Sunderland striker Ross Stewart opens up on his injury return and incredible Wearside spell

Ross Stewart is a footballer who doesn’t allow too much time for looking back.

Since dropping out of the professional academy system and into the Scottish juniors, he has had to focus on proving himself week in, week out, game after game.

Nothing has been handed to him: a story of patience, belief and graft.

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It has been a steady rise rather than a meteoric one, but the last 18-months have brought dizzying highs and it has felt like his career progress has been turbocharged. All of which has brought us to now, where the game has opened up for Stewart and there isn’t too much that seems out of his reach.

If there was a moment when maybe this did dawn on him, at least in part, it was when he stepped off the team coach sometime in March and prepared to phone home. Alex Neil had told him to expect a phone call from Steve Clarke, and the news was good. The best, actually.

Now Stewart could pass the message on to his parents and those who had been with him every step of the way. From rejection to Ardeer Thistle, Albion Rovers to the Scottish Championship title, hat-tricks in front of 40,000 at the Stadium of Light and these recent career peaks.

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“In the back of my mind, I always had these aspirations but you know you have to keep taking mini-steps and that’s all you can focus on,” he explains.

“The international call-up was probably the one where I was a bit starstruck, that was one that had never really been on the eyeline because it had always been about trying to make a name for myself at club level and at each level I found myself at. That took me aback, it was a real 'wow' moment.

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Ross Stewart celebrates scoring at Wembley

“The first thing I did when I got off the bus and into my own car was to ring my parents, and I can remember them both being really emotional. That was such a special moment for me, because of the support I've had from them through my journey.

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“We're talking about 20-odd people out of a population of five or six million - and one of them is you. That is a big moment. For me it's the pinnacle, it's something I'm really proud of and I want more.”

Achieving that, it feels clear, is a motivating factor not to be underestimated when Stewart weighs up whatever it is that lies on the horizon.

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The road to that first call up and then that first cap was one that created a new cult hero on Wearside. Injury meant it was a quiet start to his Sunderland career even accounting for a goal on debut, but something began to shift towards the end of that season. He impressed first against Plymouth and then against Lincoln City, a point made even in what transpired to be the club’s unsuccessful end to the season.

Ross Stewart prepares to make his international debut
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On the first day of the next campaign he won a penalty and then turned a corner deftly towards the back post: Lift-off. Now that cautious enthusiasm at a player making his mark has become adulation.

The famous nickname was a source of amusement/bemusement as Nessie and Scotland’s most famous Loch are a long, long drive from where Stewart’s journey began, but the significance of what was happening was not lost on the striker. Now, they sing Belinda Carlisle and it can be borderline deafening on the road.

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“It’s very surreal,” Stewart says.

“You envisage how you want a move to go when you come down here and it’s surpassed all of that, not just the on-field stuff but the way the fans have taken to me.

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“They probably don’t realise how much confidence they give me, what a lift it is during games. Hearing that noise, the nicknames and then the songs come… all of that is part of helping me do what I’ve done and it really hasn’t gone unnoticed, I’m so thankful for it.

“I’m always trying to reward that - what you see is what you get with me, give it everything and try to chip in with some goals. I could never have imagined it would have worked out like this.”

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Everything came together, for Stewart and for Sunderland, in a fortnight that still feels quite difficult for everyone involved to process.

Stewart had, by the lofty standards he had set, actually went into that play-off run with his goalscoring output having slowed. But when the pressure rose and the Stadium of Light became something we hadn’t really seen for a while, Stewart delivered. And maybe, he wonders aloud, that says something about who he is as a player and where he has come from.

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“That first leg for me, as a player, for a crowd being on my side, that was without doubt the best atmosphere I’d ever played in,” he recalls.

“Everything about it, the build up to the game, the crowd and the display before, the size of the clubs, you just felt it was massive.

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“We were really good that night and the fans were a massive part of that, I think.

“The thing about these games is they just go by so fast. Some players get nervous but for me and my journey, I don’t really. Obviously you get the butterflies before a big game, but when you’re playing in a park as a five or six-year-old, in your mind it is always in front of a crowd like that.

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“The path that I’ve been on, my route through the lower leagues, there’s that sense of I might not have made it here, so let’s just give it everything. I just try to manage those emotions, play with no fear and just enjoy it, and I don’t know, maybe that’s why I’ve been able to make an impact.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted, so I have that perspective of just, ‘leave it all out there, enjoy it and just live with whatever the outcome is’.”

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Then to Wembley and the moment when time froze. Stewart’s shot makes slowly but surely for the bottom corner and almost 50,000 stand on the edge of delirium.

The detail of the goal itself comes back quickly and clearly for Stewart, a trait all strikers share. He also remembers the sinking feeling not so long before, that this moment might just have passed him by. Second time around, he was making no mistake.

