The project Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson started with Ross Stewart at Ross County has clearly been an unqualified success.
Earning his first call-up to the Scotland squad on Monday, Stewart has been rewarded for his efforts to go from playing part-time to in front of crowds of 30,000-plus every week at Sunderland.
Stewart has thrived in the year he has spent on Wearside. His goals have earned him the affectionate nickname of the “Loch Ness Drogba” from Sunderland fans, as he tries to do his part to lift the Black Cats out of League One.
Kettlewell brought Stewart to Ross County in 2018, keen to bring in the towering striker to help spearhead their immediate return to the Premiership.
He scored 11 goals in all competitions in his first season and matched that the following year as the Staggies survived in the top-flight.
Stewart’s form in the first half of the 2020-21 season made it difficult for County to hold on to their in-demand striker any longer. But his star has continued to rise, which comes as no surprise to his old manager.
“It couldn’t happen to a better guy and I think it’s a great story for the journey he’s had in football,” said Kettlewell. “He’s played in the juniors and the lower leagues and you can see, by putting in the work and quality he’s got, where it can get you.
“Myself and Steven Ferguson saw him as a project, a ball of plasticine to mould into a top-quality striker. He’s six-foot-four, good in the air and with both feet, can finish and runs the channels incredibly quickly for a guy his size.
“The biggest thing going for him is how he is as a person. He’s an excellent lad and whatever task you set him, he embraces it fully.
“We didn’t have to do a great deal of work to get him settled. He got himself a flat to ensure he was in the best place to do his work every day.
“Ross had a target of being succesful at Ross County and beyond. He always conducted himself very well and from our point of view, it came as no surprise as we always felt he would keep kicking on.”
— Ross County FC (@RossCounty) March 21, 2022
A common theme which comes up is Stewart’s humble nature. Dropping down to play junior football earlier in his career with Ardeer Thistle and Kilwinning Rangers shaped his attitude, where he would work for every opportunity which could come his way.
Kettlewell saw similarities not just in his own journey – he played part-time at Queen’s Park before joining County – but also Josh Mullin, who had played with Pollok and Kilbirnie prior to working his way back up into the SPFL and ending up with the Staggies.
“It gives you an incredible work-ethic and drive,” added Kettlewell. “I linked it to Josh at the same time.
“He had a similar pathway coming through lower-level football. It tells you an awful lot about them and what they want to achieve in their careers.
“When you’re working with them you are pushing them but they are desperate to achieve something in their career.
“When you’ve been on that journey, you almost become very grateful for what you’ve got and very humble. The days can be long, starting at seven in the morning and travelling the length of the country for away games.
“But it probably gives them that attitude to get more out of it.”
The friendlies against Poland and either Wales or Austria will present Stewart with the chance to take the next step in his own personal story.
There are similarities with Lyndon Dykes, in his awkward, physical nature but also being a willing worker. The former has become one of Steve Clarke’s best finds in his time as Scotland manager and Stewart could be next in line.
“He’s now going to be working with a very good manager and man in Steve Clarke,” said Kettlewell.
“He’s someone I respect highly.
“I think they’ll be surprised how good he is. Sometimes you don’t realise how good someone is until you work with them and see them on grass.
“Guys like myself who’ve worked with him want to see him play every minute. But the most important thing for Ross is integrating into the squad and realising the demands of international football. That will set him in good stead going forward.
“I don’t know where the cap is for Ross. Without getting carried away, you put him in a different environment and he seems to excel and get better.
“I certainly hope he can go beyond League One in England and maybe into the Championship. Who knows then beyond that.”