IRISH LEAGUE: Linfield’s striking student Stewart is learning from the master

Cameron Stewart opened the scoring against his former side. Pic: Matt Mackey / Press Eye
Cameron Stewart opened the scoring against his former side. Pic: Matt Mackey / Press Eye

When Crusaders lost a promising young defender last summer, there would have been long odds on him coming back to haunt them as an in-form forward.

Such was the strange twist of fate at the Ballymena Showgrounds on Tuesday evening when Cameron Stewart sat in the press room with a modest but infectious smile, having netted Linfield’s first goal on route to their 3-1 County Antrim Shield final success.

Linfield's players celebrate County Antrim Shield victory. 'Photograph by Presseye/Matt Mackey

Linfield's players celebrate County Antrim Shield victory. 'Photograph by Presseye/Matt Mackey

It was the 19 year-old’s third goal in as many games - even more impressive considering he’s still learning his trade up top.

Standing at six foot four, Stewart played his first game as a forward just over two months previous, when he beat hat-trick scorer Jonny Frazer to the Man of the Match award in the Steel and Sons Cup semi-final, playing for Linfield Swifts.

In fairness, the former Crusaders defender is learning from the best striker Northern Ireland has ever produced but even boss David Healy has been taken aback by Stewart’s swift rise to stardom.

“I didn’t realise he was a centre-forward,” said an honest Linfield manager, perched beside Stewart - the teacher and the student. “I apologised about playing him out of position.

“I have to thank Alan Dornan (Linfield Swifts manager). We talked about Cameron, what position he was going to play in and how we could get the best out of him.”

Tuesday’s match was evidence that they’ve made an inspired decision as he gave experienced Crusaders duo Howard Beverland and Colin Coates a tough test, even if it was done out of fear of his manager.

“David spoke to me before the game about being physical because he knows Howard and Colin are physical defenders,” said Stewart, perhaps in awe but evidently at ease at Healy’s side.

“His voice was ringing in my ears every time I was making a move or didn’t get the ball I was thinking ‘I’m going to get shouted at here.’

“I enjoyed myself. I just took it as another game and took it in my stride. It was good to get the early goal to settle my nerves.

“I should have had another one in the second half, or I should have passed to Andy (Waterworth) - he’s been at me about that.

“The gaffer’s at me to be selfish and that’s what I was doing.”

In terms of scoring goals, Healy knows his subject - his 36 international strikes are evidence of that.

“Centre-halves are unselfish, strikers are selfish,” the boss interjected, wisdom Stewart was clearly keen to soak up. “Cameron’s an honest, well-educated young man but he has to be that bit more selfish.

“Over the course of his career, he’s going to have Andy or somebody in the middle but he will think he can score. If he scores he scores, if he misses, he can hold his hands up.

“He came in on an amateur contract because he wanted to prove himself. He’s now signed a professional contract because he’s earned it.

“He’s a threat, he’s young, he’s keen and he will get better. I’m on at him about everything - aren’t I Cameron?,” Healy adds with a glance to his left.

Stewart gives an enthusiastic nod - as if to emphasise the incessant nature of his manager’s probing. Ever polite, he adds that Healy’s advice is always appreciated.

“Learning from David is brilliant,” he said. “His knowledge of the game is first class and it’s all about the small movements up front.

“Then on the pitch, Andy (Waterworth) is the best striker in the league, his goals speak for themselves and he’s taken me under his wing.”

Healy did, however, add a warning that “if he starts getting too soft” up top - he’ll be straight back to centre-half to “toughen up.”

At six foot four and with a strong physique, being bullied on the pitch shouldn’t be an issue for the former Campbell College pupil.

Now he’s in the David Healy school of scoring - and he’s passed his first exam.