Saturday Interview: Michael Stewart happy leaving Hearts frying pan for Turkish fire

ONCE Scotland could get excited about sending entire football teams out into the world.

Now it tends to be individuals who are charged with the responsibility of carrying out missionary work. At the start of another World Cup in which Scotland are absent, the saltires are flying for Michael Stewart, who has swapped the isolation of his final weeks with Heart of Midlothian for the bustling metropolis that is Ankara, capital of a currently vibrant Turkey.

Go east, young man seems to be the advice being followed by an increasing number of Scots. Kris Boyd is currently contemplating continuing what has become a trend, though his suitors are further east still, amid the ancient bazaars of the much more provincial Kayseri. This trade of Scottish footballers along the old silk road is not an entirely new phenomenon. Ian Wilson, the Aberdeen-born former Everton midfielder, became something of a hero during a season in the late Eighties at Besiktas, where he won the double.

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Perhaps surprisingly, it was Maurice Ross who followed in Wilson's intrepid footsteps 20 years later, though he has since moved on to China. Stewart is the latest to select what might appear an eccentric career choice to some. After a three-year spell with Hearts, however, it could feel like a refreshing dose of sanity in his life, even if the city he has opted for recently spat out another British wayfarer after only a season. Darius Vassell, the former England striker, has returned home with something he did not need on his arrival: medication for depression.

Vassell's blogs from an anonymous hotel room detailing his sense of dislocation were a surprisingly poignant chronicle of unpaid wages and slow mental decline. But, significantly, although Vassell played his football at the same municipal stadium where Stewart will soon step out, he did so in the colours of Ankaragucu, who make Hearts seem like contenders for employers of the year.

Meanwhile, Stewart and St Mirren midfielder Billy Mehmet, who is of Irish/Turkish-Cypriot descent, have signed for rivals Genclerbirligi (pronounced Gench-Lair-Beer-Ligi, with a hard first 'G').

The club has been run by the same charismatic president since 1977, and are as close to stable as you can get in the rumbustious but presently cash-rich world of Turkish football. They satisfied Stewart's desire for financial security, and, most importantly of all, for adventure. But that his first posting abroad (don't be fooled by Wikipedia reports of a spell on loan at Royal Antwerp – it didn't happen) should be in Turkey surprised him as well as others. Stewart had recruited a German-based agent with the principal aim to find him a club in Germany. He does, though, have a German manager on whom to practice his conversational-level German. Thomas Doll, once the supposedly miffed central midfield partner for Paul Gascoigne at Lazio, is in charge, and expects Stewart to help fulfil the club's ambition of qualifying for Europe next season. He has signed for two years, with an option for a third.

"It came from left-field a wee bit," admits Stewart now, when we meet on a brief stop-off in Edinburgh between holidays in New York and Italy. "I was focusing more on western Europe. There were a fair few things popping up, predominantly in Germany.

"I spent a few hectic days on my first visit (to Ankara, where he was accompanied by girlfriend Suzy]. But we came to the conclusion that there were too many positives, and hardly a single negative. Initially, my mind was swinging back and forward about whether I could actually do it or not. It was very, very hectic, and there we were, being thrown about the back of a car on a tour of the city. I just needed to sit down and take a few minutes to myself to think it through. I just needed to clear my mind.

"In the hotel room just before we went out for a meal on the last night, I was thinking: 'This is going to be a struggle. I don't know if I can do this'. I was not panicking, but my head was ready to burst."

Much had already happened in the preceding weeks to frazzle his senses, chief amongst them being stripped of the captaincy at Hearts. It is fair to say that his time at Tynecastle did not end the way he would have wanted. It is possible to understand his frustration. Laryea Kingston, for example, has been few people's idea of the perfect professional during his time at Hearts, yet was allowed to see out his Tynecastle career in comparative serenity, with the bonus of a lap of honour at the end. Stewart, who played such an active part in the life of the club as an ambassador for the Hearts Education & Community Trust, was told he was being demoted from captain just minutes before a match with Motherwell, and spent his final days at the club training with the youths.

