At 26, Cameron Stewart is approaching what should be the peak years of his professional career. But given recent experiences, he’s not looking too far ahead. A former Manchester United prospect, who went on to play for Hull City, Blackburn Rovers and Burnley among others, Stewart has been without a club for 14 months. Although there have been a handful of trials and discussions with different managers, nothing has materialised.
“It’s just one of those things,” says Stewart. “The longer you spend out of the game, the more questions people have. It became difficult as well because I’d been at Ipswich for two years and not played much or really done anything so a lot of people were questioning, ‘Why hasn’t he played? Why hasn’t he done this? Why hasn’t he done that?’ That’s the question mark that hangs over you in the end. I’m sure I won’t be the only player in this boat, there will be hundreds out there.”
The football world, which Stewart has been part of since the age of 12, carries on regardless. He has been a full-time professional for nearly a decade but that counts for little in such an unforgiving environment. The feeling of being left behind is difficult to shake. Football has a short memory and Stewart isn’t alone. Each year, a raft of players are released and a scramble to find new clubs ensues. Not everyone can be lucky. Many are all too easily forgotten about.
“Has it tore me apart being out of it for a year? I wouldn’t say totally. I think for a little bit it did, having that realisation that I didn’t have a club, so essentially I’m jobless. At the same time, I see my family, I see my friends. I have a social life again. It’s not easy but I wouldn’t say it’s wrecking me. There will be people out there who are different, who are pulling their hair out. It just depends what kind of character you are and what road you’ve been down.”
Stewart’s journey started at Fletcher Moss Rangers, the Manchester youth club famed for developing so many of the city’s footballers – Wes Brown, Ravel Morrison, Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford included. Several have gone on to play for England. Stewart was treading the same path. Picked up by Manchester United in his first year of high school, he was part of the same age group as Welbeck, Danny Drinkwater and Matty James.
A tricky winger who likes to take people on, he signed his first professional contract in 2009. That year Stewart featured five times for the England Under-19s and was an unused substitute for a Champions League group stage game away to Wolfsburg. He travelled with the first team on a couple more occasions but never made his debut for the club. A loan spell at League One Yeovil Town followed before Hull came in for him. They provided a launch pad.
“I was desperate to go because it was Championship football. I saw it as an opportunity. I went there and I played every game. I was fortunate that Nigel Pearson had faith in me,” says Stewart.
“They offered good money for me to stay there. It was a decision I had to make – whether I thought I was going to break through at United at any point, or it would stall my career. At the time I was playing first team football and I didn’t want that to stop.”
A £300,000 fee was agreed and the deal was completed on the final day of the January transfer window. Shortly afterwards, Stewart damaged his cruciate ligament and had to spend nine months on the sidelines. He made his comeback in November 2011, the same week that Pearson left to take over at Leicester City, and scored his first professional goal. Soon Pearson was bidding over £1million to be reunited with Stewart. Hull stood firm, not wanting to lose another valuable asset.
“Because Leicester had put in a bid, I talked to Hull about a new contract. I was saying, ‘If you’re not going to let me go then I must be entitled to a new contract’. They said we’d sort it at the end of the season. Steve Bruce took over and said that nobody’s guaranteed to play and everybody’s on a clean slate starting from now. I played the first two or three games of the season, which we won, and then as the transfer window was still open, he began to bring in the players he wanted. I started to play less and less.”
Just before the transfer window closed, Stewart agreed to join Burnley on loan. He was desperate to play but now acknowledges that it was an impulsive decision and one that didn’t work out well. Three games after he’d arrived, Eddie Howe left to go back to Bournemouth and Sean Dyche came in. Stewart wasn’t picked after that. Still out of favour at Hull, more loan moves followed.
“Loans have always been quite difficult. When I was 19 and going on loan it was a bit different because you’re a young lad going out for an opportunity, whereas after that I was going on loan because I wasn’t playing for the club I was at. It wasn’t quite the same. Sometimes you don’t feel part of it as much.
“It’s difficult for your football, of course, because you never get settled anywhere, which is never nice, but I think it’s also difficult in terms of the part of football people don’t see. Everyone sees football as sunshine and rainbows but there are times when you can’t really explain to your family where you’re going to be in three months’ time. It’s not always that easy when you’re moving from home to home.”
The strain that football can put on the relationships and social lives of the young men involved is often overlooked. It’s expected to be their sole focus, sacrificing everything for a game that can spit them out at any moment. No guarantees are offered and circumstances are always changing. Plenty of players fall by the wayside.
Stewart seemed to have found another opportunity when Leeds United agreed to take on the final six months of his Hull contract, leading into a three-year deal. But when Massimo Cellino declared the agreement invalid, Stewart was forced to take him to court. He won the case, and the entirety of the promised deal, worth £750,000, was paid outright. He then signed for Ipswich Town instead.
“Things never really even began at Ipswich to be honest. I started off not too badly in pre-season, doing ok. I’d like to say I would have played the first game of the season regardless because we had a lot of injuries, but then I broke my jaw. It was a flailing elbow in the last pre-season game and I never saw the pitch again.
