Speedster has shown Millers the light
WHEN Tony Stewart walked into Rotherham in the spring of 2008, he inherited a club at death’s door.
Monstrous debts, falling gates, crippling rents, relegation from League One. He’d barely been in charge five minutes when he was forced to sell the training ground and uproot to Sheffield’s Don Valley Stadium. And don’t forget the administration and accompanying 17-point deduction that anchored the Millers to the foot of League Two before a ball was kicked. So when Stewart promised to build a new ground and win promotion to the Championship within five years, he received more than a few withering looks.
“I remember going up to see the Football League in Preston,” he recalled last year. “They were grilling me as to my levels of competence, which was quite insulting. I think they thought I was some sort of charlatan.”
Yet here they are, a year late but in rude health. Debt-free, 21st in the Championship and playing to packed houses in the immaculate 12,000-seat New York Stadium. It’s been a rapid transformation, but then Stewart has always moved quickly.
Born in Sheffield, he was a member of Rockingham Harriers and won the Yorkshire mile as a 15-year-old. Alongside his twin brother Terry, Stewart then competed nationally in a Yorkshire team skippered by future Olympian Adrian Metcalfe.
“I was 11 the first time I did cross country and I thought I’d gone the wrong way,” said the 69-year-old, who still runs to keep fit. “There was no-one around for 300 yards, but that was just how far ahead I was!”
In business, too, Stewart didn’t hang around. An apprentice electrician upon leaving school, he had started his own contracting business by the age of 26 and before long had 25 staff on his books.
Then, following marriage to wife Joan and a move to Rotherham, he spotted a gap in the market and formed ASD Lighting, the company that would eventually make him a multi-millionaire.
Now one of the top five UK lighting companies, Stewart’s business remains in Rotherham and currently employs more than 200 townsfolk.
In fact, it was his status in the community that eventually persuaded Stewart to step in at Millmoor. Sick of being asked to stump up donations to the club, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
“It was a £3m business and they were rattling cans at Morrisons and Tesco,” he recalled. “It was a bit of a joke. I thought ‘This is not hard, I think I could do a job.’
And what a job it has been; to hell and back; to the Don Valley and back; to League Two and back. No longer do rival clubs make derisory offers for Millers players. No longer do top players look elsewhere.
Conservative estimates put Stewart’s financial input at £30m, yet the hope and pride his investment has engendered is priceless. No wonder he was given the freedom of the city in July.
“The day Tony Stewart walked in was the day this club was reborn,” says Millers boss Steve Evans, a controversial appointment who has since won two promotions.
“I go round football stadiums and I see boards made of suchand-such and so-and-so. I don’t know what half of them do.
“Here, I see a chairman who’s spent £35m of his own money. I see a brand new stadium in the centre of town with no debt attached to it. I see local people employed by the club. If he lived in London, he’d already be Sir Tony Stewart. But he’s in Yorkshire, so he might have to wait a bit for that.”
Bradford chairman Mark Lawn, a good friend of Stewart concurs.
“I’ve known Tony since he first got involved with Rotherham,” he said. “And I think it’s phenomenal what’s he’s done. The people of the town owe him such a debt of gratitude because he not only saved the club, he then made it stronger than ever.”
For Stewart, though, he is simply making good his pledge.
“There are a lot of people, and not just in football, who promise things but then don’t deliver,” he said. “But we gave the fans a vision six years ago and they’ve seen it enacted. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction, but the dream goes on. I’d love to take it to another level.”
TROPHY TIME: A jubilant Stewart celebrates promotion to the Championship HERO: Tony Stewart has revived Rotherham