You can go right off people. Michael Stewart is my favourite television pundit and I’d been chasing him for a while. “Sorry,” went the most recent knockback via text, “I’m in the Alps.” Then when we finally meet he tells me this has been his second snowboarding holiday of the year. “Erm, yes,” he says sheepishly, “I have a very understanding wife.”
Sheepishly, but not that sheepishly. After all this is Michael Stewart we’re talking about, a man who, if you believe all you ever heard about him in his playing days, was Scottish football’s black sheep. The arch agitator, the leading insurrectionist, the guy up the back hurling rocks. A gobby, too-smart, permanently-questioning troublemaker. Fair? He reckons he always just called it as he saw it and still is now.
This is an opportune week to be speaking to the merino wood-clad analyser he’s become, as two messages arriving on his smartphone in quick succession confirm. The first is from a friend keen to discuss Theresa May’s snap general election, Stewart being keenly interested in politics. The second from another pal goes like this: “So are you going after Neil McCann’s job at Sky?”
Stewart is still digesting the news of fellow pundit McCann’s decision to swap the elevated, glass-fronted, comfy view he gets of the game with the satellite broadcaster to the one he’ll have to endure in the desperate Dundee dugout with its flying expletives and sweat globules.
Our man displays his knowledge of football’s systems and stratagems weekly, for both BBC Scotland and BT Sport. Could he be persuaded to put his reputation on the line, and the touchline, like McCann? “If I was ever offered a job in management I’d say ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” responds Stewart firmly. “Anyone who knows Neil knows that he’s always wanted to get into coaching. Until now this has been an itch he’s not been able to scratch. But there’s a big risk involved. I don’t know the fine detail here. I don’t know, should he do the job for just five games, whether he goes straight back to Sky. Gary Neville was able to go back, after coaching didn’t work out for him, but then he’d been probably the pre-eminent pundit on television. Good luck to Neil but I have to say that my first reaction was: ‘That’s crazy. Have you lost your mind?’”
Stewart keeps his phone by his side like a six-shooter. It buzzes throughout our chat in the palm-court swishness of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel, close to the West End abode he shares with the understanding Suzie and their young children, Clara and Kerr, and I sense he’s itching to use his trigger finger or rather his Twitter finger.
Did I say he was keen on politics? He’s absolutely bloody fanatical and craves an independent Scotland. Earlier in the day a tweet to his 20,700 followers warned: “Bit of a long thread coming.” This was Stewart taking a break from debating Ian Cathro’s 4-2-3-1 at Hearts (or 4-3-3 or 3-5-2) to ponder in nine instalments the tactics of Prime Minister May in calling a 8 June poll. “UKGov petrified of Scottish independence & desperately trying to put us back in a box & throw off a #Brexit cliff edge,” he opined.
Who else in football is doing this? Not Thommo (Steven Thompson, his Sportscene rival in the Sunday tea-time skinny-jeans showdown). Not Sutty (Chris Sutton, punditry’s shouts-loudest shock-jock, the lambast king of live Friday night games). Maybe Brian Clough was the football man with the strongest political conviction during his 1970s pomp, but Ol’ Big ’ead never quite got as far as bidding to become an MP like Stewart. There’s another reason, however, why this might be a useful moment to talk to the 36-year-old ex-midfielder. Hibernian, for whom he played in between two spells at Hearts, take on Aberdeen in today’s Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden. They’re the cup holders, of course, the curse of not winning it for an eternity having been smashed so spectacularly last May. But this might have happened ten years ago, if only the club hadn’t suddenly turned into “Bounty FC”.
That was the name given to Hibs by Terry Butcher in a newspaper column he penned, open-jawed, about the mutiny against Easter Road boss John Collins. Butcher would experience dressing-room discontent when he took charge of the Hibees later, but in 2007 remarked there had never been anything in football quite like the turmoil encountered by Collins who, said Butcher, was the murky tale’s Captain Bligh. And its Fletcher Christian? Surely Mikey Stewart, no?
There’s a wry smile in between sips of a flat white. “Ten years ago this week,” he says, but the story, involving as it does last-minute dashes down to East Lothian, handily-placed flipcharts and the walls of chairman Rod Petrie’s lounge ultimately resembling those of a police incident-room, needs what he feels is proper explanation.
