At the age of just 16, Stuart McKinstry was faced with a massive decision.
Having already made the bench for the first team at his boyhood heroes Motherwell, the talented midfielder was in demand and attracting interest from elsewhere.
Of the sides linked with Stuart, a sleeping giant of English football really stood out amongst the crowd and presented him with a decision that the youngster still considers the most difficult of his life so far.
Leeds United tabled an offer for the Steelmen prospect and – following much deliberation – he would swap Fir Park for Elland Road.
In the 16 months that have followed, Stuart has settled well with the Lilywhites, nailing down a regular place with the club’s Under 23s and regularly training with Marcelo Bielsa’s first team.
In August, he signed a three-year extension to his deal with United, continuing a whirlwind journey that he feels he owes a great deal of gratitude to Motherwell for.
“I’m really enjoying it, having the chance to have the chance to train with the first team almost every day and the club being in the Premier League,” said McKinstry. “It’s a great opportunity and hopefully that can continue.
“When I heard about the interest, I wanted it so badly. But I’m quite a home person and a Motherwell fan, so to make the decision to leave was the hardest of my life.
“I couldn’t make it off the top of my head. I had to look at it in detail and work out the rights and the wrongs of the situation.
“In the end, I felt I had to move. I knew how big a club Leeds are and felt I could only go there and get better. It was the challenge I wanted and although leaving Motherwell wasn’t something that I wanted to do, it was too big an opportunity to turn down.
“Right now, that’s paying off. I’m playing every game for the 23s and after a lot of ups and downs during my first 12 months, I have found myself in a much better position than I was in this time last year.”
An early highlight for McKinstry came as Leeds took on Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter-final of the Youth Cup earlier this year.
Backed by almost 1500 travelling fans, it would end in disappointment for the youngsters as they were edged out 1-0.
For Stuart, it was a chance to thrive at one of the most iconic stadiums in world football and served as a reminder of the magnitude of the club for whom he had left home to join.
“I’d probably put that up there as one of the best nights of my life,” he recalled.
“The result didn’t go our way but the full build-up with the boys was amazing and there was always an extra buzz with the Youth Cup games.
“The fans made it so special for us all. I’ve thought back to that night so many times and I say to all the boys that if I had the chance to go back, then I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
“To take that sort of support to a Youth Cup tie shows how big a club Leeds are and how much the fans care for the club. It’ll stay with me forever.”
While their Youth Cup campaign ended in disappointment, Leeds’ first team were marching towards promotion to the Premier League after a 16-year absence from the top tier of the English game.
Following a three month wait for the resumption of fixtures due to the continued spread of coronavirus, Bielsa’s team would clinch the Championship title on the penultimate day of the season.
Their crowning moment sparked wild celebrations among the players, staff and their delirious supporters, the latter who had to make do with watching their side get the job done from the comfort of home, after enduring many years of near misses and heartache.
During his time in Yorkshire, Stuart has regularly trained with the Leeds first team and felt great pride in playing even a small role in their success.
“I spent that season around the first team players as they tried to get promoted and there was a real buzz about the place as we won games,” he added.
“I know a lot of the young boys didn’t play, but things like helping out in training because a player had picked up an injury or taking part in extra sessions helps make you feel part of the setup and drives you to try and achieve similar feats to what the players in the first team have.”
Another source of inspiration for McKinstry has come in the shape of legendary Argentine manager Bielsa.
“Sometimes you have to pinch yourself that you are working with someone as famous in the game as the manager is.
“He’s achieved so much and it’s something I never thought I’d be able to do especially at this young age.
“Hearing stories from famous players and managers about Marcelo and now being able to say that I have experienced what they have is something I can never take for granted. It’s an honour to train under such a well-known manager.”
While McKinstry is beginning to thrive in his new surroundings, his emotional attachment to Motherwell remains.
With his parents both Motherwell diehards, Stuart wasn’t out of nappies by the time he attended his first game at Fir Park and just like the rest of the family he was hooked almost instantly.
He was mascot the UEFA Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos in 2012 and was part of the club’s youth academy from the age of 10.
During his final season at Fir Park, the athletic midfielder found was often part of Stephen Robinson’s squad and on a few occasions was named on the substitute bench, but just missed out on the chance to make his debut for the club.
Although he fell just short of fulfilling his dream in claret and amber, Stuart holds fond memories of his time with the Steelmen.
“I can’t describe how much I loved my time at Motherwell,” he smiled. “It was my dream growing up to be a Motherwell player.
“Growing up, I went to games from the age of one or two. I always wanted to play for the team and to have got so close to that happening and then suddenly not to be at the club was gutting for me, though I felt moving on was the right thing for me to do at that time.
“When I look back over the years at all the coaches and players, I just can’t thank everyone enough. Without certain people, I wouldn’t be where I am just now.
“The gaffer was so eager to involve me in things that he probably didn’t even need to. He did it off his own back and I’m really grateful.
“It was disappointing not to get to make my debut, but it’s something I’ll look back on with great memories. I never thought I’d get so far at Motherwell and to be able to say I was training with the first team at 15, on the bench at 16, as well as working alongside players I’d paid to watch – you can’t put a price on that.
“My experience at Motherwell was nothing but brilliant and there’s part of me wishes I could go back and live it all over again.
“I’m so thankful for everything the club did for me and hopefully I can pay them back one day.”
McKinstry, of course, is one of many young talents to have emerged from the ‘Well youth academy in recent years before heading for pastures new.
Aside from the higher profiles moves of the likes of James Scott and David Turnbull, there have also been moves for Reece McAlear (Norwich City) and Robbie Hemfrey (Stoke City) – something Stuart believes is a great endorsement for the club’s youth setup.
“It’s obviously not the ideal situation for Motherwell losing these players, but the club can be very proud of the way that the players have turned out through the way we’ve been coached,” McKinstry added.
“I’d been part of the academy since I was 10 and it’s played a massive part of getting me to where I am today.
“A lot of the coaches such as Stevie Hammell, Davie Clarkson and Stephen McManus really helped me towards getting into the first team environment. All the coaches and facilities were brilliant.”
Stuart’s dad John has made the journey down south to help him adjust away from home, though having his old man by his side is far from his only reminder of family life.
He continues to keep close tabs on the fortunes of his boyhood team and insists that will never change.
When pondering what lies ahead, Stuart is keen to stress he’s not setting himself any targets, though can’t hide his desire to continue to do his family proud.
“I’ve watched a good few Motherwell games this season and made a few games last season when I wasn’t playing,” he insisted. “Every opportunity I get, I’ll be back supporting the team.
“You can take me away from Motherwell, but the club are always going to be in my heart and I’ll always keep an eye out on everything that goes on. That’ll never change no matter where I am.
“Hopefully this season the team can do as well as they did in the previous one or even better. Knowing a lot of the lads still at the club, I’ll be right behind them and really hope they can do well.
“Personally, I’d like to remain where I am just now and impress in the 23’s by being a stand out player most weeks, with the view to moving into men’s football next season and taking that next step.
“I feel like I’m in a good place and don’t give myself any excuses to have bad games. I want to impress myself, my coaches and my family.
“I always go out to make my family proud. I’ll work as hard as I can and see where it takes me.
“Deep down, I know where I want to be and hopefully that will work out for me.”