Tonka: Stanley's Superstar

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With an FA Cup Winners’ medal, an English League Cup runners-up medal and an incredible unbeaten record at Wembley Stadium, you’d be hard pressed to find a more talented Perthshire-born footballer than Ray Stewart. Tonka – as he was nicknamed by fans – had a decorated career south of the border where he is quite rightly regarded as one of West Ham United’s greatest ever players.

He’s played at Old Trafford, Anfield, Villa Park and of course, Wembley – while he also represented his country and finished his fantastic career off at his hometown club, St. Johnstone. Not bad for the boy from Stanley!

“It all started with a dream,” Ray told me as we sat down for a bacon roll, “we used to play all of the time out in the streets. We were just daft wee laddies having a kick about on the pavements – you don’t see it nowadays.

“We used to pretend to be our heroes and the one player I remember idolising as a youngster was Bobby Moncur of Newcastle and Scotland. I used to see the professionals playing and I would go to bed at night and just dream that one day I was going to be like them.” We were just daft wee laddies having a kick about on the pavements - you don't see it nowadays.

Even at that young age, Ray was determined that his dreams were going to come true and with the help of his dad, Old Archie, not even an injury setback was going to stop him from practising.

“I broke my ankle when I was young but my dad would still have me practising with the other foot. I owe a lot to my old man for my career he played a big part in the early days.”

The local lad from Stanley started with the village’s mini team before taking the opportunity to sign for boys’ club side Errol Rovers. That team had some other notable footballers such as Ian and Gavin Redford, and they enjoyed success while allowing Ray to develop his own natural ability.

The thing about having a successful boys’ club side though is that it doesn’t take long for the scouts to start circling like vultures. It was pretty clear that Ray was destined for bigger things but he had a little bit of a headache as to which club was going to be the best place for him to progress.

“I had the opportunity to sign for a number of clubs at the time. There was Manchester United, Manchester City, Hibs and quite a few others. However, I decided to sign for Dundee United on an s-form as I remember thinking to myself at the time it would be the best place for me to go and get a first-team chance.

Ray Stewart Scotland dribbling“When I first signed I can remember thinking, ‘I’m in the big-time now’. I was still just a kid but I’d played for Scotland Schoolboys at Wembley so I was confident I was ready to step up. A few clubs had noticed me playing for Scotland and had approached me but by then I’d already committed to Dundee United and Jim McLean, so they were too late. That was Jim though, always one step ahead of the rest.”

Jim McLean certainly was always one step ahead. Regarded by many as Dundee United’s greatest ever manager, McLean took Ray under his wing and gave him his first opportunities in the professional game.

Although they didn’t win anything during Ray’s time at Tannadice, the side did manage to qualify for Europe in Tonka’s final season and he was named the SPFA Young Player of the Year award that campaign too. Jim McLean gave him his debut aged just sixteen, and Ray still looks upon his former boss with great fondness.

“He was absolutely brilliant for me. Jim was a hard man, a hard task master and a disciplinarian but he knew the game inside out. I still use things in my life today that he taught me back then as a kid. Some of the things clubs are doing now; everyone thinks these are new ideas. They’re not; Jim was doing them all those years ago.

“He gave me my first team debut in a match against Celtic and my job was to man-mark Kenny Dalglish. We managed to draw the match 1-1 and if I recall correctly Atholl Henderson also made his debut in that match, although he was playing for Celtic.

“It was obviously a great night for me and one that I remember well. I had no fear coming up against Kenny and I just wanted to prove that I was good enough to be at this level. You don’t know how good you are until you come up against the best players.” He gave me my first team debut in a match against Celtic and Atholl Henderson was also making his first start.

It was a quick rise through the ranks at the Arabs for Ray, and after a few good seasons the vultures were circling again – this time in the form of East London outfit West Ham.

The Hammers had an initial bid of £175,000 rejected which prompted Jim McLean to pull his young superstar aside and ask him if he wanted to go. When Ray made his wishes clear, a deal was eventually agreed for £430,000 – a record transfer for a teenager at the time – and McLean wished him well as he left for Upton Park.

“Jim was very supportive of me and he knew that I had what it would take to be a success down in England. When I told him I wanted to go and play in the best league in the world, he said that he liked my attitude and that the club would negotiate the move with West Ham.

“With regards to the price tag, I never really felt any pressure from it to be honest. It was actually a nice feeling knowing I was the most expensive teenager at the time. Then, the media started whipping it up into a frenzy and I just started to brush it off and tell them I just wanted to play.”

By now, Ray’s beginning to speak with a lot of passion. He loves West Ham – the club, the fans, everything. He spent the best years of his career with the Irons and it’s evident when he speaks about them that he still feels strongly about them today.

The next twelve seasons would be spent in the club’s claret and blue and it didn’t take him long before he earned a place in the West Ham fans’ hearts.

Ray Stewart Scoring Against Villa in FA Cup

“I got stuck in there and got the backing of the supporters straight away because I was a young, hungry Scotsman and I think that’s what the side was missing. We had a good footballing side with a bit of flair but lacked that steel which is what I think I was signed for.”