In Stewart’s career – Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Hearts, Hibs and four Scotland caps before it fizzled out at Charlton Athletic via Turkey – he stresses that he wasn’t the bad guy or at least the only bad guy. “Listen, it always takes two. In these flare-ups or explosive incidents – not to say I wasn’t partly responsible – I honestly was never the agitator. Things happened to me and I just wouldn’t back down.”
Stewart was signed by Tony Mowbray to strengthen an exciting young team which had been achieving top-four finishes and cup semis but, a couple of months into his third season, the manager, whom the player greatly admired, left for West Bromwich Albion. At first Stewart got on fine with Collins and played his part in the League Cup semi victory over St Johnstone and in the Scottish Cup against Aberdeen: a swashbuckling 4-1 win which if repeated today would have Hibbies believing that “two in a row” can indeed come true. The goals included a peach of a volley from 20 yards direct from a corner which Stewart rates as the best he ever scored.
So what went wrong? The “popular narrative” is that the spoiled brats and softies in the team were shocked by the ferocity of training under Collins, whose body was his temple during his own career. Rubbish, says Stewart. “And the popular narrative also has it that I orchestrated the revolt and led the charge to Rod Petrie’s house. Well, that’s also ludicrous.
“When John walked into the dressing-room for the first time he would have commanded instant respect because of his achievements as a player. But he lost that almost instantly. The training wasn’t tough. It was mundane, the same thing every day, not progressive, just crap. John spoke well about the way football should be played – ‘The ball is round, it’s meant to roll’ and all that – and I agreed with him. He still speaks well when I hear him now but there’s a difference between having the idea or the philosophy and being able to convey it to players and that’s the difference between a good manager and a bad one.”
Stewart’s relationship with Collins started to crumble over a new contract. The manager wanted the player to sign one, saying he would re-build the team around Stewart and help him get back into the Scotland squad. “I wasn’t averse to re-signing but, with six months left on my old deal, I just wanted to see what else was available. He said he understood, that he did the same before eventually going from Celtic to Monaco, but asked me to see the situation from his perspective as the manager. I understood that and promised to keep him in the loop, but almost right away he was different towards me.”
Stewart was left out of the team which lifted the League Cup and he cut an unmistakably sullen presence on the pitch during the celebrations. Two weeks later he was back in the side but, with more Hampden glory beckoning, the dressing-room exploded.
“It was a league game at St Mirren. He [Collins] was raging. There were words to the effect that we’d chucked the match to try and do him over. On the bus coming back the guys were all ‘That’s enough’ and ‘Absolutely ridiculous’. Broony [Scott Brown] telephoned Rod and told him what had happened and that it was completely unacceptable. Rod said: ‘My door’s always open, Scott.’
“Broonie told me and I said he knew I’d speak up but that he had to ask the others so guys asked their wee groups: ‘Will you?’ Effectively it was the whole squad bar two, Fletch [Steven Fletcher] and Chris Hogg.” The following week Hibs lost in the league at bottom club Dunfermline Athletic, who they were due to meet at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-finals eights days later. “There was another incident in the changing-room. I’d been bombed out again and wasn’t even on the bench, but from the showers I could hear John accusing the guys of all sorts again. He’d lost the plot.
“Ivan [Sproule] went mental and even Boozy [Guillaume Beuzelin] spoke up. He was a lovely lad who would never normally say boo to a goose, but his view of the training was: ‘I’m turning into a robot. I can’t express myself.’” It was time for the crisis meeting with Petrie.
“It was Easter Monday, I think, because the stadium was closed. But as we were having a bite to eat in [uptown hotel] Le Monde beforehand, Rod phoned Broonie to say the press were prowling around outside Easter Road. ‘You’d better come to Longniddry,’ he said, so we piled into our cars to drive down to his house. We were crammed into his living-room, 20 of us. Mrs Rod was very pleasant, popped through with some nibbles, and he opened up this flipchart. We all said what we thought was wrong with life under John – ‘Can’t communicate, poor man-management, training’s murder’ – and Rod would scribble each point on a separate page and pin these to the walls.
