Exclusive: Ross Stewart ready to step in as Hearts No.1 despite his uncertain Tynecastle future
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The third choice is preparing himself to take the gloves for Saturday’s vital Premiership match against St Mirren. He hasn’t played competitively since August 21 last year at Celtic Park, so this would be a colossal opportunity in more ways than one.
Stewart replaced Clark at half-time on Saturday as Hearts suffered a fifth defeat in six games at Kilmarnock. Tensions are running high among supporters but the club remain third in the league and striving for European qualification. Stewart, 27, could find himself thrown into a bubbling cauldron this weekend if Clark’s absence is confirmed.
He feels more than ready. Admirable strength of character and professionalism has allowed him to maintain focus and concentration just in case a scenario like this transpired. It is unusual for two keepers to suffer injuries within a few months of the same season – but this is Hearts, after all.
“You don’t like those situations and you would rather be coming on under different circumstances,” said Stewart, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “First and foremost, I hope the big man [Clark] is alright. If he gets a scan or whatever, I hope it comes back clear. If I’m needed then I’ll be ready.”
The obvious question is: How sharp can anyone be for such an important fixture after seven months of inactivity? “It’s hard. You need to take every training session and every drill and treat it as a game. Nothing compares to actual game moments, though. We haven’t even had a friendly so the last time I played was over in Spain during the mid-season trip. I just try to keep myself as ready as possible for these moments.”
Patience is clearly one of Stewart’s best attributes. Clark joined Hearts in September and quickly became back-up to club captain Gordon, edging Stewart down to third-choice keeper. It wasn’t a situation he expected but, rather than take the huff, he approached manager Robbie Neilson for talks about the situation. He simply used it as a positive.
“I’ll be truthful with you. Straight away, I thought: ‘This is just an extra chance to push myself.’ I try not to be a negative person and try to see things as an opportunity,” said Stewart. “I said to myself: ‘I’ve got two keepers who are involved with Scotland. If I can push as hard as I can and push them as hard as possible, then I might have a chance.’
“Me and the gaffer had a chat – I don’t know if I really want to talk about that just now – then Craig breaks his leg. That was one we didn’t want to see either. I’m focused on doing what I can do every day in training. If I’m called upon on Saturday, I’m ready.
“These opportunities don’t come along too often, especially as a goalkeeper. There are plenty players on the pitch who can play different positions. Keepers only have one place and I’ve had two people in front of me. It’s very rare that you get this opportunity, so if I am called upon then I’ve got to grab it with both hands.”
Even more so when you remember his Hearts contract expires in a few weeks. He has made only eight competitive appearances since arriving at Tynecastle Park from Livingston in summer 2020. If this is to be his last year and there is no extension to his current deal, he will be stepping into the shop window as well as the Hearts goalmouth this weekend.
“Definitely. If I’m called upon on Saturday, I’ve got to take the opportunity to showcase what I can do,” explained Stewart.” Two goalkeepers have gone down with injury and it’s very rare that this opportunity comes around for me. I’ve got to take it.
“Craigy and Zander have done a lot in the game so I try to take as much as I can from them. Craigy has played in the Premier League, won countless caps and trophies. Zander played so many years for St Johnstone and is in the Scotland set-up as well. If I can take things from both of them and put it into my own game, then it definitely helps.”
Stewart could justifiably be absolved of any blame for Saturday’s 2-1 reverse in Ayrshire. The scoreline when he entered the fray at the break did not alter and therefore he did what was required. The keeper himself doesn’t think that way, however, as he offered a message to supporters disgruntled at recent results.
“It’s a team game. Whether we are losing or we are winning, I’m still part of it,” he said. “I won’t just walk away and think: ‘I came on at half-time so the first half was nothing to do with me.’ We are a team so we all need to look at each other.
“Of course I’m happy to get a chance to play. It’s the first time I’ve come off the bench apart from my debut. I’ve never had to do that before. It was good to be back on the pitch, even though the result wasn’t good.
“We’re definitely disappointed. We’re on a bad run. I’ve been at the club two and a half years now and we’ve gone through a wee spell like this every season. I don’t want the fans to think that we just accept this; that we’re just coming in to training and doing what we like. The boys are pushing each other every single day. Maybe things aren’t going our way just now but it’s up to us to turn that round.”