentoran came calling before signing for Ballymena United twelve months later.
“I knew my time at Cliftonville was up and Gary Haveron offered me a deal at Glentoran,” he added.
“The club back then had the expectations of getting back to where they currently are now but the results didn’t go that way.
“We were training at different locations and it was hard to get settled there.
“I only signed a one-year deal so David Jeffeey and Bryan McLoughlin approached me about signing for Ballymena and I knew they were bringing in new faces and a change to their style excited me.
“Davy told me that there was unfinished business between us after my year at Linfield and I knew how professional he is and it was no brainer to sign there.
“In our first season we finished second and got to the League Cup final and unfortunately I pulled up with an injury to my right knee and had to be substituted at half-time.
“I had to get an operation and I missed nine months of football and the following season I was in and out of the team. To be honest, I was very frustrated as I felt I should’ve played more games and I knew I needed a new challenge.
“I’m enjoying that at Dungannon Swifts now.”