It didn’t take long for the Perthshire villager to make his mark in the big city, and in 1980 he was part of the West Ham side that lifted the FA Cup – the world’s most prestigious domestic cup competition – in front of 100,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.

When we started talking about the FA Cup and Wembley, his eyes lit up. This is a man with an incredible record at the English national stadium, a place that he looked forward to playing more than anywhere else.

“I’ve played at Wembley five times in my career and never lost there. It was always a great feeling going there and I can still remember the time I roomed with Frank Lampard Snr. I kept on singing to him, ‘Wembley, Wembley, Wembley, we’re on our way to Wembley!’

“I was always excited to play there and the other boys used to have a laugh about it. I’m proud of my record there though and it’s nice to say I’m undefeated there. That day in 1980 was something else though.

“Winning the FA Cup was just incredible – the best feeling in the world. I can remember it from start to finish; the lead up to the game, travelling to Wembley, the game itself and the aftermath which included the most amazing celebrations with the fans in East London. These are the moments in life that just never leave you.” I was always excited to play at Wembley and I'm proud of my record there.

That was the beginning of a wonderful period for Ray and West Ham, as he played a part in a number of successful sides throughout the 1980s. Labelled the ‘penalty king’, he was the club’s designated taker and netted 84 goals during his twelve seasons, with all but six of them being from the spot.

There were two iconic West Ham teams that Ray was a part of; the 1986 side and of course, the 1980 FA Cup-winning one. He took a minute to ponder them both, before telling me quite definitively which one he thinks was the best.

“The 1980 team – as a young lad playing alongside the likes of Trevor Brooking, Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard it was just incredible. And of course we won the FA Cup so I’d have to say that team was the best.

“They were both great sides though and we have regular get togethers for them which are always a lot of fun. In terms of the best player I’ve played with I’d probably go for Alan Devonshire. There were so many tremendous footballers I was lucky to play with but I’d say he was the best. He was a fine player and between him and Brooking they used to win me most of the penalties!”

When it comes to the West Ham fans, it’s very clear that they’ll forever hold a place in Ray’s heart. And when I reminded him about his inclusion in the Official West Ham Dream Team, you could tell it was something that he was quite emotional about.

“When someone told me I’d been picked it actually brought a tear to my eye. A wee boy from Stanley going to London to such a big club, a great club, and being considered as one of their greatest ever players is an amazing feeling.

“It means a hell of a lot to me it really does, and it’s up there with the greatest highlights of my career to be included among some of the other greats.” A wee boy from Stanley being considered as one of West Ham's greatest ever players is an amazing feeling.

One of the most surprising things about Ray’s career was the fact he only amassed 10 caps for Scotland. As one of the country’s great players throughout the late 70s and 1980s, it seems quite incredible that he did not make more international appearances.

With more competition for places and injuries being the main reason, it’s clear that he has some regrets about his international career but he’s still very proud to say he did play for Scotland.

“At that time Scotland qualified for the big tournaments, and I was in squads alongside the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen and Danny McGrain. The standard was very high back then.

“I was involved in the build-up to the 1982 World Cup and played a part in the squad that qualified but then I missed out on the finals. Then I done my cruciate a few seasons later and I never really made it back to where I was before.”

That injury proved to be the beginning of the end for Ray, as the serious knee ligament injury ruled him out of action for a lengthy spell. When he returned, he felt he was never the same player and when his contract expired with West Ham in 1991, he left the club having played 434 times for the Hammers.

He returned to Scotland and played with St. Johnstone for one season before moving into coaching and management. Following his departure as Forfar manager in 2003, he decided to move out of the game to focus on his kids and find a different career away from football.

Ray Stewart - Volley

“I had my injury and I just wish someone back then would’ve told me I was never going to be the same again. I came back to St. Johnstone and to be honest I never really felt fit. It was a chance to move home though and I’m proud that I managed to finish my playing career at my local club.

“I worked as a coach with Alex Totten at Saints before joining Kevin Drinkell at Stirling Albion. Then I got the top job as manager at Livingston and I gave it my best shot but it wasn’t to be. I actually felt a bit hard done by there but that’s football. I managed Stirling and Forfar after that which were tough jobs as we had very little money and again I felt I did as well as I could with what we had.

“After that I’d had enough and I’ve never regretted moving on from football. I’ve done it quite gradually and worked with St. Johnstone’s community programme for a bit. I tried to help out with my kids’ football but that’s not for me. It’s hard for them because everyone expects them to be at the level I was and judge them based on their dad’s achievements. I’ve always wanted them to be judged on their own merits.

“I’ve got three great kids. Sam does his own thing and is working offshore now, doing really well and my daughter Kerri has had a lot of success in her female bodybuilding which is great. My youngest Mark is still at school and plays a little bit of football just with friends and I’m proud of them all.”

I could’ve sat and listened to Ray’s stories all afternoon. Starting out as a little boy in the wee village of Stanley, he’s gone on to become an FA Cup winner and West Ham United legend. He has the memories of a lifetime and is still treated like a king to this day whenever he goes to watch the Irons play.

An example to follow for any youngster looking to make it in the beautiful game, it all started with a dream and a football for Ray. Kids, put down the PlayStation and Xbox controllers and get outside for a kickabout – you never know where it might take you.

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