'I'm nearly there now' - Confident Sean Maguire on his injury and how young guns can grasp Ireland chance
In the minutes after Preston's draw with Wolves last Saturday evening, Seán Maguire's path to one of the small corporate boxes overlooking Deepdale is blocked by three young Irish fans.
He stops to chat with the teenagers, posing for photos and then lingering for a discussion about where they had travelled from.
Cork. Another reminder of the fanclub that Maguire has inherited from his exploits down south in 2016 and 2017, a bond so strong that when the Kilkenny lad comes back to Ireland, his definition of 'home' has been extended to Leeside.
He made friends for life and met his girlfriend Claudia Rose in addition to relaunching his career and scoring the goals that earned him a Championship move and a first Ireland cap.
They were special years alright, yet the 23-year-old says with conviction that he feels 2018 could be the best yet. The mission right now is simply to get it under way.
The Cork visitors were unlucky with their timing - although they did get to see one of their own, Alan Browne, score for Preston and star in a 1-1 draw - as Maguire is nearing a comeback from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him since the first week of November.
He will not be putting a timescale on the comeback date, but he is back in training and waiting for the green light to continue the upward trajectory that was showing no signs of slowing down when what felt like a minor injury developed into something a bit more troubling.
It transpired that his hamstring muscle had detached from his tendon, a rare setback that had also been suffered by dressing room colleague Greg Cunningham earlier in the season.
"A pretty serious injury," he admits.
There was no upside to the setback, much as he became aware of commentary that a break might be of benefit considering he had been in training since the previous January at Cork.
"I added it all up," he says. "I'd played 45 games but I was playing the best football of my career and enjoying it as much as I've ever been.
"When I got injured, we were in the play-off places here. I'd come on against Moldova for Ireland for ten minutes and I could have been involved in the World Cup play-offs so it came at a really bad time.
"The last four months have been tough. There were times when I came into the training ground in my brace and just didn't want to be there. It feels like forever since I've played football but I'm nearly there now."
Even in a short space of time, quite a lot has happened. Two of his Irish friends at Preston, Andy Boyle and Kevin O'Connor, out on loan in League One.
O'Connor, his best pal from Cork, even managed to squeeze a €1m Lotto win into that window.
"He's still the same Kev, he doesn't buy the coffee or sandwiches," Maguire jokes.
From his own perspective, the most significant personnel change has been the sale of attacker Jordan Hugill to West Ham for £10m. He was Alex Neil's first-choice central striker, with Maguire largely used out wide or feeding off him.
"We did work well together," Maguire says "A small guy-big guy combination.
"I suppose the number nine shirt is up for grabs now. There's a few players that can play that spot here.
"I do feel if you're going to play me up top, you'll get the best out of me but I'd been really enjoying it on the wing playing off Jordan. I felt I could be effective out there at this level, you do get on the half turn and run at the full-backs.
"I know there's definitely something special going to happen at this club in the next few months," he continues.
"We have the hunger and desire to get into the top six, and players that are stepping up to the challenge. You look at Alan Browne, who has been magnificent."
Maguire is taking inspiration from that, Browne and Cunningham attracting Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane to recent games. They have a pressing need to check on Maguire's progress when he does return.
If a door has been pushed ajar at club level with Hugill's departure, it's wide open at international level. Daryl Murphy and Wes Hoolahan have retired, while Jon Walters' intentions remain unclear.
Opportunity knocks, and Maguire cannot disguise his enthusiasm. "Ireland is something that has been hanging in the back of the mind," he concedes. "There is a chance now for younger players to make their mark. I know Turkey is coming up in March.
"It's nice to be mentioned. That Moldova moment was special, it's something that spurred me on every day when I've been injured.
"2017 was special, but it ended on a downer. I feel 2018 is going to be even bigger when I do get fit because I still have that confidence from when I was playing at Cork and doing well here at Preston. I don't think that confidence will ever leave me."