Footballers' Lives with Thomas Stewart: I believed I was watching my friend die and I've been a Christian ever since
Larne ace Thomas Stewart discusses the most harrowing moment of his life, how he relished playing in America, and writing about football and faith.
Q. After career moves which took you across the Atlantic, to California and Ontario, you're back home in Northern Ireland with Larne. Have you missed the Irish League?
A. I kept in touch with it, as well as what was happening with the Northern Ireland team. The impact Michael O'Neill's had on the national team is unequivocal, as well as at younger levels, but the football on show in the Irish League is so much better than it was.
Q Does knowing the Irish League has improved help you feel as if you're still playing at your potential? Or was it the statement signings Larne had made which gave you confidence?
A Perhaps just the overall competitiveness, especially as this is, in all honesty, the hardest challenge I've had. There's a lot of expectation and I am expected to score every game, but as a team, we are not the finished article, we're a team in progress, only a few months into signing players. But I have no doubt that when we're challenging, we will be a very strong side. They have made signings of high calibre, such as Davy McDaid, who was the first to come through the door. He's won a lot in the league, and I thought he'd be crucial to more coming to sign, as the club are understandably interested in chasing players who can make a difference.
Q Do you think you'd have signed as readily for Larne had they approached you sooner? Before they'd signed names such as McDaid, Ciaran Caldwell and Martin Donnelly?
A Maybe I'd have taken more time to consider it, but when I had the meeting with (owner) Kenny Bruce and (manager) Tiernan Lynch, we were just talking about ourselves - what I wanted, what the club wanted and the direction it was taking. Davy, as the first one, made a great commitment but I'm very happy with it and excited to be part of the squad.
Q Do you think your move to the States was a gamble, in football terms as well as a change in lifestyle?
A Absolutely. The lifestyle isn't something many of us would need to be convinced of, but Sacramento was a club which didn't even exist yet. They'd never kicked a ball. People looked at the career I'd had, saw I'd come from a decent background and equally took a punt on me to represent the club and its community. They were starved of football, the people there didn't have a team to support and yet suddenly there were lads travelling from as far as I had.
Q Did you feel as if you had a role to play off the field, given the club was in its infancy?
A We all did. I got really involved in the media side of things, which helps when you're scoring goals and winning games. People seemed to want to hear what I had to say, and I was open to it, I felt I was getting a great deal from the club in terms of support and a family atmosphere, too. I respected our growing fanbase, they wanted to be a part of our success just as much as we did. The players were all great with the fans, every player was taking time to sign autographs, say hello and spend time with children in hospital. Sacramento made a point of doing it every Thursday. I had done it a little bit but never every week. It helps you retain perspective for longer, I think, and we all appreciated what we were able to do on the field for the fans.
Q Tell me more about the lifestyle and how you spent your downtime.
A We worked with the youth teams a lot in the evenings, building the club's profile in a positive way and helping the younger kids. It's such a different way of life. The club isn't just for football, I've never met a better place with better people. It's the capital of California, but its heartbeat too. I go back whenever I can. In fact, at the weekend I went for a bite to eat in Nando's and heard someone yelling as I was leaving. It was a Sacramento fan, shouting my name in Belfast and he had the badge on his hat and phone cover. As you can imagine, that doesn't happen very often, it was funny. They are passionate and I think they loved the relationship I and the other players had built with the club. I've plans to go back out in June, both to Hawaii and Sacramento. Niall McGinn is dying to come out, but he's got some international football stuff on!
Q You're good friends with Niall, but given you're both sun-worshippers who love a getaway, it's not surprising…
A Haha, yes! We've been good friends since the Derry City days. Summer time is the best time for us to meet, so that's our excuse for always getting flights somewhere. He's a great lad, we've a lot of shared interests and he's really easy going, which makes for a good travelling companion. He's not the type to argue or challenge, he's got a lot of time for people and is really humble. We have always kept a close eye on each other's football but there's no rivalry, we like to see each other do well. It's great to see him succeed. Regrettably I didn't get out to France, but me and my mate James McCann were sitting in the early hours of the morning in our green and white tops drinking Guinness for breakfast, making sure we saw Niall score.
Q It doesn't sound as if Northern Ireland has ever been far away. Are your roots and family important to you?
A My family live in Portadown, and they're all very down to earth people. Along with my two brothers, I've a 15-year-old sister, Tara, who I'm close to. She's very sporty too, and is in the Ulster tennis team, so I've no shame in saying she beats me quite often on the court. Her team play a lot, she's involved in lots of tournaments and plays a year above her so she's always on a learning curve.
Q You've never struck me as someone who suffers from homesickness, which can prematurely call time on a young player's career. Did you ever feel homesick?
