Stewart sets out to prove people wrong

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MICHAEL Stewart was still playing for Scotland U-21s when a wise head reminded him that perception is reality. For a guy who likes to mull things over more than most footballers, it was a mind-boggling concept. Over time he has, unfortunately, come to understand the truth in the warning.

But while others balked at the idea of a young player, allegedly too arrogant to work with off the field and too feisty and vocal to harness on the pitch, he thankfully found Tony Mowbray, a man averse to prejudgements who decided to judge Stewart on his own evidence.

It has rewarded club and player, with Stewart one of the most impressive and consistent performers at Hibs this season, even in a midfield full of guys who can command headlines in their own right.

Quizzed on why he seems finally to be living up to the lofty expectations set by a nation impressed by his presence as a teenager at Manchester United, he shrugs.

Not because he is being difficult (in truth, the "real" Stewart, while insisting he is "no angel", is still a world removed from the misconception), but because even he seems flummoxed.

"To be honest, I don't know the answer to that. I am more confident now and that helps me to relax on the pitch and, while I am still driven and still want to achieve so much more, I have realised there is still plenty time.

"I'm only 25 so I have another ten years in the game ahead of me and I don't need to set unrealistic targets for myself.

"I have also started getting reiki. Initially it was to try to help my foot and clear up the injury which was so frustrating at the end of last season but it just so happens that since doing that, whether it's a complete coincidence or a placebo affect that in my head I think it's helping me, my foot injury began to clear up and, not only that, it is just a very relaxing thing.

"She talks about how everybody builds up a certain amount of tension in their body and how it takes up a lot of energy to hold that tension, and what has happened while I have been seeing her is that I am releasing that tension so, logically speaking, I am saving energy and I feel more energetic and I don't sleep as much as I used to.

"A lot of footballers have a sleep in the afternoon and I would occasionally do that but now I can't remember the last time I did it. I don't go to my bed any earlier at night but I wake up in the morning feeling a lot brighter and fresher and again that may be a coincidence, but I don't care because, mentally, it is helping me. Now I see this woman once a week for an hour and it is like recharging the batteries."

That is by far the most overriding feeling you get when speaking to Stewart. A player who seemed jaded by the way he was being misunderstood by managers and misrepresented in the media and on the football grapevine, he is now rejuvenated. A happier soul and a man more willing and able to express himself on and off the field. "The reiki is something separate from football but it helps me as a person and that helps me as a player when I go on the pitch."

While the alternative therapy may be a contributor, the other reality is that this level-headed lad always believed that it would take until this term really to start showing his true worth, anyway. After several seasons of false dawns and sporadic on-field appearances, he benefited from the regular starts afforded him by Mowbray and the freedom to play his natural game.

"Another of the perceptions was that I was lazy. I was never lazy. I enjoy running about. From my perspective, it's actually a part of the game I like but people see what they want to see."

He accepted that reality a while ago, aware that some critics will never be swayed. It's the others he is working on winning over with the kind of accomplished displays for his club which have seen the three-times capped player once again being linked with a return to the international set up.

"I know you can't change people's opinions overnight. But I am going to try and hopefully some people are already seeing the real Michael Stewart."

With 11 league starts - only Steven Whittaker can equal that - this season, the punters and the pundits are seeing enough of him to help force a reassessment and off the park he seems to be making inroads too.

Speaking to one colleague about the interviewee, she described him as charming. Apparently, Stewart made a personal appearance at a children's Christmas party she was helping at and impressed with his attitude. One meeting, one fully-formed opinion.

Yes, perception is reality but sometimes those perceptions are favourable and, as such, actually much closer to the real truth.