It has been a whirlwind few months for Stevenage’s Mark McKee...
Thrust into the First Team spotlight after just a handful of previous appearances, the Norther Irishman has become a crucial component of Darren Sarll’s team.
Having already secured the signature of Northern Irish gems, Ben Kennedy and Dale Gorman amongst others, Darren Sarll spotted Mark whilst watching Northern Ireland U16s in Belfast.
Originally there to finalise the signing of former scholar, Nathan Kerr, it didn’t take long for Sarll’s eyes to become fixated on McKee.
“I was playing in the youth team for Cliftonville at the time and it came as a bit of a surprise to be honest.
“I was only young and leaving hadn’t crossed my mind. I was enjoying my football for a good club over here but moving to England to play for Stevenage was an opportunity too good to miss.”
It didn’t all go smoothly for Mark. Despite already knowing a few of the players in the Stevenage Academy, home sickness set in and his first few years weren’t easy.
“It was a pretty tough experience. It was the first time I had been away from home and although I knew a few of the boys and the club did their best to help me settle in, I found it quite difficult.”
Once Sarll was appointed Caretaker Manager of the First Team, McKee was moved up to Bragbury End where he served the majority of his apprenticeship around senior players.
It was a huge step in his development as he began to mature on and off the pitch.
“Once I began training with the First Team I think the penny began to drop.
“Being surrounded by all these guys who have been there and done it, along with the younger boys who have made a similar journey to me, it was big.
“Then I was given a pro contract at the start of last season and it became a real motivation for myself to keep working and keep believing.
After signing the deal, Mark had to wait patiently for his first appearance.
“It was a bit of a frustrating season as it took my until the end of the season to get my debut but I understand. The boys were doing really well and I was still learning.
“Being beaten 4-0 at Colchester isn’t exactly the ideal first game either but my two appearances at the end of last season gave me the confidence that I belong at this level.
“The manager was very pleased with how I did and I felt I had a good opportunity going into this year.”
After starting the opening two games of the 2017/2018 season, Mark soon found himself back on the bench, making fleeting appearances throughout the first few months of this season.
“I just really wanted to play. After having that feeling of playing, it becomes addictive and all you want is to be picked each week.”
It wasn’t long before he got what he wanted. Having now started 19 of the last 20 games in central midfield, McKee is now the heartbeat of the team.
“It’s funny how your home sickness goes when you are playing every Saturday!
“I didn’t expect to play this much to be honest. Obviously I was hoping, but I expected to play a much smaller role at the start of the year.
“The manager has shown real faith in me and I just have to keep repaying him and everyone else.”
A fleet footed player with a magic touch and pass, McKee’s stand-out trait is arguably his ability to evade danger and turn away from trouble and on-rushing markers.
“I have always been good on the ball but we work a lot on it in training. My job is to receive the ball off the other lads and move us up the pitch or make the right pass.
“It’s important I have their trust that when they give me the ball, I’ll look after it.”
McKee hasn’t just been starting recently. He’s been starring too. A regular Man of the Match nominee and two time winner, it hasn’t taken long for him to become a hit with the Stevenage fans and in the papers being talked about.
Eager to see their son in action, Mark’s parents have been over to Stevenage on a number of occasions to show their support.
“They have come over a few times this season and it’s nice to be able to play in-front of them.
“I think they are proud of me because if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“If it wasn’t for them, I would have probably gone back home at some point over the past few years.
“They were the ones telling me to stick it out and that it would all be worth it in the end.”
Despite the rapid rise, Mark knows that he is a long way from the finished article and is only in the infancy of his career.
“I need to score more goals and make more assists. That is where myself and the manager want me to improve.
“It was a great moment to score my first goal away at Accrington the other week but at the end of the day I was fuming.
“The fact that we lost the game totally ruined it as all I want to do is win.
“Everyone wants to win so when you don’t, it affects everyone. It should have been a great day for me but unfortunately we let the game get away from us and I’ll have to make sure the next time I score, it’s more memorable.”
This interview was originally published in the Saturday 10th March matchday programme v Crewe Alexandra.