Footballers' Lives with Jordan Stewart: This is the truth about my spell at Swindon but I haven't given up on my professional dream
In the latest of our popular series, Linfield's Jordan Stewart discusses breaking through at Glentoran, his spell at Swindon and return home to sign for the Blues.
Q. What are your early football memories?
A. I played for a local team called Windsor Youth based in the Village in Sandy Row. I went to Newbridge after that for a year and really enjoyed it. I moved onto the Linfield Academy which was just starting. I was a young kid but, although the team was very successful, I didn't always enjoy it there and left for Newbridge, then Crusaders. But when I was about 12 I suffered a bad knee injury and you could see the bone, it was terrible. It was gruesome and I was out for about 18 months. I liked it at Crusaders, but players left and I moved on to Glentoran when I was about 15. Things progressed quickly there as I moved through the ranks. I was 18 when I made my first-team debut. I got a call when I was in the bath asking me if I'd like to play in Elliott Morris' testimonial game. I got 20 minutes and somehow got man of the match. Six weeks later, I made my debut against Glenavon away in the league.
Q. Were you surprised at how quickly you made a breakthrough?
A. It did happen quickly as I didn't see myself getting into the first team. The Glens had won the Irish Cup with a lot of good players but some left and the door opened for me.
Q. When did you become aware that a professional career was possible?
A. Once you are playing you hear the speculation, it's hard to deal with sometimes. My performances were inconsistent as I was going on trials and it affected my mindset. Deals weren't done when Peterborough were interested and I remember playing Linfield on Sky and four or five scouts were watching me. I chased Sean Ward the length of the pitch and gave away a penalty. We lost 1-0 and I was a bit distraught. The speculation is difficult because you are so close to getting what you want, then nothing happens and you think, 'What do I need to do?' You think it will never happen. I went on more trials at Middlesbrough and Stoke and I didn't enjoy it. I was left sitting at the training ground for four hours before getting a lift back to my digs and I just didn't feel wanted. I told Glentoran manager Eddie Patterson I wanted a new contract and if anyone came in for me I didn't want to go. We went on to win the Irish Cup, my performances were good and when it became clear Swindon were keen to sign me I was ready to go.
Q. Why do you think it didn't work out at Swindon?
A. I'm glad to do an interview like this because it will give an insight into what really happened. It's easy for people to sit at home, read the newspaper and hammer me on Twitter, but they don't understand what happened. Clubs in higher leagues wanted me but I felt I would get an opportunity to get into the first team at Swindon. I wasn't far off that but I just had nowhere to live for the first two or three months, moving to different hotels and carrying two suitcases after training. The club put me in an ex-player's flat and it was disgusting. It hadn't been cleaned and I decided to go to the airport and go home. The club could have done a lot more to help me. I wasn't a kid, I was 20-years old, but I had never been away on my own, I didn't know anyone and when you aren't settled you lose interest. The club publicly said they tried to help me but they did very little for me. I quit my job and didn't get a penny from them in a signing-on fee. For the first few weeks I needed to borrow money from my mum.
Q. You are critical of the club, but what about yourself, could your attitude have been better?
A. There were people at the club who helped me, there are good people there, but my living conditions were not sorted. They put me in accommodation with the cameraman, and after I made my debut against Millwall I came home and he had 10 people in the apartment having a party. I felt it was a shambles and they weren't worried about me. I went home and was close to packing it in. Then I thought about proving people wrong, changed my attitude and vowed to win every fitness test at the club and I did. That changed people's opinions of me and I got more responsibility. I came on against QPR in the EFL Cup and scored and thought I would kick on. The relief and satisfaction was immense because I had worked incredibly hard. My family were there to see it which was nice. That's my best moment in football until now, but not long after that I suffered a knee injury and it was over - that was my lowest moment. My knee went after taking a shot in training. I was meant to go away with the Northern Ireland U21 squad but I could hardly walk. When I found out how serious it was I cried, and my two flatmates cried because they knew the effort I had put in. It was heartbreaking.
Q. I've heard people say you didn't have the mental toughness to make it. Does that criticism hurt you?
A. I'll never get hurt by someone's opinion of me. If I play for Linfield against Glentoran I know people will squeal at me. I can understand people have their opinions but it's easy to make judgments when you don't know the full circumstances. If you can't see the whole picture those comments can be harsh. I can honestly say that the second year I was over I gave it everything. The injury killed me and it wasn't to be. People can say I'm not the same player now I'm back in the Irish League but if the opportunity to play across the water came again, I know I would be in a better position to make the most of it.
Q. So you haven't closed that door to a possible professional career?
A. No chance. I know my experience was not great but I would even go back to Swindon and try again. I had a dream to be a professional footballer and it hasn't left me. I made friends for life at Swindon.
Q. It's hard to believe you would consider returning to Swindon after feeling they could have looked after you better.
A. I had some good experiences there, and if you want something so badly, you'll take it. The stadium and fans were fantastic. When I was there something wasn't right at the club, there were management changes and I just didn't settle. I didn't miss Belfast, I just felt no-one helped me to settle. I didn't know how to cook or wash clothes, so in a way the experience turned me into a man.
Q. In light of your experience in England, what advice would you give to a young player hoping to make it in full-time football?
