To Hampden and back again: Stewart living international dream

Ross Stewart will return to familiar territory on Tuesday evening, but although echoes of the past will greet the striker as he retraces his steps, the experience will be alien.

On 10 December 2016, the fresh-faced 20-year-old realised a childhood dream by taking to the field in South-East Glasgow and gracing Hampden Park’s hallowed turf for the very first time.

662 hardy spectators turned out for the League One encounter between Albion Rovers and Queens Park, who were proud to call the iconic Mount Florida stadium their home from 1903 to 2021.

A proud feat no doubt, but the Irvine-born attacker quickly put sentiment to one side and scored with less than three minutes on the clock.

Stewart was living the dream.

Fast-forward to full time and Queens Park had taken the points, a first-half fight back including goals from Ross Mullins and Paul Woods to ensure Albion returned to Coatbridge empty-handed.

It was a memorable day for the striker, but one with an Asterix.

Stewart is the ultimate team player and his one and only objective remains pure and simple – victory.

On Saturday at 5:30pm, the forward looked set to endure a similarly frustrating return journey, as Sunderland boarded the team coach at Sincil Bank and headed back to Wearside following a goalless draw with Lincoln City.

But unlike the short trip back to North Lanarkshire in 2016, a dream was ignited, not dampened.

“I received the call on Saturday night when we were on the team bus heading back from Lincoln,” said the now-Scotland international.

“Alex Neil said to me that he had spoken to Steve Clarke and that Scotland were going to call me up, explaining that he had passed on my details and that I should receive a phone call shortly.

“About 15 minutes later, Steve called to tell me officially and it was probably the highlight of my career so far, as I don’t think there is anything better in football than representing your country.

“It isn’t really until this season that I’d ever given an international call-up any consideration – it’s one thing for your name to start being chucked about, but another for it to actually happen.

“It’s a very proud moment for me and for my family – my parents were in disbelief as well, but of course they were delighted, and they will be at Hampden Park for the game on Thursday.”

From Diego Maradona to Zinedine Zidane, who scored arguably the greatest Champions League goal of all-time in the 2001 final at Hampden Park, the home of Scottish football has played host to icons of the game for over a century.

Thursday’s encounter with Poland will be no different, as Stewart’s opposite number is a modern-day great that is likely to stand side-by side with legends of the past when his boots are hung up for the final time.

A perennial Ballon d’Or contender and record-breaking goal machine, Robert Lewandowski will spearhead the visiting attack.

“It shows you the jump in levels because in just one game for your country, you can come across an opposition number nine who is probably the best number nine in the world at this moment in time.

“The step up will allow me to get a gauge for that level and to be able to train with the other players in the Scotland squad – many of whom play in the Premier League – is going to be massive for me, as will learning from a top manager in Steve Clarke.

“Overall, it will be a great experience and one I’m really looking forward to.”

Five-and-a-half years on, the Hampden Roar will sound a little different to Stewart’s previous visit to South-East Glasgow.

But there will be little different about the man, who continues to take a meteoric rise in his stride with a quiet confidence, whilst ensuring he appreciates every step along the way.

‘I’ve played at Hampden once before for Albion Rovers against Queens Park in League Two, it was only in front of a few hundred people, but it was still a great experience to play there at that stage of my career.

“On days like that in 2016, you always hope to be back one day playing for Scotland and its always at the back of your mind – you wonder, ‘what if’.

“Actually doing it will be surreal. It would be a dream come true.”

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