Willie Stewart: Brains in his Head as well as in his Feet

To generations of Irvine schoolchildren he was Mr Stewart the Maths teacher at Irvine Royal Academy, but Willie Stewart had a second career as a player in both Junior and Senior football.  The boot was on the other foot recently, when one of his former First Year pupils was the one asking the questions. 

GMcC:  You began your football career with Dreghorn Juniors, didn’t you? 

Willie Stewart: Yes, that’s right.  I began when I was sixteen, playing with Dreghorn Juniors.  I was still playing with the school at that time, so I sometimes played a couple of games on a Saturday – for the school in the morning and for Dreghorn Juniors in the afternoon. 

GMcC:  What position did you play? 

Willie Stewart: I played inside right.  In those days there were five forwards, there was an inside right and an inside left and they were the workers, along with the two wing halves.  They were supposed to do all the running back and forward.  The backs didn’t go overlapping down the wing.  The backs were defenders at that time. 

GMcC: Did you play in that position throughout your career? 

Willie Stewart: Mostly. I also played centre at times, when we were stuck. 

GMcC:  How would you describe yourself as a player? 

Willie Stewart: I read somewhere that I was an unselfish player. I liked to pass the ball about. I was a good passer of the ball, I think, with good ball control and positional sense. 

GMcC:  So, it was guile rather than power with you. You soon attracted the attention of Hearts.  How did they contact you? 

Willie Stewart: They had a scout at the games. A lot of the Senior clubs scouted the Junior games. The first I knew about it was that after one of the games the scout said to me that Hearts were interested. He had asked the club for permission to speak to me and he asked me if I would be interested in playing a trial. I said to him I was playing a trial with Queen’s Park in the near future. So, he said, ‘We are interested as well, so you’ll probably be hearing more.’ I played four trials (for Queen’s Park Strollers), against Third Lanark, Hamilton, Rangers and Partick Thistle. I was on the verge of signing for Queen’s Park when the Hearts offer came along. 

GMcC: So, you were a teenager from Dreghorn, a wee village in Ayrshire, and you were thrust into the bustle of city life. What was it like to move to Edinburgh? 

Willie Stewart: It was a different world all together. Everything was laid on for you when you got toTynecastle. I was brought through to Tynecastle for training every day. 

GMcC:  Did you travel to Edinburgh every day? 

Willie Stewart: Yes, and we had our lunch laid on for us. We didn’t train at Tynecastle. In fact they had wee notices saying ‘Keep off the grass’ which amused me. They bussed us out to Saughton where there were a lot of pitches and that’s where we trained every morning. 

GMcC:  Did you ever play in the first team at Hearts?   

Willie Stewart: I never played in the first team. I was twelfth man once, at Motherwell, but in those days there were no substitutes, so you didn’t get as many chances as young lads today. 

GMcC: You were being kept out the team at Hearts by the legendary “Terrible Trio” – Alfie Conn (inside right), Willie Bauld (centre forward) and Jimmy Wardhaugh (inside left). What did you think of them? 

Willie Stewart: They were actually very nice folk. In fact, Willie Bauld was one of the nicest fellows you could meet. There were no airs or graces about them and they were immense players. It was great experience to train with them. 

GMcC: Why did you return to junior football? 

Willie Stewart: I had the chance to go to other Senior clubs, but I had decided that football wasn’t going to be my full time job. I was going into teaching and I couldn’t afford the time to make a success of Senior football. 

GMcC: You went to Dalry Thistle in August 1952. 

Willie Stewart: Yes, I was there just one season. I enjoyed Dalry. We did quite well – it was a good club to be with. We won the Land o’ Burns Cup that year. Then I went back to Dreghorn Juniors till I went to Meadow. 

GMcC:  How did it come about that you signed for Meadow? 

Willie Stewart: I don’t know why the Meadow asked me to play for them. Maybe it was because I seemed always to have a good game when we played Irvine Meadow. In all the games we played against Meadow we never beat them. We managed to draw two or three times, but never managed to beat them, except in a 5-a-side tournament. Meadow ran their own 5-a-side tournament, which was quite an attraction and great to play in. That year we got to the final and we played Irvine Meadow and lost to them. The following week there were 5-a-sides at Troon and again we got to the final and again we played Irvine Meadow in the final. The only time we beat Irvine Meadow was in that final at Troon. I remember we got lovely crystal fruit bowls for winning. 

GMcC:  You only played one season for Meadow. How did that season work out for you? 

Willie Stewart: Funnily enough, when I played with the Meadow I was never in a losing Meadow team …maybe not due to me, of course. Unfortunately I got an injury and was out for six weeks. 

GMcC:  Can you remember your first game for Meadow? 

Willie Stewart: No, not a thing, except I played inside left and Hookey Walker played outside left and I enjoyed the game thoroughly. I always enjoyed playing there, because Meadow Park was such a good pitch to play on. Fordside Park in Dreghorn was a heavy pitch to play on, being down at the river. Meadow Park and Troon were the best two pitches in the Western League. 

GMcC:  Do any stories come to mind from your time as a Meadow player? 

Willie Stewart: Well, there was one time when I was out injured. I was standing watching a game at Dalry alongside the former Meadow player Tommy Fullarton. Suddenly, somebody came up to him from behind and punched him in the face. Just punched him and walked away. Must have been a Dalry fan with a grievance. 

GMcC:  I have a story for you. During your season with Meadow, you were teaching at Irvine Royal Academy. 

Willie Stewart: Yes, that would be right. I began teaching there in 1958. 

GMcC:  Well, Davy Brown, who still goes to most games home and away, was in your Maths class that season and he remembers giving him and the boy who sat beside him a hard time, because you had spotted their identical wrong answers. ‘Aye,’ said Davy, ‘and you didnae play well oan Seturday.’ 

Willie Stewart: (Laughs) Funnily enough, football was always a good thing for a teacher to have, because you had a great rapport with the boys. I ran the football at Irvine Royal and I never had any trouble with anybody, because you just needed to say, ‘You’re dropped. If you don’t behave, you are out!’ 

Willie Stewart, himself a schoolboy internationalist (3 caps and 2 goals in 1947, as Scotland won the Victory Shield), coached a number of future Irvine Meadow players in his school teams. Perhaps the most prominent Medda player he helped to shape was Sandy Hume of the 1973 Scottish Cup winning side. Another member of that ’73 team, Rab Lewis, remembers that he played in a trial match for the school team, but Willie didn’t pick him!