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'Putting the ball in German net was so special but I'm more excited by future than past'

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Class acts: Ian Stewart with fellow NI legends Pat Jennings (c) and Mal Donaghy

Class acts: Ian Stewart with fellow NI legends Pat Jennings (c) and Mal Donaghy

Ian Stewart in his Northern Ireland heyday

Ian Stewart in his Northern Ireland heyday

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Class acts: Ian Stewart with fellow NI legends Pat Jennings (c) and Mal Donaghy

Imagine going to work every day at the scene of your greatest moment in the green jersey of Northern Ireland; a memory that stands out among this country’s finest in international football, of which there are many, but this would be in anyone’s top 10.

One of the brightest stars of Billy Bingham’s celebrated team of the 80s, Ian Stewart could be forgiven for feeling wistful or nostalgic as he gazes down on the green sward of Windsor Park from his office base as the Irish FA’s Grassroots and Youth Development manager. But instead of looking back, Stewart’s focus is firmly on the future, ensuring the next generation coming through benefit from his experience — and also learn from his mistakes.

We meet on a very different looking ground from 35 years ago in November 1982, when a 21 year old Stewart picked up the ball wide on the left, just outside the penalty area and planted the  ball in the back of the German net for a Northern Ireland winner that shook the world of football.

This was the German team who had been losing finalists to Paolo Rossi’s Italy earlier that summer at the Spain 82 World Cup where Northern Ireland had given a hint of what might be in store by famously beating the hosts on another top 10 moment in Valencia.

To this day, the names resonate among the all-time greats of the global game... Briegel, Forster, Kaltz, Stielike, Littbarski, Matthäus, Schuster, the goalscoring genius of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and in nets, Harald Schumacher, the best keeper in the world at that time but he still couldn’t keep out Stewart’s brilliantly flighted shot that sped into the bottom right hand corner at the old Railway End.

Northern Ireland were no pushovers either, the team of Martin O’Neill, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl, Norman Whiteside and Billy Hamilton proving that win was no fluke by repeating the scoreline the following year in the Hamburg return, this time Stewart setting up Whiteside for the winner.

Agonisingly for Stewart, he didn’t make the summer of 82 Spanish adventure despite being brought into the squad for a pre-tournament friendly again France.

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So it was the stuff of dreams for the rising young Queens Park Rangers star, from the Belvoir estate in south Belfast, making his Northern Ireland home debut that rain-lashed, windblown night, sharing a pitch with the biggest names in the game.

You would think Stewart might cling to memories more than most given the relatively short-lived career that followed: 31 caps, including the Mexico 86 World Cup, and then, a year later, it was all over at the top level, his strength and fitness sapped by a severe bout of glandular fever he candidly puts down to a head-turning, London bright lights lifestyle.

Yet he remains as unfazed today by the magnitude of what he achieved so young as he was when I interviewed him in the aftermath of that incredible November night 35 years ago.

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Ian Stewart after his famous goal

Ian Stewart after his famous goal

Ian Stewart after his famous goal

His abiding memory of the game is not of his still talked about goal but that he scored wearing a new pair of sponsor’s boots that he promptly gave away to the son of the scout who discovered him in a typically, thoughtful Stewart gesture.

“You can’t live in the past,” he shrugs, genuinely uncomfortable at the thought of the spotlight being shone back on him with the Germans’ Windsor Park return this Thursday for a crucial World Cup qualifier so close to the anniversary of such a famous win the nation is willing Michael O’Neill’s present day side to repeat.

Stewart has consciously steered clear of the inevitable legends and corporate invites, only agreeing to this interview to highlight the work of his IFA Grassroots team and their achievements in introducing many thousands of young children to the game and aiding their development through carefully structured coaching and small-sided games.

“We have 11,500 boys and girls in our programmes now, compared to a couple of hundred when I came into the job 22 years ago,” he says proudly.

Backed by McDonald’s, who he hopes will continue their support, he heads up a team of 26 regional coaches across Northern Ireland, one of whom, Phillip Melville, he laughs, was a ballboy at the November 82 game.

“I love the staff. They are fantastic and so dedicated,” he enthuses.

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Legendary manager Billy Bingham

Legendary manager Billy Bingham

Legendary manager Billy Bingham

“They have kids playing small-sided games at 60 venues, all very competitive and skills based. They are the future of Northern Ireland football. The game has changed so much from when I was starting out, playing two matches on a Saturday, for Willowfield in the morning and the Boys Brigade in the afternoon.

“The professional game is all about developing athleticism and strength, mental and physical, as well as technical ability. Allied to that, it is more difficult to attract young people into the game with so many distractions. Football was an escape route for me from the Troubles and it’s a better country now in every way. But that also means we have to find new incentives to encourage youngsters into the game here.

“Looking at the numbers and the players coming through — Kyle Lafferty was one who started out in our small sided games — I think it is a credit to our coaches.

“At the same time, we need to be careful of our level of expectation from young players. Too many are going off to England too young at 14 and 15. They should be looking to make gradual progression locally, into the Northern Ireland Football League which is a fantastic product these days with so many competitive teams and managers and coaches with really professional outlooks.

“If you are good enough, you will get your move at 18 or 20, Linfield’s Paul Smyth going to my old club QPR being a case in point.

“When a club pay a fee for you, they will value and invest in you. There’s a real risk in jumping on the conveyor belt and ending up a jersey filler til the next one comes along and you end up returning home disillusioned.

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Ian Stewart at Windsor Park in his current IFA role

Ian Stewart at Windsor Park in his current IFA role

Ian Stewart at Windsor Park in his current IFA role

“I really believe in what we are building for the future in Northern Ireland football. I am not one of those old pros lamenting how much better things were in their day. It wasn’t. We have proper structures now, better facilities and opportunities to learn the game from qualified coaches at an early age.

