Greg Stewart: 'I was always meant to be a footballer, I just took a different journey'

"It took me a bit of time to grow into a man. And that’s part of the game." R. Parthibhan/Focus Sports/ ISL

Greg Stewart laughs about it. Training and indeed, playing matches when a World Cup is on? "Yeah," he says, "It's quite strange. Normally you are on holiday... and you're in the pub watching the games. I miss that, to be honest"

A self-confessed football-obsessive, he watches as much of the sport as he can, and there's no way he's missing the World Cup. He has seen most of the group stage games and is loving the many upsets this edition has thrown up. All that staying up, though, hasn't affected his training one bit. Juggling a bit of television with his work schedule? Child's play.

You see, before Stewart came to India and became an ISL cheat-code, he had spent years in Scotland playing part-time, while working at a regular job full-time.

Stewart had been 16 when Hearts had cut him from their youth programme as they felt he was too small. He had spent the next year a bit lost and confused, not knowing what to do, feeling a bit disillusioned about it all. The next year he buckled down and got a job - but didn't give up on his dream. "I was working from when I was 18 till 24. I was playing part-time as well. Of course, you have to put in a lot of hours of the day, into working and then going into training."

Work five days a week, train after hours, and play on the weekends in the rough-and-tough world of Scottish amateur football. It was a hard time -- he couldn't spend time with his young family, he couldn't afford to take much of a rest. But for him, there had been no other choice. "I felt like I was always good enough," he says. "It was like I was always meant to be a footballer... but I just took a different journey to get there than a lot of players".

After watching him tear the Scottish second-division up for part-time side Cowdenbeath, Dundee United called him up. "I always believed in my ability and I was always a hard worker," he says, "but sometimes you need a little bit of luck in every wake of life. [Paul Hartley, Dundee manager] took a chance on me and it managed to pan out."

"You grow at different stages," he says philosophically, "and at that stage I was still just a little boy. It took me a bit of time to grow into a man. And that's part of the game. When you get a setback, it makes you want to prove these people wrong. It's not always nice, as a young kid. People just..." he takes a brief pause. "They go out of the game, because they think 'that's it finished'. But you have to have that determination and drive and the work ethic to prove your doubters wrong."

And so prove them wrong he did. At an age when most people would have resigned themselves to part-time (or no) football, Stewart signed his first professional contract at a football club. He was 25.

He's not looked back since. In his first season as a full-time footballer, he was one of four nominated for the PFA Scotland player of the year. He was nominated the next year as well. Within five years, he managed a transfer to his boyhood club Rangers and had been part of the team that had wrested back the Scottish crown from Celtic after a decade.

"It was pretty special being a part of that," he says. He'd grown up on a diet of his heroes Ally McCoist and Paul Gascgoine and Brian Laudrup ruling Scottish football in Rangers blue and he had been on the team that restored them to their former glory. "It's something you dream of."

But he doesn't spend time reminiscing. "That's in the past. I can think about that when I stop playing."

After Rangers, he had wanted to challenge himself, move outside his comfort zone, move outside the British Isles, and that had brought him down to India. Now, at 32, he's the best player in the Indian Super League. After winning the MVP award (and the league shield) with Jamshedpur FC last season, Stewart moved to Mumbai City earlier this summer. A large part of his rationale for moving to India in the first place had been Owen Coyle ("the Scottish connection") and it was similar for Mumbai as well. Coach Des Buckingham's calls and clear conviction had helped a lot: "Des being British kind of helps me, being away from home."

He had also been quite impressed by the way Mumbai played when he had faced them last season. "It was difficult to play against because of how they keep the ball, move the ball, create as many chances as possible," he says. "The way Mumbai play, that's how I see football should be played."

That way is the go-out-and-score-as-many-goals-as-you-can way. This season that's exactly what Mumbai have done. They lead the table after nine games. They have scored 27 goals in those games - 12 more than the next highest. Stewart has fit into the team like a well-tailored glove. Playing in his favoured no. 10 position, just behind the striker, he bends games to his will. It helps that those around him stretch play and free him up like never before -- Ahmed Jahouh pulls it deeper, Jorge Pereyra Diaz pushes it higher while Lallianzuala Chhangte and Bipin Singh stretch it wider.

Stewart's direct dribbling and first-time, incisive passing (a style he says that's always been in him) has taken the team up a gear or three. He isn't getting carried away, though. "We've not won nothing yet, of course. We need to just keep on focusing on the next game - we know we have a good team here that we know can be successful at the end of the year. We must just keep doing what we've been doing so far."

For now, it's time to focus on the next match(es), keep an eye on the World Cup, and enjoy the little things in life.

"Oh, it's so good (for mental health, to be out of the bio-bubble)," he says with a relieved laugh. "When you know you have a bit of freedom, when you have your own time when you're off the training pitch and not playing, you can basically do what you want. It's quite good. Saw some parts of Mumbai as well, which is quite crazy. Too many people!"

He'll be hoping he can bring at least a few of those people joy come the end of the season.