SOMETIMES it requires a crisis to sort out those fitted for leadership from their confreres inclined to dash around in a blind funk. All this summer, Sandy Stewart has sat by the telephone, trying to secure a future for his beloved Airdrie whilst the club has flatlined and risen again like a dithering phoenix.
Reluctantly, he cancelled the summer holiday for his wife and two children: tearfully, he slumped down the stairs of Hampden Park after Gretna were welcomed into the Scottish Football League; before eventually, mercifully - although, as Stewart laments, at the expense of defunct Clydebank - his club was offered an eleventh-hour chance to prove that Diamonds are forever.
No wonder the veteran defender-turned-manager was still shaking his head in disbelief at how he has traversed the whole gamut of emotions from A to Z - and then some - in the build-up to Saturday’s maiden league appearance by the newly-christened Airdrie United. "I hope I never have to go through this again - for my family, for all the young players whose futures have been messed around with, and for the thousands of Airdrie supporters, who were left on the brink of losing their team," said Stewart, the 36-year-old stalwart of a dozen seasons, whose recent history resembles that of Willie Loman, without the laughs, in his frantic search for cut-price rookies, bargain-basement journeymen professionals....anybody prepared to dive into the trenches and display the resilience and grisly commitment which have been the Lanarkshire side’s trademarks during the past 20 years.
As of 5pm on Friday evening, Stewart had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s on the contracts of a mere five players, thus securing the services of such durable characters as Jimmy Boyle, Lee Gardner, Stephen Docherty (all ex-Airdrie), Kenny Brannigan (ex-Clydebank), and Mark McGowan (ex-Stirling Albion and Stranraer). On the desk of the lounge in his Glasgow home, forms were scattered everywhere, while his mobile phone rang with all the nagging persistence of a double-glazing salesman. As we chatted, the conversation turned briefly to Rio Ferdinand and Dwight Yorke, yet we might as well have been talking about football on Alpha Centauri for all the connection there is between these multi-millionaires and the skid-row Buddy Can You Spare a Dime brigade ready to hitch their star to the new Airdrie wagon.
But where there’s a pulse, there’s potential and Stewart, the indefatigable fellow who led his troops onto the Hampden turf as a Cup final skipper against Rangers in 1992, prior to enjoying a rare foray into Europe a few months later, is nothing if not an optimist in soccer’s powers of redemption and bringing communities together. And why not? Frankly, even those myriad Scots who refused to mourn for Airdrie, alleging that they were the SFL’s equivalent of the Dirty Dozen, can scarcely question the integrity and courage under fire exhibited by this man Stewart throughout the whole drawn-out saga of Shyberry Excelsior, new brooms, Steve Archibald, KPMG and God only knows who else behind the scenes.
"Of course, it has not been ideal. Hell’s teeth, who has ever woken from a nightmare and said they enjoyed the experience? I suppose a lot of the fans gradually drifted away because we had so many stays of execution they came to imagine that we were immune to the reality check hitting football, but if the past couple of months have brought any benefit, it’s that every single person connected to Airdrie knows we will stand or fall by sharing a common purpose," said Stewart.
"The bottom line is that there is no big sugar daddy here with stacks of cash. Jim Ballantyne has done a fantastic job and I am eternally grateful to him, but as of this moment, I have signed up half-a-dozen guys, myself included, and I have spoken to another six or seven lads. By the middle of next week, I am confident that we will have a squad of 18 or 19, and we will definitely be up to speed for the opening match of the season with Forfar, but our supporters really can’t expect too much, too soon, when the majority of our team haven’t agreed terms yet, let alone passed a ball to one another.
"So my message to them would be simply this: judge us come September. Please allow us some period of adjustment and development, and then, if we are not cutting the mustard, fine, you can dole out pelters. But I can’t stress enough that a few weeks ago, I honestly thought that we were dead and buried, vanished forever, and I couldn’t get my head round it. As for my own future, I seriously hadn’t given it a second thought. There wasn’t time for sentiment or wallowing in self-pity. There still isn’t, to be honest, with a championship campaign eight days away and only half of the boys in place.
"Nor do I have any illusions that the Second Division will be a mighty tough challenge. You have Raith Rovers in there, and they are full-time. So are Hamilton, though I am not quite sure what the situation is with them, At least, touch wood [Stewart duly laid his palm on the table], there won’t be any boycotts when we meet Hamilton on August 10, but Airdrie have always relied on their fighting spirit and nothing is set to change in that respect."
Operating at the trialist end of the market, Stewart himself is under examination, but he boasts all the requisite SFA coaching badges, reams of contacts, and has remained airborne during more crises than Biggles. In which light, with Brian Rice, the former Hibs, Nottingham Forest and Scotland cap as his No 2 watching from the dug-out, Sandy’s guile at the heart of a mature-looking rearguard should ensure that Airdrie are every inch as united in nature as they are in name.
Will that suffice? Will Ballantyne be capable of providing the required finance? Of equal import, will the paying customers show faith on the arduous trek across the Second Division foothills? Only time will tell, of course, but it seems evident that in Stewart, the club have appointed a talismanic figure who has cheered and screamed, wept and wailed, along with the rest of the Airdrie clan on their road to safety.
"I remember wandering round the site of the new stadium in 1998, and feeling so relieved that finally we were coming home and that Airdrie were poised for great things," says Stewart. "Naturally, none of us had a clue what lay in store and that’s why I derive no satisfaction whatsoever from the fact we are back in business only through Clydebank’s misfortune. I am not being patronising, far from it, because I know exactly what their fans must be enduring and it leaves a terrible emptiness at the pit of your stomach. That’s why the next season is so crucial in bringing some stability to the club and permitting an opportunity for us to concentrate on the game rather than the politics. We’ve been granted an unbelievable lifeline. And we have to take full advantage."
Down below the Old Firm, and the SPL’s regular fixtures, there may be precious few signs of life, but the corpse is still twitching. If anybody can galvanise Airdrie United into Lazarus-style heroics, one suspects it’s bold Sandy.