“Another page said: ‘Get Mark Proctor back involved.’ He was part of Tony’s coaching team and caretaker before John arrived. He’d taken us to Dunfermline and we’d smashed them four-nil but then he’d been sidelined. Rod said: ‘Anything else? We’ve got a big game at Hampden coming up – what would really help make this better?’ That’s when Broonie uttered the immortal words: ‘Just f****n’ sack him.’ Rod got all flustered. He said: ‘Now, now Scott. I think that might possibly be a bit extreme.”
Collins wasn’t dismissed but Hibs wouldn’t smash the Pars again, losing in a replay in the last minute. Collins and Brown would be required to work with each other again, at Celtic, because football makes a habit of these reunions, bashing heads together. Stewart would return to Hearts, prosper for a bit, become captain, before a fall-out with Jim Jefferies. Hibs would win the cup eventually. Stewart would find TV a more receptive arena for his independent mind and forthright views. So, all’s well that ends well?
Maybe, despite his obvious ability on a football pitch, he wasn’t really cut out for a football dressing-room where the manager’s word is law. He smiles again and relates the story of one of his earliest training-ground bust-ups, out on loan at Forest from Man U, when an argument with a team-mate ended with Stewart being socked in the jaw. A sarcastic comment from him may have precipitated this; nevertheless he wasn’t the one who threw the punch and ran away. But it was Stewart who was benched for the next game, a victim of what he says was “weak management”. Then some strong management – courtesy of Sir Alex Ferguson – decided his time was up at Old Trafford.
“There’s a school of thought that footballers should keep their opinions to themselves and do what the managers tell them and that’s how team unity is created. I get that. But my counter-argument would be: if you have an awareness to recognise that something isn’t quite right, then rather than continue on a fool’s errand shouldn’t you speak up in the hope of improving the situation?”
Growing up in Edinburgh, Stewart’s father Bill was a civil servant of placid temperament. His fieriness, the tendency to combust in his playing days, probably came from his mother Jackie. At the city’s Craigmount High School he was an inquisitive pupil. I’m imagining the red-haired scamp always shooting up a hand to ask: “Sir, can you explain such-and-such to us?” “Well, it was probably more like: ‘Actually, sir, I think a better way to do it would be this … ’
“As far as some teachers were concerned I would have been brilliant but for others I’m sure I was a total nightmare. Bit like in football with managers, really. My English master was a Canadian called Mr Nale, a great guy who encouraged us to ask questions and develop our own opinions. I remember having issues with the school hierarchy and he got me to look out the classroom window on a stormy day. ‘Michael,’ he said, ‘do you think those trees are strong?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but they’re being blown about.’ He said: ‘You can be strong but sometimes you have to bend with the wind.’”
Sound advice which he admits as a player he didn’t always heed. Life would have been a whole lot easier, and maybe the career more rewarding, if he’d occasionally zipped his lip. But that would be him not being true to himself. He loves punditry having entered the scene at the right time, just as it was becoming edgier with polite euphemisms giving way to provocative assertions. Stewart says that when he criticises it’s not personal and nor is he being controversial for its own sake. Yes, he’s aware of the need to provide entertainment but hopefully there’s insight, too. Can we have too much punditry? “I think analysis is only going to increase but will that not lead to a greater understanding of the game? There are far too many people involved in it who don’t have a bloody clue.”
Stewart has worked for great managers and also some “horrific ones”. When he tells you what Pat Fenlon did wrong in the 2012 Scottish Cup final and what Ian Cathro is doing wrong right now, I repeat to the original question: why not have a go himself? “Football has never been the be-all-and-end-all,” he says. “I’ve just got too many other interests, things I enjoy and get a kick from.”
There’s his family, his snowboarding of course and there’s politics. Alex Salmond, when he was SNP leader, persuaded him to bid to become a Westminster MP and although he didn’t win the party nomination, he might try again later, hopefully at Holyrood when independence has been achieved. As I say, he’s pretty hot on politics. It’s some considerable time after me saying goodbye and him explaining why Russia’s need for a warm-water port should ensure Scotland will always be welcome at Nato’s table that I’m able to leave. He loves the cut and thrust of politics. “As infuriating as it can be to hear an opposing view when it’s transparent or nonsensical, you have to respect other people’s opinions.” he says. Now, how on earth did this equable and even-handed fellow ever cause merry hell in a dressing-room?