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In addition, there remains an on-going dispute about unpaid wages. However, Stewart harbours no regrets about returning to Tynecastle after an equally fractious end to his career with Hibernian. "There was unfinished business at Hearts," he says. "I had been there on loan and things hadn't gone great. I felt I wanted to go back.

"Inevitably, there will be ups and downs. I am still a Hearts fan and always will be. I always want to see the club doing well. I think now being away from things and looking at it from afar it will be a wee bit easier to deal with it.

"When you are caught up in the midst of the club and its inner workings, then things sometimes become a little bit political.

He adds: "It has been well documented what happened before the (Motherwell] game. I did not appreciate that. I felt the whole scenario was not dealt with in a good and respectful manner. But it's been and gone. It's human nature to want to go out on a high, but it wasn't to be."

There were some uncomfortable weeks last season when a minority of Hearts fans targeted him for abuse, but Stewart responded with a series of match-winning contributions, often via the penalty spot. "There were times when it pissed you off," he recalls. "But there were other times when I quite liked it. It was almost like playing against your own fans at times.

"(But] there are too many things to look forward to get hung up on a few negatives. And I want to be able to go back and watch Hearts. I don't want to feel as if there is a grievance there.

"I want to come back at Christmas time when I have a week off and be able to go and watch a game. There's no reason why I shouldn't. I am still in contact with a lot of people at the club. It's like anything, at the time it was fresh and it cuts deeper. But as the weeks go by the anger disappears fairly quickly.

"At Hibs I just didn't agree with certain things that were done at the club. Likewise with Hearts at the end. I am 29 years old now. The older you get the more comfortable you are in your own skin, and the more conviction you have in your own beliefs. I am not going to change. And I don't feel I have to."

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A fan of city-living in Edinburgh, Stewart is poised to set up home in the cosmopolitan district of Cankaya, in the heart of the Turkish capital. Ilhan Cavcav, the club president, has already promised him holidays on his yacht, moored in the Aegean coastal resort of Bodrum. Stewart is clearly looking forward to being himself in a new environment, where few preconceptions have formed, and no referees view him as a likely source of trouble.

"There are a lot of people like that in all walks of life, people for whom it is good to start afresh," he says.

"It takes the weight off your own shoulders. It got to the stage where people were passing comment as they passed in the street. You don't need it."

But Stewart is not the overly-serious agitator often depicted. He does enjoy a laugh – and critically, can laugh at himself. However unhappily his time with Hearts ended, he starred in what surely is the most comical moment of the season when he slipped while kicking a bottle in the tunnel at Hamilton Accies, having been sent-off for a trifling offence. All you can see on the YouTube footage – viewed on 26,223 occasions at the time of writing – is the tip of Stewart's white boot flipping into the air, just over the heads of bystanders.

"It's not the easiest thing to laugh at yourself," he reflects now, a smile breaking out across features preparing to spend a lot more time smothered in high-grade sun-block. "I am by no means the best at doing it. It's half the reason why I like travelling round the world, because you meet people and can be a bit more open with them.

"When I was in New York recently visiting friends I hooked up with a few Americans over there. One afternoon we were in an Irish bar and were talking about football and all the outrageous stories from the last couple of years. I told them the Hamilton story, and how it had been live on the telly. I explained that I was walking down the tunnel in a rage and went to boot a water bottle when my studs slipped, and I fell on my arse. They were bent over laughing, rolling about the pub.

"I remember waking up the day after the game and my lower back was a bit sore. It was about half an hour later when I twigged and thought to myself: 'That's probably from when I fell over on my bloody backside!'"

One imagines there will be more bumps and bruises during the journey ahead, but unlike so many of his peers, Stewart has grasped the opportunity to broaden his horizons. He deserves to be saluted for that.