Today’s Player Watch features a Linfield player who started life off as a defender and became a forward. These exercises are interesting as the watcher is looking to see what attributes the player has to involve such a positional change. The fire and intensity of a Linfield/Glentoran Boxing Day game would also be a further challenge. The obvious height and build of the twenty-year-old stand out and coupled with the pace of Andy Waterworth there looked plenty for the Glentoran defence to consider.
The game started with the low sun behind the Linfield attack so aerial balls which punctuated the opening duels were another issue for both defender and forward. He lost the first header to Calum Birney who was sticking close to him but nodded the next one on. He no doubt was hoping for some sort of ball to feet and a run into the box was not fruitful as the first ball in from the edge of the six-yard box was marginally behind him.
He nodded a throw-in infield to no avail and as the game opened up he started putting more thought into his movement in conjunction with Waterworth to try and move the opposition centre-backs around. He was just short of reaching a ball before Birney cleared the danger ahead of him but he was enjoying seeing more creativity on the floor from his colleagues. Earlier in the game, he had veered to the Glentoran right as his goalkeeper had targetted Kerr, the Glentoran right back who conceded inches to Stewart but in mixing it up he now moved out the left trying to offer options to his defence. However, it was in the twenty-fifth minute that he struck gold.
A fairly flowing Linfield move sucked most of the Glentoran defence towards Lowry and Stewart’s subtle move to the right was well timed to stay onside as he picked the ball up from his midfielder. The angle of his run, in essence, had given him the angle he needed on the goalkeeper and he easily placed the ball past Elliot Morris into the left-hand corner of the Glentoran net. Excellent forward play that would have pleased his manager.
His next involvement only minutes later was to be equally critical as he ran onto a Fallon ball, again staying well onside and bore down on the Sydenham end goal from the right. In roughly the same place he shot again but the goalkeeper had a better angle on his net. The shot, however, was pulled wide and this has to be considered a bad miss. He was having lively battles with Birney at corners who was protecting his goalkeeper who had been injured and he indeed started to move further right where Willy Garrett now picked him up. He showed excellent technical ability controlling a goal – kick from Roy Carroll on his instep and moved the ball to his right. On another move, he set off across the pitch juggling the ball on his foot and along with his physical presence one can see his use to the team in keeping the ball upfield.
He was winning more headers now against Garrett than previously and Waterworth was peeling away trying to feed off these. Stewart is still learning the forward’s craft and when he has the ball at his feet with a defence in front of him sometimes he can appear indecisive. This will result in him turning away from trouble as he has the ability to shield the ball but unless he has willing runners the move will break down or come to nothing. Keeping a move alive will come from experience.
His main business, of course, is being a target in the penalty area and he showed plenty of understanding of this. Linfield to get the best out of Stewart needed to get better balls in from the flanks and this was not happening enough in open play. The first time they managed this in the first half Stewart did get on the end of it but his header was straight at Morris. Many high balls were still coming down the pitch at him and on one occasion he outmuscled two defenders to get above them to emerge victorious.
He has plenty of appetite for the rough and tumble of his job and picked himself up after clearly coming off worst in tussles with Kelly and Birney. Shortly after this, he showed few ill effects as he was to be found as a winger taking on defenders to get a cross in but again had the ability to tie defenders up and give them things to think about. Minutes later he pointed to Mark Haughey where he wanted the ball and although the resulting pass was behind him he still managed to get a shot away. He was putting more and more thought into his movement and was able to play Waterworth into dangerous positions through good control of the ball.
He, however, was not ever spinning away from his marker at any point which cut down options for the Linfield attack as it was something the opposing defence did not have to worry about. In the second half, the Glentoran defence sat very deep resulting in little room for him. He occasionally moved out right or came into the midfield and on one occasion was able to take a ball and move it out wide to the left to start a move. His frustrating second half tended to mirror Linfield’s as there was little space to play football and Glentoran’s back four were resolute in their efforts to keep their goalkeeper free of action.
Stewart was still working hard and was impressive in doing some grim unspectacular work such as harassing Nelson into conceding a throw. His best moment in the second half happened when he broke free into the Glentoran box from the left wing but a covering defender was able to get back on him. He will have been frustrated in the second not to have as much opportunity as he did in the first but the service to him declined and it was a scrappy and patchy Linfield as the game wore on.