Friday, 7 December 2007

Player Profile : Billy Stewart

The words "It has got to be Wales!" comically echoed from the voice of one Llansaintffraid supporter. In the midst of a serious torrential downpour thirty minutes before kick off just three supporters had braved the inclement elements of the borderland village to take up their spots in the one hundred and eight seater centre stand. With the prospect of a table-topping encounter against Rhyl, the home side, including recent Deva acquisition Scott Ruscoe, embraced the sludge-coated mud bath of a pitch for their pre-match warm up.

Surprisingly there were just ten minutes to go before kick off when the Rhyl team coach trundled its way into the club car park, allowing the visiting players to only enter onto the pitch with just two minutes to prepare. The rain and wind continued to hammer down on Llansaintffraid's compact Recreation Ground, giving the former Blues favourite Billy Stuart just enough time to fit his gloves, having recently signed for League of Wales title challengers. Three players were sent off as the linets dredged up three important points from the storm-swept match and that left Billy Stewart, now a full time coach with Liverpool Football Club, with a large smile on his face as he propped up the TNS bar with his team-mates. "It was certainly interesting at Chester City!" he said when I asked him about his Sealand Road days around a pint. "Especially after coming from Liverpool where everything is run the way it is and then meeting Harry McNally at Wigan Athletic. For one or two things that get said about him, he was a great disciplinarian and man manager. Tactically he built some great teams. The things that have come out of it, as you move back down the leagues and move around make you think Harry's policies were some of the best that you've ever played with."

Stewart continued, "We always had a great team spirit, battling performances and a bit of height in the team, a bit of pace and every lad battled for Harry. Looking back, It was a pleasure playing for Chester. Being at three different grounds made it feel like I had been at three different clubs! Coming from where we were most of us travelled to Chester anyway, so in that respect it was no different. The only things is, I know that the sign thirteen miles to Macc was the longest thirteen miles in the world once you come off the Motorway, it seemed like about fifty miles. It could take you an hour and half to do thirteen miles if you got stuck behind a tractor!"

Joking apart, Stewart remembers the difficult period at Macclesfield quite well. In his opinion the financial windfalls from the big cup clashes against the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal went a long way towards keeping the club in business during those tough seasons. "We played Arsenal when they were league champions, we lost one nil at Macclesfield and then we went to Highbury and they just gave us a footballing lesson. To be fair to Arsenal they were fantastic to us, there was no big headed types, no big time Charlie's. They were very down to Earth."

Spending such a long time with Chester City brought with it the ups and downs of a club with limited resources. Now Stewart reflects upon those years with found memories. "Personally, I have loads of great memories from Chester, but I think possibly our away win at Bolton one year in the early rounds of the Autowindscreens Shield goes down as one of my favourites. I saved a penalty and we won that game two-one. We played so many big clubs, we went to Middlesbrough and beat them. But the time that sticks out more than anything for me was when we needed to win about four games on the run to avoid relegation in our last season at Macclesfield. We went to Stoke City and beat them and we put a run together. We were dead and buried, we never picked a bonus up all season and we got out of the bottom four on the last game of the season. That was just down to the standard, it wasn't down to us being bad players. It was down to us being a club with very limited funds and we were playing some really big clubs. At Macclesfield, three quarters of the ground were for the opposition, that made a heck of a difference to the team."

Another disappointing time for Stewart was Chester's return to the city at the newly constructed Deva Stadium. "It was so new, you could smell the fresh paint when you played in goal that season" joked Stewart, but within months City found themselves again at the wrong end of the league table with relegation looming in just their first season back in the City. "The Deva Stadium was a nice new ground. The first season back was sad though. Harry never really brought in any new players, finance stopped all that. They had sold Sealand Road and ended up in debt. The sale was supposed to clear all the debts, I think at the time, the club were in a quarter of a million pound in debt when we moved into the new ground. It was a shame the club were in that position when they moved instead of having some money in the bank. They may have gone from strength to strength, but that's money for you isn't it?"

It wasn't always disappointing though as Stewart remembered some of the greater times during his long Chester career. Stewart recalled the infamous tale of Harry McNally breaking his leg on a Scottish football tour: "It was a friendly game just to break the tour up while we were there. So it was one of the local teams and Harry decided he wanted to play against them. He went in for the tackle and ended up with a broken leg. Joe Hinnigan was the physio, and nobody ran onto the pitch. Because it was Harry and he like being physical and liking that side of the game, nobody went on to help him and we all said get up Harry. Harry gets up to his credit, he ran around for a bit and came off. Joe just said to him, put ice on it Harry. So Harry iced it for two days. After the two days he found out it was broke! You've got to look at him and think he went through the pain barrier a few times there and practised what he preached!"

Stewart continued: ""It was great. I look back at it now and when you think of the Crazy Gang at Wimbledon, I can tell you, we were like years ahead of them! Another funny story I remember happened we we're on the coach coming home from one of the games, we'd won a game so you can imagine we were the last out of the bar. The shutters were coming down, everything, they were turning the lights off and we were just leaving the bar and one of the lads is driving the coach around the car park! The coach driver had no choice. He was tied up at the back of the coach, all the lads sitting on him as we were waiting for the directors to come out of the ground. Anyway, the lads are on the coach, when we got back home we all decided we were going out around Wigan. So there's David Glenn, Gary Bennett, Graham Barrow, Barry Butler and myself, about three cars full altogether. Gary Bennett couldn't drink to save his life at the time, so we've got all the way to Wigan, Gary is asleep in the back of the car. We went into one of the clubs in Wigan, we got out of the car, shut the door and left Gary in the back seat fast asleep. At two o'clock in the morning we went back to the car and said, right Gary come on let's go to the club now. He woke up, jumped up and said yeah I'm ready to go but everywhere was finished and closed up."

For Stewart, who was regarded with hero like status amongst the Chester City faithful, everything went wrong when he sustained a bad injury. After recovery the scouser moved on to pastures new, performing for Northampton Town at Wembley Stadium briefly before making his return. "I had an injury and then I got back into the squad and then I left. Then I came back again and when I came back, knowing the financial state Chester were in I asked Kevin Ratcliffe for a very, very small signing on fee. He said no, just ask for a testimonial instead but I thought a testimonial was separate, it's for service to the club. It wasn't a lot of money, I understood the situation being there that long and the finances the club did have and kev's hands were tied. He couldn't do it, Kev was a good manager and in the end we wen't our separate ways, I then moved on to Southport and they paid me more money than I was on at Chester."

"It was a toss up between going up to Dundee United or Southport. I went up to Dundee to have a look around and didn't really like it up there. I could have gone to Hong Kong but I thought to myself I'm not getting any younger and decided I should concentrate on the coaching side. I've ended up getting a good coaching job with the Liverpool youngsters as well as playing here part time with Rhyl in the League of Wales."

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