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“We get the ball down the right side, it’s Pat and Pritch who have a lovely 1-2, really intricate play, and it opens up a bit when it comes to Pritch,” he explains.

“I remember thinking that I had to just try and peel into a bit of space. It was funny because I’d missed a good chance with a header just at the start of second half and I remember thinking, you don’t get too many of them in a game like this.

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“I knew if I got another chance I just wanted to get a shot away. So when the ball came to me on the edge of the box, I just thought ‘right, how can I get this shot away?’ Touch, out onto my right foot. I managed to do what I wanted to do, I’ve shifted it and it looks like I’m going to open my foot out on it and put it to the goalkeeper’s left, but I’ve thought that they are going to expect that so I’ve just kind of reversed it at the last moment. Thankfully it gets through the first set of legs, and from there you see a lot go in because the goalkeeper is wrongfooted.”

And then? Well, just as it was for you, so it was for him: ‘A blur’.

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“The game isn’t done but 2-0 with ten minutes to go… you feel 99 times out of 100 you see that out. I know I ran away to the corner and I had a sense of just how many fans there were just going crazy, but it’s one of those where you maybe can’t ever take it in as much as you’d like because there’s so much elation.

“But to take part in a game of that magnitude and to make an impact…”

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That goal remains the high point but progress did not slow, Stewart not only taking to the Championship but thriving.

Five goals in seven, and as many assists as he produced in the whole of last season already. That, Alex Neil remarked shortly before his departure, was an indication of a striker improving his all-round game.

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It’s why this injury, Stewart says, felt like it came at the worst possible time. His return is thankfully imminent, for him and his team. Rehab is ‘bang on schedule’, Stewart says with a glint in his eye, another week of work at the Academy of Light before he joins full training in Dubai.

From there, it’s all about Millwall and picking up where he left off. Time, just enough, for a moment of reflection.

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“It's one of them when you look back at the last 18-months, when you move down here it's everything I made that move for in terms of what it's given me as a player,” he explains.

“The first six months was a bit stop-start but from that first game of the next season, I feel like I took to it really well and was enjoying my football and everything that came with it.

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“I don't get much time to reflect and to be honest I'm not big on that, I like just to focus on what's next but you do get these wee points where you reflect on the rollercoaster you've been on, and how far you've maybe jumped in such a short space of time. It's been such a positive time in terms of what it's done for my career.

"I'm at a good age now and a good level, and for me it's about trying to maintain that now if not kick on again. I've gone up through the leagues in Scotland, I've come down here and moved up from League One to the Champ - hopefully I can establish myself as a good player at this level and then maybe the next step somewhere in the future is to go up to the Prem, wherever that may be, I would love to test myself. It's an exciting time for me, especially with so many games on the horizon.”

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Stewart says, as decisively as he shifted that Pritchard pass out from his feet at Wembley, that he won’t talk about the contract discussions between the club and his representatives.

He probably doesn’t need to - a few nights previous the club’s hierarchy met supporters and said talks had been going on for much of this year. Clearly, no resolution has yet been reached. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus said Plan A was to retain Stewart for a longer contract, but that the club would prepare for all eventualities.

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Separately, they spoke of the club’s journey and their Premier League ambitions. If someone overtakes the speed of that journey and it’s right for everyone, then so be it.

They weren’t talking about Stewart specifically, but it is relevant when he, as any striker with his record in recent times would, is being watched closely by so many who right now sit higher than Sunderland in the pyramid.

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What Stewart will address is where he stands right now and that is to say that first and foremost, he wants to put goals and points on the board at a club and for a fanbase that has given him more than he ever could have imagined.

He is excited to play in Tony Mowbray’s side, the pair have talked plenty even in his absence from the side and get on well. Neil was a huge part in Stewart’s rise, as he was for so many of the current squad, but the striker says there is a lot of support in the dressing room for the style Mowbray wants to implement and a belief that with key players back after the World Cup break and a greater depth, performances will lead to results. That will be in part down to him in front of goal and the responsibility isn’t one he takes lightly.

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“For me it’s just about getting back to full fitness, getting back to playing,” he says.

“All that stuff in the background, down the line that will get dealt with one way or another and for me it’s just about focusing on doing well for this club, for my team-mates, and hopefully getting us kicking on up the table.

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“It’s 100% about focusing on Sunderland and getting back to making an impact.

Football is a business and that takes care of itself - it’s [outside noise] not going to deviate my focus which is to get back on the pitch and then to contribute to the team doing well.”

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For Stewart it’s the same as it was all those years ago, when all of this was still a long way off. He has to prove himself week after week, game after game. And from there, what will be, will be.

The Sunderland Echo’s interview with Ross Stewart was conducted in partnership with SkyBet