A I think I'm just one of those lads who takes opportunities when they come up, and I'm very fortunate they've involved playing a game I love. There are times when you come home and miss the nuances, the things which make Northern Ireland so unique, but I've always loved what I'm doing so I capitalise on that. I have seen other players suffer badly from it. I think my parents took it the hardest when I went to Wolverhampton, they knew what I was going after though, and drove me to games without a second thought. I'm grateful for that. Tara was only a year or two old, so I was concerned it would affect our relationship. She was the only thing I really, really missed, watching her grow up and building that connection with her. I was terrified she'd not know who I was when I came home. Watching her grow up since has been a big part of my life, I wanted her to look up to her big brother. I did used to make sure she was watching clips of me playing while I was away, and thankfully she still takes an interest. My brothers also encourage that. I've one older one, Jonathan, who is 34, and Sammy's 27. Jonathan plays for Lurgan Town and Sam always used to be very sporty, he was at Aberdeen. He has suspended rather than permanently hung up his boots, as he's working at Royal County Down golf club, so never gets a Saturday off.
Q Did you feel as if your time with Shamrock Rovers was a defining period, and is it one of your fonder memories?
A Winning the league with Michael O'Neill in charge was an incredible night. Playing Juventus was also something I'll never forget, but the game in Israel, which we won to secure the Juve tie, was very special. I feel we created a little bit of history for a team in Ireland that night. What I would say to young players is to look to opportunities with Irish clubs, north and south. There are big opportunities there, and even part-time contracts can give you a chance to have your own big night in Europe. I would love to play teams like that more often.
Q Do you feel you still have a lot to offer?
A Absolutely. I'm 31, in good shape and I feel great. I know Larne are in the Championship, but it's a matter of us getting out of that league. I'd like us to emulate Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers. Getting luck on the day is essential in a part-time league, but when you recruit good players, you're on the way to achieving big things. I really enjoyed being at Dundalk. It was again being with an Irish team which had come further, which had real ambition and self-belief. I was very close to re-signing with them this year, before Larne came in, as again I'd had such a great experience in Europe with them. There was great harmony in the squad and people were willing to fight for you in the team.
Q Many people expected you to flourish in Scotland, too, but it didn't seem as if you had settled quite as well with Partick Thistle.
A Partick was a difficult one. I was very happy I went, but when I played for Rovers I got European football. I suppose I know now that had I stuck with them, I would have had another great season but I was at that age when I wanted to get across the water again, and I was fighting for international football - that was the driving force behind the decision. Jackie McNamara invited me over, and that was why I wanted to go, but I hadn't seen much of an improvement in the team. The inconsistency in the football frustrated me. We had a great style and identity, but it just wasn't really translating into results and it was a crucial period for me. It proved to be a key learning curve though and maybe if I find myself in management one day, I'll bring that into my coaching.
Q Do you regret not having stayed with Rovers from the perspective of your international chances, given Michael O'Neill was managing?
A Of course. I think had I stayed under Michael, that would have helped my cause, but you just go to the best club you think is right at the time. I always thought he would do well. It was a big leap to go straight to Northern Ireland, but he's proven himself and has changed football in our country for good. I'd like to think I was always on his radar, and it probably would have been better had I been scoring loads of goals at Partick, but I am not annoyed about it. I captained my country on a couple of occasions, but had I stayed at Rovers I'd maybe never have gone to America.
Q How do you spend your time off from football now? Is it different now you're back home?
A I'm enjoying writing, as it happens. I'm working on a book which combines themes around football and faith. I haven't done much publicity around it, in fact this is the first time I've really discussed it in an interview. It's aimed at young people, yet I hope anyone who picks it up could take something from it, as I think we're living in a more aware environment, both in terms of self-awareness and our surroundings. There is lots of motivational content on social media for example, especially in sport, which promotes positive messages and gives people things to think about and apply to themselves. It's really about linking motivational narrative to faith and love. I'd love to see young people reading it, and hear about how they may feel challenged by it before setting out on a professional career.
Q For something so transcending, it sounds like a personal project.
A It is. Over the last couple of years, I've taken faith a lot more seriously, and it has become much more important to me. It's not affected my behaviour enormously, in many ways I'm still the lad I've always been but there's been a change and I'm definitely leading a fuller life. I still love to go out and would like to think I'm still the guy people enjoy having a beer and a laugh with. Now, however, my faith comes first and I find I'm more aware of others' feelings, and try to show a bit more empathy.
Q Is there a reason why faith is more important to you now? Do you think it's part of getting older, or having come back to Northern Ireland?
A No, I can pinpoint when I started questioning, but in a more open-minded way as opposed to challenging, because I felt it. It was at a time when I honestly didn't care much for faith, I never disrespected anyone else's of course, I just hadn't tapped into my own. I was coaching youth teams in America and when I had some time off, a friend of mine and I had decided we were going to take a break to Hawaii. His wife had been quite unwell with a heart condition before we were due to fly, so it was touch and go if he'd make it out. I told him at one point that there was no way he was coming with me, but thankfully she recovered in time for the holiday. On the flight, however, I had the most harrowing experience. My friend, who was close to 70-years-old, took ill. It was terrifying, really frightening. He was in agonising pain, had passed a kidney stone on the plane and I had hit panic mode. I was shocked, I don't know if it showed but on the inside I was in pieces. We were on a five-hour flight over the Pacific, with no option to divert for an emergency landing, so I truly believed I was watching my good friend die, I had never felt so helpless. He's much better now, but I'll never forget how I felt, watching people flock around him without a clue of what was happening. It was the trigger for me, to think of bigger themes like love and mortality, in a different way, and I've been a Christian since.