“Mick (McCarthy) will have his reasons and I’ll have mine. No one really knows the truth. We quite often played with central midfielders out wide and you know what you get with Ipswich. They’re quite a steady ship type team. You know what you get with Mick McCarthy. We had our fall-outs but I’d never have a bad word to say about him.”
Two very different characters, with entirely different approaches to football, Stewart’s time at Ipswich wasn’t the easiest. There were more loan spells, with Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers, but it was clear that he had no future at his parent club. Although Ipswich were keen to put Stewart in the shop window and get him off the wage bill, he rejected more proposed moves. All the uncertainty was beginning to take its toll.
“They kind of wanted me out and I wanted to go. They were trying to make me go to certain places so they could get a bit of money for me, or save my wages at least, but I didn’t really want to do that. I didn’t want them to dictate anything to me. Just before the deadline they offered me a pay-off to leave, which I took. At that point I’d travelled a lot, and lived all over the place over almost eight years and I just decided it was time to go home.
“I’m still living at home now. In some ways it probably wasn’t the best decision to move back home and have some time out, but I felt like that was what I needed. I just felt like I’d lost a little bit of love and enthusiasm for football. I’d had it dragged out of me spending two years sat at Ipswich doing nothing. Prior to that, moving around, going on loan all the time, I felt like I actually wanted to settle my life down and be steady for at least five minutes.”
The nomadic existence of a footballer-for-hire came to an end and Stewart moved back to Manchester. After a short break he started looking for clubs more locally, going on trial to Sheffield United and then Wigan, where his former youth team coach Warren Joyce had pitched up in his first managerial job.
Stewart was working hard to get fit but Joyce was coming under pressure as Wigan struggled at the bottom of the Championship. It has become a recurring theme in his search for a club. Recent interest from other teams came to nothing when the managers concerned were dismissed. Although Stewart goes to the gym regularly and trains on his own, it’s impossible to replicate match sharpness and clubs can ill-afford to wait for a new signing to get up to speed.
“The way football’s going managers genuinely don’t have time to wait for a player to get fit. They need results quickly or they’re getting sacked. A lot of managers say ‘If he’s not ready now, I can’t really do much’, which is understandable. At the end of the day, it’s their job just like it’s mine.”
After the Wigan experience, Stewart and his agent wrote off the remainder of last season, deciding that it wasn’t worth trying to force a move with only a few months left. Many clubs didn’t have space in their budget anyway, and it seemed better to start afresh in the summer. He spent a month at Charlton and was hopeful of getting a deal, but the Addicks had other targets. Ben Reeves and Joe Dodoo joined, leaving Stewart on the shelf.
The experience has been more trying than he expected. There is a familiar refrain of managers being sacked. The lack of continuity, and what this does to the people and players caught up in it, is startling. While it’s tempting to feel like a victim of football’s short-term thinking and throwaway culture, Stewart acknowledges that he’s not entirely blameless for his current plight.
“I think I’ve been unlucky at times. But in other ways, maybe I took a few things for granted when I was younger. You can’t blame it all on luck, or other people, sometimes you’ve got to look at yourself. I don’t think I realised how difficult it would be when you’re on your way down.
“Even when I left Ipswich and was saying I’d take some time out, I was sat there thinking ‘I’ve played over 100 games in the Championship. I’ve played for some big clubs, at least three or four who’ve been in and out of the Premier League’. I thought that alone would be enough. People would look at my CV and think I must be a decent player. The way it’s gone now, it doesn’t really matter. If you’re not in people’s eyeline, then you’re kind of out of it.”
The longer you spend out of football, the easier it is to become just another statistic. What you’ve done before doesn’t count for much and doubts begin to form. Stewart has always been willing to go against the grain if he feels it’s the right thing to do but clubs tend to prefer quiet compliance. Some of the hasty decisions he made when he was younger may have cast him in a bad light and closed off certain options. Hungry as he is to return to the game, he doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes.
“If I’m honest with you, I’m in no crazy rush to make a rash decision on where to play football. I’m not looking for money. I’m not looking for the biggest club. All I want to do is be able to enjoy it and play football again. If there was a League One club that could ring me tomorrow and say ‘We’ll pay you X amount but you’ll be on the bench,’ I’d say ‘No thanks’. I’d rather be in the Conference and play than be in League One and do nothing. Because it’s pointless isn’t it?
“I’ve decided that wherever this next move will be, I will play. Whatever level that may be at. As you can see I haven’t got endless offers. I haven’t got any offers whatsoever. It’s about finding a place where I’ll play. I’m not desperate for the money. Obviously everyone needs to make a living but that’s not my main focus right now. In my current situation, I don’t need it.”
When he was first breaking through at his boyhood club, Stewart dreamed of becoming a star player for Manchester United. While some of his former teammates have thrived at the top level, his path has deviated. The 26-year-old is aware that there are myriad contributing factors – luck, confidence, lifestyle, colleagues – but he still hopes to make it back to the Championship.