Football: Stewart keen to turn heads

Phil Gordon encounters an ex-Hammer making a name in Scotland
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The Independent Online
RAY STEWART'S 15 years at Upton Park should have taught him all he needed to know about tradition, but these days he is taking a hammer to all of that.

The former West Ham defender's new manor has few echoes of the past. Not even a guv'nor. Stewart is the man behind the most intriguing side in next week's Scottish Cup fourth round, but he's not even called "boss".

No, at Livingston FC Stewart goes by the title of head coach. But what do you expect from a club that is willing to change not just the name of its ground to suit a sponsor, but also the name of the club and even the town it plays in.

Stewart is unperturbed by the identity crisis. The only thing he wants to be known as is a success, and victory over St Johnstone next Saturday would ensure everyone has his team's name on their lips.

"When I came here last summer, I thought this is the big time again," reflects Stewart, looking around Almondvale Stadium (now known as Courier Stadium, after the local newspaper). The 6,000 shiny seats may not rival Wembley, where Stewart enjoyed his greatest hour in West Ham's win over Arsenal in the 1980 FA Cup Final, but his club is going places.

Livingston have been unbeaten for more than five months, which has left not just the Scottish Second Division eating their dust, but also Aberdeen, whom they knocked out of the cup in the last round. Should Livingston point another Premier League club towards the exit next Saturday, then they really will be on the map.

The club which was the butt of everyone's jokes as Meadowbank Thistle, has been having the last laugh since relocating three years ago from Edinburgh to Livingston, a new town 15 miles down the M8.

At Meadowbank, football took second place. Training at the Commonwealth Stadium was halted for athletes and shotputters; only 300 of Edinburgh's citizens bothered to come to games; once, the club had to cancel a match because the stadium had been double booked for a cat show.

But, at Livingston, Stewart has found only a club on the fast track. Crowds are 10 times the old average, with the doors being locked once this season for a match with Partick Thistle, while the new owner, Dominic Keane, has put up pounds 1m to get Stewart where he wants to go.

"The club missed promotion last season because they lost in the final game," explains Stewart. "When I joined from Stirling Albion, I felt that falling at the final hurdle might have been in the back of a lot of minds, so I brought in 16 players, mostly thanks to the Bosman ruling."

Crucial among those was the recruitment of John Robertson from Hearts. The little striker's golden touch finished off Aber-deen and he admits that he too is enjoying a new lease of life at Livingston. "It didn't quite compare with winning the cup last season with Hearts, because that was an 18-year saga for me, but it was important for this club. We have ambitions to go higher and we've shown we are not out of our depth."

Stewart insists the transition from big to small is not such a large leap. "Any professional adjusts to the environment around. It's the people around you who matter and I have guys like John Robertson, and our chairman, who are successful in their own fields. I like to think of myself as a winner, too."

Stewart proved that on a sunny Wembley day 19 years ago, but it is another West Ham lesson he will be drawing on this week. "Wrexham knocked us out of the FA Cup two years after we won it. There was a different pressure on us that day, and that will be on St Johnstone, too."

Stewart's methods obviously work. Dunfermline were also victims, in the League Cup, of his upstart team. "We've shown we can handle bigger teams," he says, "but we've done nothing yet. Only when we achieve something will it be worth shouting about."