Michael Stewart

The Hearts man has moved back and forth between city rivals, rowed with managers and fans, and frequently seen red. Gordon Cairns looks at the one–time Manchester United prodigy

The surprise move of last summer in Scotland was Michael Stewart joining Hearts on a free transfer. This was not because he wasn’t born in Lithuania, where most of his team’s recruits now come from, but because he was returning to the club he left in 2005, from city rivals Hibernian. While it is not unusual for a player to appear for both of the Edinburgh clubs, it is rare to yo-yo between them, with Stewart being the only player to do so since the Second World War.

There has been widespread interest in Stewart since he made the Manchester United first team aged 19 in 2000. His failure to become Scotland’s midfield playmaker has been blamed on that early success at Old Trafford and the £12,000 a week that went with it. Even Berti Vogts, not known for his astute football observations, noted: “Michael has only one problem, he thinks he is a Manchester United player.”

Stewart’s three Scotland caps came five years ago in a season in which he played almost the same number of games for the national team as his club, who then loaned him out to Nottingham Forest. It was here that the perception of him as a prima donna began to emerge. Stewart managed just 12 appearances, was sent off in his second, and returned to Manchester after a “training-ground bust-up” with David Johnson, said to have been triggered by Johnson pointing out that he, too, was a United reject.

After initial interest from Rangers, Stewart then joined Hearts on loan, with much being made of his willingness to take a pay cut – to £5,000 a week – to play for his boyhood idols. However, he didn’t shine at Tynecastle, making only a handful of appearances. Stewart said: “Last year was the first time I thought people seriously questioned what I was capable of. They just didn’t think I was good enough.” This was a surprising statement from a player who had started just 23 games in his whole career at that point.

It was after moving to Hibs in June 2005 that Stewart began to display the form that had led to him being picked up by United as a schoolboy; in his second season he was picked for Scotland B. Hibs manager Tony Mowbray clearly felt that the general perception of Stewart was unfair and described him as one of the nicest and most honest players he had met. But when John Collins took over at Easter Road, Stewart fell from favour. Collins played teenager Lewis Stevenson in the League Cup final and a very grumpy-looking Stewart was captured on camera at the end of the game ­surrounded by celebrating team-mates.

Stewart was then mentioned in the press as a ringleader of the group of players who approached chairman Rod Petrie to ­complain about Collins’s training methods. Although Collins claimed that the player’s subsequent departure was football-related, it seems strange he would allow an experienced midfielder to go for nothing in a year when the Hibs midfield was raided three times by Celtic and Rangers.

Stewart started this season in fine form – he was man of the match in a 4-2 defeat of Rangers and won another Scotland B cap in November – but chaos has since returned for player and club. Hearts endured a six-game losing streak and would be favourites for relegation if it weren’t for the pitiful Gretna. Stewart’s most recent dismissal was for going into meltdown against Dundee United, when his side finished with eight men. Having clashed with two team-mates and the referee, Stewart eventually walked for responding to a Hearts fan who was abusing him. His previous red card against Gretna was rescinded on video evidence, but he got a further card from the fourth official for kicking over a pitchside advertising hoarding and was suspended for important matches against the Old Firm.

At least Stewart can’t fall out with the manager, as Hearts don’t have one. Stephen Frail – and never has a boss been so aptly named – has just been given the title of caretaker manager, while club owner Vladimir Romanov searches for someone else to be his Edinburgh representative.

From WSC 252 February 2008