NOT so long ago, Scott McDonald thought that his footballing glory days were behind him, with a game of five-a-sides with his pals at a local park the closest he would come to recreating the thrill of his playing career. Now, he stands on the brink of a return to Hampden.

The veteran forward was coaxed back into the professional game by Gary Caldwell at Partick Thistle in January, having been without a club since leaving Dundee United last May, but there are no concerns about his physical condition. In fact, McDonald looks in just about the best shape of his career, and he admits he has actually had to tone down his regime since coming back into full-time football.

It leads him to believe that he can play a part in downing Premiership side Hearts on Monday night at Firhill and help the Jags to the national stadium for a major semi-final for the first time in 17 years.

“A few weeks ago, I was playing at Rouken Glen,” McDonald said. “It’s unreal how quickly it has come about.

“If you had told me a couple of weeks ago that I’d have a chance to play at Hampden, I’d have said no chance. It’s there for us to go and grab and look forward to.

“I was always going straight to the gym after I played in that game [at the park]. It’s been weird coming back into a proper training situation because when you’re doing your individual work every day is pre-season – you are pushing your body to the limits.

“That’s the way I train anyway. It’s a bit daft, but I always want to feel that pain. Now I have to hold back because we are preparing for the weekend. They’ve had to put the reins on me a bit, it’s different too in terms of the physicality.

“You can play with your mates as much as you like, but there’s not that physical contact, the way you are pressurised and closed down.

“Mentally it’s a lot different too. It’s taken a while to get used to and I’m still rusty at times but overall I’m pretty pleased with how I have been fitness wise.”

McDonald had other opportunities to get back into the game before deciding to pull the boots on again for Thistle, most notably with fellow Championship strugglers Falkirk.

But his relationship with former Celtic teammate Caldwell was a major factor in swaying him to take the plunge in Maryhill having just about reconciled himself with the notion of retirement and a new career in the media.

“Pretty much [I thought I was retiring], yeah,” he said.

“I said no [to Falkirk]. But things change and your mentality changes. At that point in time I just wasn’t into it. I wasn’t mentally there to go and do it.

“I could have said yes easily because it was there for me but that wouldn’t have been fair. It wouldn’t have been fair on Ray (McKinnon), who I have a lot of respect for, or Falkirk as a football club.

“It was also a little bit further away from my home than Partick Thistle. Things were going quite well in the media and I was thinking ‘do I really want this?’

“Everything suits in this relationship right now. For everyone. [Gary Caldwell] has played a big part in it. We know each other. That’s a big reason and I have a lot to thank him for. He thinks I can add value and I don’t want to let him down.

“It’s just till the end of the season. I’m open-minded, I’m only two weeks into it so I will reassess in a couple of months’ time, see how well I’ve done and whether I want to continue.”

If he does decide to hang up his boots come the end of the campaign, there would be no better way for McDonald to sign off than by lifting the one trophy he has failed to so far during his long years in Scotland.

“I’ve never done well in this tournament, it’s one that has always eluded me," he said.

“It would be nice, especially now coming back, if we could do something special.

“This is a great occasion, on tv too. Hearts are a very good side, very physical as we saw against Celtic in midweek, and it’s a huge game for both teams.

“It’s the biggest game of the season for them, I think Craig Levein will look at this as a real chance to get to a final and do something worthwhile.

“Look, we can enjoy this tie. That’s the key. The players can go out and express themselves, especially at home. It would be a lot more difficult if we were going to Tynecastle.

“There is a lot of pressure on us to get points in the league. I wouldn’t say this game is a free hit but it’s an opportunity to go and have a real go and make a name for ourselves, get a day out for the fans in the semi-final and you never know what happens if you do that."