THOMAS STEWART’s brief spell at Brandywell Stadium ended four years ago at a time of deep uncertainty for Derry City Football Club, but the Shamrock Rovers striker still holds fond memories of his time spent on Foyleside.
SIMON COLLINS reports
The onset of the club’s financial implosion at the end of the 2009 season left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Portadown native.
However, he quickly settled into his new surroundings after finding employment at Tallaght Stadium where he went on to win a Premier Division winners’ medal the following year.
No stranger to the Glentoran Stand as a spectator in recent times, Stewart is available to make his second appearance at the Lone Moor Road venue since his departure.
His first visit to the home of his former club as an opposition player was a successful one in 2010 when introduced as a substitute as Rovers inflicted a 1-2 defeat on then First Division representatives, Derry in the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
And he managed to net a late consolation strike in his last meeting with the ‘Candy Stripes’ last October when Declan Devine’s men claimed a memorable 3-1 league victory in Dublin as they warmed up for the FAI Cup final.
While the former N. Ireland U21 international certainly doesn’t envisage an emotional return to his former club where he made 55 appearances, he still feels an attachment to the club which first introduced him to League of Ireland football in June 2008.
“I really enjoyed my time in Derry,” claimed Stewart. “The fans were great to me and they gave me a good reception when I came on during my last visit to Brandywell which is always nice because I left in obviously sticky circumstances at the time,” he recalled.
“But the supporters were always excellent and got behind all the lads at the time, not just myself.”
The 26 year-old former Linfield hitman returned to Rovers for a second spell at the beginning of last season following a brief stint with Scottish First Division club, Partick Thistle.
He hit the ground running at the start of this current campaign, scoring against Linfield in the Setanta Cup and while he missed the Hoops’ last two league outings through illness, he is back in contention for tonight’s visit to Foyleside.
“I’m hoping to be involved,” he said. “I was out last week but I’ll be available for selection. I’ve been back to Brandywell a couple of times with the lads watching a couple of matches but I’ve just played there once with Shamrock Rovers.”
There’s a heavy burden of expectancy at Shamrock Rovers this year as they attempt to wrestle the trophy from the hands of Sligo Rovers.
Trevor Croly’s charges have made a disappointing start to the league campaign by their own high standards with a succession of draws - five draws from their opening six games - halting their progress at the top of the table.
They do, however, remain dangerously poised in third place behind Derry City at present and issued a statement of intent in their 7-0 demolition of Bray Wanderers last week and Stewart expects tonight’s encounter to be ultra competitive.
“It should be an interesting game,” claimed Stewart. “Derry have done really well so far. We’ve obviously picked up a few too many draws so we need to turn those into wins and, following on from last week’s victory over Bray, we’re hoping for another three points on Friday.
“It’ll be a tough match against an in-form Derry side but hopefully we can get the win,” he added.
“Derry will be up there challenging for the league title at the end of the season. They have a good team, good players and they’re obviously playing as a unit which is the main thing.
“Our intentions are obviously to be up there at the top of the table come the end of the season and to win something.
“Regardless of the competition or who we are playing, we’re looking to win. We’ll take each game as it comes at this stage.”
The close season signing of striker, Mark Quigley from the Bit O’ Red and the form of Ronan Finn has limited Stewart’s contributions so far with four of his six league outings coming from the bench.
Both Quigley and Finn are likely to lead the line against City tonight but the Portadown man is relishing the competition and insists he is prepared to play out of his favoured striker’s role for the benefit of the team this season.
“I’ve been playing in a couple of different positions this season and the squad’s been changing a bit but hopefully I can keep my place.
“Strikers are always going to be judged on goals so hopefully I can score a few more and keep my place.
“I’m enjoying life in Dublin, it’s a good place and we have a good bunch of lads in the squad and a good set-up.
“It’s a case of so far so good so hopefully we can keep winning and get back on track with three important points at Brandywell.”
Stewart, of course, won’t be the only familiar face returning to Brandywell tonight, as former defender, Ken Oman and winger, Billy Dennehy are also expected to be involved in the action.