As Fabio Capello prepares to axe seven stars from his World Cup plans Ray Stewart will experience painful memories of the moment Jock Stein broke his heart.
“Missing the World Cup was like giving the game up through injury,” the West Ham legend admitted, recalling how he was left out of Scotland’s 1982 World Cup squad.
“Nothing can prepare you for being left out, people in football don’t like failure. It’s egg in your face if you are left out anytime, even more so when it’s a World Cup squad.”
Stewart had been a regular in Jock Stein’s World Cup squad in the 1982 campaign as Scotland qualified along with Northern Ireland out of a group that also contained Portugal, Sweden and Israel.
As a regular in the West Ham side and approaching his 23rd birthday his international career was developing nicely and he played in Scotland’s final two qualifiers away to Northern Ireland, when qualification was clinched, and the dead rubber against Portugal in Lisbon.
At the end of the season a 24 man squad was announced for the British Championships which would be trimmed down to 22 to travel to the World Cup.
Stewart played in the midweek win over Northern Ireland but before the Saturday fixture with England he received the news that every player was dreading.
“Before the match with England Jock just said ‘It’s easier to tell the lads who aren’t going’ and that was it,” the full-back recalled. “He said ‘Tommy Burns and Ray Stewart aren’t going’.
“Everyone else in the squad came up and said unlucky, sorry to hear it and all that but they really weren’t giving two hoots as long as they were going
“It was hard for me and Tommy Burns to take, we tried to be professional and get on with it but people were asking us what had happened but we just packed our bags and left.
“We didn’t even sit and watch the game with England, it was sad.
“That period will live with me forever because I never got to a World Cup, it’s a horrible memory, the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career.
“Being left out at the last minute was soul destroying.”
Travel arrangements are already in place for the players left out of Capello’s squad, in 1982 Stewart and Burns packed their bags and drove off with their anger and disappointment.
After preparing for the biggest event of his career the full-back had to look on from a distance as Scotland performed their usual heroic failure by losing out on qualification on goal difference from a group that contained New Zealand, Brazil and the USSR.
In those days only five substitutes were selected with Davie Provan of Celtic and Scotland’s Player of the Year Paul Sturrock not even making the bench for any of the three matches.
Watching players that he had spent much of the season playing with and against involved in the game’s greatest stage brought bitter sweet memories for Stewart.
“I watched the tournament in goodness and badness,” he added. “Obviously being Scottish through and through I wanted the team to do well but at times you want to see them fail.
“When you’re not in the team, you might want them to win but play badly.
“I was always professional, I always wanted my team to win but when you’re not playing you don’t want them to do too well.
“Some players can go to a World Cup and not get a game but I would rather have gone even if I had never got on the bench.
“I’d have been able to say that I’d been to a World Cup, to do that would be an experience that you’d never forget, I’ll live with that forever.
“After that summer I got on with my game at West Ham, that was my bread and butter. I could easily have sulked and turned away and been disappointed by everything to do with football but you have to move on.
“I had a great time at West Ham, a few seasons later I was in the 86 team that finished third in the league but whenever people talk about World Cups I think back to the days that I nearly got there.”
Stewart is still a regular visitor to Upton Park and treated as a hero for his 12 years service in the east end.
Winning the 1980 FA Cup Final was the highlight of his time at the club, gaining the unique distinction of being the only non-Englishman to have played in any of the club’s three FA Cup winning teams.
Despite playing entirely at right-back Stewart was the regular penalty taker throughout his time at the club and rarely made a mistake from 12 yards out.
England have crashed out of three World Cup Finals on penalties with the modest Stewart offering a novel solution to Capello ahead of the flight to South Africa.
“The only advise that I could give would be to employ me for a month!” he joked. “But I’m not sure if they’d want a Jock helping them.
“You can prepare as much as you like for penalties but other things can happen, you can hit your best ever penalty and the goalie will pull off a save.
“I’d normally blast my penalties but in the last minute of a League Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley I changed from my usual routine. Ray Clemence dived one way and I just rolled it into the other corner.
“I’d practise my penalties a lot and that had a part in my success with them. I was always confident. If you’re confident it doesn’t matter who the goalie is you’ll stick them away.
“After training I’d practise penalties by placing cones a bit less than a yard inside the post, I didn’t want to practise against a goalkeeper. I felt that was important, when I took my penalties I didn’t think about the goalie.
“People ask me about the penalty at Wembley but that didn’t mean so much because we lost in the replay against Liverpool.
“When we won the FA Cup I scored the winning goal against Aston Villa, it was against Jimmy Rimmer and the penalty took us through and we went on to lift the cup.”
After being left out of the 1982 World Cup squad Stewart made just one more appearance under Jock Stein but collected three more caps in the 1986/87 season with Andy Roxburgh in charge, taking his total of international caps to ten.
INTERVIEW COURTESY OF JOE MCHUGH at ‘VIDEO CELTS‘