“That’s why I don’t want to be known as a former international or the player who once scored the winner against Germany. I want to be recognised for what I do in the present to plan for the future.”

Now 56, Stewart looks as trim and fit as he did in his playing days, a testament to his enthusiasm for the game and his job.

Always a forward-thinking free spirit, he is continually on the lookout for new ideas and, ironically, reveals that he is a regular visitor to the German FA Academy in Frankfurt, studying the methods that make World champions.

He can’t quite shake off the past, though in a positive way.

Stewart’s managers at QPR were Tommy Doherty and Terry Venables. Jack Charlton signed him for Newcastle and promptly quit the next day, making way for our own Willie McFaul.

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The German superstar of his generation, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who ‘didn’t fancy’ rainlashed Belfast night

The German superstar of his generation, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who ‘didn’t fancy’ rainlashed Belfast night

The German superstar of his generation, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who ‘didn’t fancy’ rainlashed Belfast night

He has taken something of what he learned from them all, bar Big Jack who he didn’t get time to know, but he cites his greatest influence of all as Billy Bingham.

“Not so much a coach as a motivator,” Stewart reflects warmly of the now, sadly, in failing health manager who took Northern Ireland to a miraculous pinnacle, for such a small nation, at the 82 and 86 World Cups. It has taken those 35 years since Stewart’s famous goal for that threshold to be reached again.

“Billy knew how to get the best out of people and players,” he adds.

“I did everything at 100mph and he just said, slow down and save it for the football. His methods worked for me and I’ve always tried to engage with people on a similar level. Billy’s management style was to play to individual and team strengths. Working with 26 coaches here at the IFA, there will always be different opinions. We argue, we exchange ideas but ultimately we are all working towards a common purpose for the good of Northern Ireland football.”

Bingham would surely approve of the present day calling of a player he never dreamed of shackling. The wise old boss once told me: “Stewart is the kind of player who sends a ripple of excitement around the ground every time he gets the ball and when he starts to run at players, the crowd leap out of their seats.”

And so it was that November night with a win, Stewart recalls, that owed as much to Bingham’s powers of motivation and observation as the crucial goal itself.

“Billy came into the dressing room just as were getting changed,” he says. “He had been out watching the Germans walking the pitch. Rain was lashing down and a bitter wind was blowing over the Kop from the Black Mountain.

“Billy noticed Rummenigge turning up his jacket collar, hoisting his hands up into his sleeves and tip-toeing through the wet in his smart, shiny shoes. ‘The Germans don’t fancy this,’ Billy told us. ‘We can beat them here,’ and he was right.”

A different tack inspired Stewart on the return in Hamburg.

“We were about to finish training with a five-a-side game when Billy called me off the pitch. I protested we’d be a player short so he sent on Jackie Fullerton, who was there to report, in my place,” he recalls.

“I will never forget Billy telling me I was a London Palladium player, not Stockport Music Hall. This was my stage and he was trusting me to perform. At one point he even mentioned George Best who I once bunked off school to watch against Johann Cruyff and Holland at Windsor one afternoon.

“Talk about giving a player a lift. I couldn’t wait for the game to start. I watched Norman’s winning goal again recently on YouTube with one of my sons who couldn’t understand why I was laughing in the clip as the ball went in. I had just beat three German players on a run and tried to curl the ball into the top corner. There was a scramble as the ball came back, Norman tucked it away and all I could think about was Billy’s pep talk. I just couldn’t help laughing.”

Stewart may have played with a smile on his face but there was once his old boss, quite literally, didn’t light up.

“It was a niggly match against Austria. I got booked and was in danger of being sent off. Billy was so angry with me, he threw his pipe on the ground and it smashed. That’s when I knew I was in trouble,” he smiles.

Bingham, nevertheless, recognised and encouraged the expressive nature of Stewart’s quirky character. He wasn’t just different; he was different class on and off the pitch.

Even the story of how he ended up at QPR is typical of the random approach to life he had at that time.

“I was at Everton, aged 14, then Man United and Wolves looked at me but nothing happened,” he says. “When the late QPR scout Bill Smyth, a wonderful man, asked me to go there, I decided it would be the last trial I would go on and I only went as I had an aunt living nearby in Dulwich. I was also a fan of the TV cop series at the time, The Sweeney, that was based in Shepherd’s Bush and I wanted to see what the place was like.

“I arrived as Tommy Doherty was organising a training match for the first team and he asked me to play against them. They had Stan Bowles, Don Shanks and Gerry Francis but it was their first day back after the summer holiday. I had spent mine playing and training, day and night, and had never been fitter.

 “I ran them ragged and, after, The Doc came over and asked how long I had been at the club. I said just one day and he signed me immediately.”

Those were crazy times with money to match for a lad just out of school and plunged straight into the West London big time.

“Terry Venables came in and gave me a three year contract on £300 a week. That was big money then and it kept rising. I recently found a wage slip for £1,000 a week when the average pay was £80 and still I managed to spend it,” he says.

Generous to a fault, Stewart blew his good fortune on friends, fast cars and fast living until that bout of glandular fever slammed on the brakes.

“It was lifestyle related,” he accepts. “I did let myself go. I wasn’t a problem drinker but I probably drank more than was good for me. I was too busy enjoying myself to realise the price I was paying.

“I use the lessons I learned from that time to impress upon young players how short a football career can be. It’s not rocket science. If you want to improve, you have got to look after your body.

“Quite simply, alcohol and football do not mix. Young players going full time now are better educated and looked after by the clubs whereas we were left to our own devices with temptation all around.”


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