Davy Millar remembers the drubbing of Belgium and the shortest, most successful international career of all time
November 1977 and Windsor Park is looking less than inviting on a cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. Northern Ireland are rounding off another unsuccessful World Cup campaign with a game against Belgium, themselves trailing far behind group winners Holland. The Irish have staged one of their textbook qualifying bids, starting with a splendid draw in Rotterdam before going on to lose in Iceland. Small wonder that George Best has packed it in again. Enraged by such inconsistency, he’s decided there are better ways to spend a bleak, winter afternoon than casually humiliating some hapless Belgian.
George’s retreat means that there is an empty space on the teamsheet. Manager Danny Blanchflower decides to give a debut to the young Hull City winger he’s heard so little about, David Stewart.
In the match itself, Northern Ireland demolish the visitors 3-0. As the final whistle goes, the few thousand spectators who bothered to turn up give their heroes a standing ovation. David Stewart, basking in the adulation, struts off the pitch and promptly disappears from Irish football. The most successful international career of all time is over.
The odd thing about this was the lack of interest with which Stewart’s vanishing act was greeted. In a couple of programmes from the following year, there’s not one mention of the guy. He’s not in the team, he’s not on the bench; there’s no “on the fringes of the squad”, no “currently injured” and not even a “died tragically in five-car pile-up”. David Stewart had ceased to exist.
A newspaper report on the game refers to him as having had a “competent debut”, which sounds suspiciously like an admission that the reporter hadn’t noticed him but felt that a 3-0 win demanded a complimentary name-check for the new boy. Sure enough, there was no other reference to Stewart in that report which shows that, just minutes after the game, he had already slipped from the memory of a man who was being paid to write about him.
OK, it wasn’t the most distinguished debut of all time, but that’s no reason for him to be airbrushed out of the history books. He had, after all, participated in a 3-0 win, which is something special for a Northern Irish player and which should have guaranteed him a second chance. If he was fit, there seems no reason why he wasn’t selected again, especially when you consider that an Aldershot full-back was holding down a regular squad place at the time, which puts our strength in depth into perspective.
In the absence of any hard facts concerning his disappearance, some very odd rumours began to circulate. The know-it-alls would explain in a conspiratorial whisper that Stewart was found later to be, shall we say, unqualified to play for Northern Ireland, but that this was quickly hushed up to avoid a hefty fine. Others maintained that his sudden arrival and equally hasty departure, coupled with the widespread amnesia about the intervening period, was proof positive of paranormal activity, perhaps an experiment in thought control by unearthly forces. This theory was popular with students waiting for the pizza to be delivered.
The truth is stranger still. David Stewart left Hull City for Chelsea in the spring of 1979, but didn’t play a game in six months at Stamford Bridge before moving on to Scunthorpe United. A couple of years later, aged only 24, he was playing for Goole Town in the Northern Premier League.
Obviously, I would prefer that David Stewart has had a pleasant life since 1977 and that he can look back on his brief moment of fame without feeling bitter that it didn’t last, but I just don’t feel any need to find out what he’s doing now. All I really want to know is how he did it, how an international player can vanish so suddenly and without that disappearance causing any media comment whatsoever.
Not that under-exposure is necessarily a bad thing. As each day that passes brings closer David Beckham’s debut on Top of the Pops (probably duetting with Victoria on I Got You Babe) it becomes obvious that no one will ever follow David Stewart’s route to non-fame. Maybe he wasn’t the first disappearing international, but he may very well be the last.
From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month