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21 of 023 ----- L SPL A

Michael Stewart gets green light to prove that red mist has gone

Phil Gordon

George Burley has handed Michael Stewart a remarkable opportunity to win his first full cap for Scotland exactly six years after the Heart of Midlothian midfield player embarrassed his country by being sent off as captain of the under-21 team for throwing a ball in anger at a referee.

The Scotland manager believes that Stewart has matured enough to merit a second chance and drafted in the 27-year-old Tynecastle player for tomorrow night's friendly against Northern Ireland at Hampden Park. Ironically, they were the opposition when Stewart began his descent into the international wilderness after his petulant dismissal in September 2002.

Stewart was shown a red card by Eggert Markusson when he threw the ball at the Icelandic official because Northern Ireland were awarded a free kick in a friendly at Love Street. It was the last of his three under-21 appearances and Stewart was never selected again. The player, who had been thought of as a golden child when he made his debut for Manchester United at the age of 19, became the enfant terrible as he was released in 2005 after a loan spell at Hearts.

Burley took over at Tynecastle just as Stewart switched to Hibernian, before the player moved back across Edinburgh again in 2007. Now the Scotland manager could ask Stewart to fill the shoes of Paul Hartley - a former Hearts colleague - after the Celtic midfield player pulled out of the squad yesterday because of an ankle injury sustained in Sunday's match with Dundee United. Celtic's Gary Caldwell has also withdrawn with a thigh problem, while Gavin Rae and Kevin McNaughton, of Cardiff City, and Callum Davidson, of Preston North End, brought the number of call-offs to five.

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One of Burley's coaches, Steven Pressley, played alongside Stewart at Hearts and is convinced that he has has quelled his temperamental outbursts, even though Stewart was sent off twice last season, once away to Gretna when he damaged a wall in the tunnel area and the other after his run-in with a Hearts fan who was berating the player in a game at Tannadice.

“Michael is player with talent but at times he has been his own worst enemy,” Pressley said. “He is a very demanding person, especially of himself, but I have seen changes in his outlook over the last year. He seems more mature and that has been reflected in his performances. George watched him against Motherwell and I saw him against Rangers on Saturday when I thought he did very well. He is on top of his game right now.

“He is now channeling his talents the right way. Before he did not channel his aggression properly and lost focus but sometimes that comes with maturity. Now, he just wants to do the best he can. Players mature at different ages. Paul Hartley was a late developer and Barry Robson is another.

“Michael had all the attributes but his problem was piecing them together. Now he is doing that and I hope that Scotland can benefit. He has maybe needed a bit more direction. He seems to be responding to the new manager at Hearts and had a good season last year. I have always liked Michael. I'm pleased that he has started to fulfil his potential.”

Burley has also had to press-gang David Weir, of Rangers, and Burnley's Graham Alexander to augment his depleted squad. Weir was originally left out because it was expected that Rangers would be on Champions League qualifying duty, but their defeat by FBK Kaunas has allowed Scotland to use the valued central defender as the manager tries to shape his plans for the World Cup double-header with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Iceland.

“We didn't want to hinder David with friendly games and George had told him that he was in the plans for the double-header with Macedonia and Iceland but with all the other call-offs for this game it was important to bring him, and his experience, back in,” Pressley said. “Darren Barr [of Falkirk] is just in his first squad and I think he is a young player with great potential and is getting better year by year and had to come into the squad. He will get to know the other players and George's methods and possibly play some part in the game.”

Scotland have not a friendly match at Hampden Park since March 1996 when they defeated Australia, although the place has become a fortress for qualifying matches. “It's very important that we win and bring the feel-good factor into the Macedonia game,” Pressley said. “As a nation, we like to have games with a competitive edge. I know people say that putting on the Scotland shirt is enough motivation in itself but there's no doubt that there's an edge to real games that is not in friendlies.

“I remember playing for Berti Vogts at Hampden in front of 15,000 people and that does not give you the edge we have in qualifying games when there is 50,000 there. Hopefully we can recreate that edge on Wednesday because it's Northern Ireland, who might bring a few fans.”

Pressley, who won 32 caps for Scotland, is still hoping to prolong his playing career even though he has failed to find a new club since being released by Celtic in June at the age of 34. “I am still training at Celtic,” he said. “I want to get back playing as soon as possible. I'm not anxious about it yet. Obviously the transfer window will close soon but if nothing happens before then, I can still sign outside that as a free agent. I will give it four or five weeks and if the opportunity does not come along, I will have to consider my future as a player.

“One of the problems is my age and the fact I did not play much last season at Celtic. These days, chairmen like to have a say in signing players for clubs and they look at a lad of 35 and the fact that he's defender and they feel he's not much of an investment for their club. I would consider anything. My preference was to play in England or abroad but I would consider an offer from Scotland.”

Pressley denied that his fledgling coaching career with Scotland might mark him down as a threat to any manager thinking of hiring the player. “Ask any manager that I have worked under - such as Gordon Strachan or George Burley - and the one thing they will tell you is that I'm not a threat to them,” he said.

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