A. You've got to prepare yourself properly but I didn't know better. In terms of eating habits and extra training, it's a completely different lifestyle, and you've got to be ready for the boredom too. If you're finished at 1pm and on your own, what do you do? I think our boys should be better prepared for it. We are seeing players come home and I don't believe it's just down to ability. Mentally they are not prepared. I'd like to think I have that mental toughness and would do it right next time.
Q. Many players have highlighted how difficult it is to adapt to being back home after spells in England or Scotland. What is your experience?
A. I have felt disillusioned and still do. I wake up every day and wonder what I am doing. Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing with my life. I'm only 22 but will any club take a chance on me again? Should I dedicate the next three years of my life to football or a career? If things don't work out as a footballer, are they wasted years and I don't have a career? I've had injuries, and I know it can all be over in the blink of an eye, then retirement comes if you make it into your 30s. Life is not always fair and sometimes you don't get the break you deserve. I've had a real drive to be a professional footballer and you never know what can happen. Everyone, like Paul Smyth, deserves a chance. I want it more than anyone, even more so after my experience. Some of my friends have chosen a different path as they didn't believe in themselves but I'm grateful to play in the Irish League. People say the standard is terrible but they're wrong, it's a difficult league.
Q. Have your family been very supportive?
A. My mum Pamela and dad Geoffrey have done everything they can to help me, they have gone to England and Scotland to support me and I'm very fortunate to have that support. They were very disappointed for me when things didn't work out but I can't dwell on it now, it's gone. They weren't pushy parents. I don't like those parents who verbally abuse their own kids or expect them to be superstars. Unfortunately, I had an attitude problem and was stubborn. I had anger issues. I hated losing - I would have taken my boots off and thrown them away. There was one cup final I won, but I was so angry with my performance I gave the medal to my dad and said, 'Throw that in the bin, I don't deserve it'. I think that made me the player I am today. I hate losing. Steven Gerrard was my favourite player and I went to a few Liverpool games with my dad. He's a big lover of football, and soon he couldn't get the ball off me. I've two sisters, Natalie and Lucy, who follow my career but don't play sport.
Q. Did you have several options before agreeing to join Linfield?
A. I was meant to speak with Glentoran, and I spoke to a few clubs on the phone, but Linfield were the first club I met, and after speaking with David Healy it made sense. There's a family affiliation, I lived two streets from Windsor Park, my grandfather played for the club, but more than that it was the stadium and size of the club and its resources. I think the decision was proved right as I was able to score in the Champions League and play in the unforgettable games against Celtic. You don't forget moments like the game at Celtic Park. I joined Linfield to play in big games and I've done that.
Q. Glentoran gave you the opportunity to make it as a footballer. How do you feel about the club now as a Linfield player?
A. I know some Glens fans won't pick up a newspaper if they see me in it but I had some of the best moments of my career there. I loved the people at the club, they did everything for me and I have friends for life. A lot of people give up their free time to work for the club as volunteers and it doesn't go unnoticed by the players. It's a family more than a club and I really enjoyed my time there. Eddie Patterson and his coaches were good to me but I saw Linfield as a better opportunity to progress. The league is better if Glentoran and Linfield are strong and challenging for trophies, the Big Two games are special.
Q. Your grandfather Phil Scott scored 220 goals in 400 games for Linfield in the 1960s and early 1970s. He sadly passed away in May 2014. How close were you?
A. He was a legend. I had a good relationship with him. I stayed with my granny and granda after school until my parents finished work since I was very young. He was always proud of me and always believed in me. He got to see me score for Glentoran in a 2-0 win against Linfield when David Jeffrey's time at the Blues was coming to an end and it was the last time my grandfather saw me play. I was on trial at Peterborough and didn't know he had passed away in his sleep as the family had protected me from the news. Things like that happen, and it's tough when you lose a family member. When I scored the late winner against La Fiorita in the Champions League, I raised my hands to the sky in tribute to my grandfather. It was a huge goal, and I'll always look back on it as a brilliant moment. I don't think I'll reach his goal tally though.
Q. What are your memories of the Celtic games?
A. I played about half an hour in both games. I can understand why I didn't start the games because of our defensive approach and I hadn't been starting. It was an unbelievable experience. I can remember the Celtic fans had the lights switched on on their phones, they were singing and it was a bit scary. You wanted the ball, you just couldn't get it. They brought on Jonny Hayes and he was ripping me apart. I wasn't fit enough to be chasing him! I got Jonny's shirt and Moussa Dembele's. I gave Jonny's to Mark Stafford.
Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. Roy Carroll for what he has achieved and what he is still doing. With the experience he has, when he speaks you listen. He has earned that respect. There are a lot of good players in the Irish League but as a winger I never liked playing against Jim Ervin, now at Ballymena.
Q. Tell us about your colourful entrance to the club's Christmas party.
A. We had a Christmas dinner in December with the players, wives and board members. It was a smart casual event, but myself and Kirk Millar put on the orange and blue tuxedos from Dumb and Dumber with the top hats and cane and went into the dinner. The gaffer allowed us to let our hair down for one week but it was hilarious. It was the best £80 we have spent on suits!
Date of birth: March 31, 1995
Previous clubs: Glentoran, Swindon Town, Grimsby Town (loan)
Linfield record: 25 appearances, seven goals