Tony Stewart likes to say that it’s how you respond to adversity that ultimately determines how successful you will be.
Ironic, then, that it’s the manner in which he reacted to his finest hour in football that says most about the chairman of Rotherham United.
The Millers, the club he had rescued from administration and then taken to a brand-new stadium, had just won at Wembley to secure their place in the Championship and cap an amazing six years of Stewart stewardship.
Yet the first thought he had was for the losing League One play-off finalists Leyton Orient.
Stewart takes up the story: “When our players had received their medals and went back on to the pitch, I remember heading back towards the hospitality area. My mission was to give out condolences to the Orient chairman and directors.
“I was about to do that when Andy Williams, who is the secretary of the Football League, came up to me and said: ‘Tony, this your day, well done, follow me, get on the pitch.’ I took my son, Richard, and (chief operating officer) Paul Douglas with me and within seconds we were in a lift and down on to the pitch.”
Mind you, this is a man who says it’s important to enjoy life’s adventures so he soon entered into the spirit.
“The players were down there with the cup celebrating already and we joined them,” he said. “The media were grabbing everybody, and it was just a big party on the pitch. Everyone was jumping up and down and I nearly lost my voice. It was just like a dream. My best day in football.”
It would be easy to say glory at the national stadium was the culmination of Stewart’s dream. In truth, it was just the latest stepping stone on a journey which won’t satisfy him until his club are in the Premier League.
Yet, as he held aloft the play-off trophy and savoured the acclaim of 20,000 Millers fans, it seemed a far cry from the bleak days in 2008 when he first assumed control of a club on its knees and was made to feel by Football League officials like a “charlatan”.
United were in grave danger of going out of business. But, rather than keeping forking out £1,000 along with other prominent business people every time Rotherham Council came asking on the club’s behalf, he decided to act.
One day he was meeting with administrators to discover the extent of the problems. Not many after, he was chairman and said problems were all his.
“There were rattling cans at Morrisons and Tesco and I think it was a bit of a joke,” he recalled.
“It was a £3 million business. I thought: ‘This is not hard, I think I could do a job.’ I got involved and overnight I became the chairman and went through lots of legals and then had to go to the Football League in Preston.
“I remember going up there as if I was a midnight cowboy. In fairness to them, Rotherham had been in administration twice in 18 months. They were grilling me as to my level of competence,
which was quite insulting. It’s interesting looking back now. I see these guys still and I’ve got a lot of respect from them. Instead of looking down, they now look across at me, and sometimes even up. I honestly believe the Football League at that time wasn’t bothered if we stayed in existence or just naturally died.”
We meet up in Stewart’s office at ASD Lighting, the company he has made a market leader in its field and which has brought him multi-million-pound riches. It’s a lovely, airy, well-decorated room but, just like its owner, remains unostentatious and doesn’t shout its wealth.
Stewart is good company, comfortable in himself and who he is, talkative, avuncular and friendly, with a twinkle as bright as the checks on his smark blue and white shirt. In his late 60s, he looks and sounds in rude health, carrying a a little more round the middle than maybe he used to but still with a lightness of step and a sportsman’s gait which betrays his youthful past as a champion athlete.
I found myself liking him a great deal.
And here’s another thing. He puffs on an outsized cigar about as thick as one of skipper Craig Morgan’s thighs. But he does it at an open window after first checking with me that it’s okay. This is a seriously influential businessman, in his own office, at his own company. Yet, just like at Wembley, his first thought is for someone else.
Ah yes, Wembley. He and Steve Evans, the manager he chose for the club, embracing like brothers on the hallowed turf as the stadium’s east end bubbled and boiled in a mass of delirous red and white.
Stewart wanted Evans as his manager before even knowing who he was.
“Steve was appointed because of the activity levels and passion and drive that his Crawley side had. At the time, I didn’t even know his name,” he said.
“Two years ago Crawley were very successful, climbing the ladder from League Two to League One. I remember watching them on TV against Shrewsbury when they lost but had about 95 pc possession. Other games I saw, they won well and scored goals. That was the foundation of getting Steve Evan. I came into the office and said to my son: ‘I love Crawley, love the way they play, I would love that at Rotherham. Who’s their manager?’.
“A few months later, when Andy Scott left, Steve Evans was one of the first names on our list.
“A manager is a manager, it doesn’t have to be about football, a manager is someone who can get the best out of people. On Sky TV with Crawley, I just saw the result of what the person in charge was getting out of the players.
“The stadium was going up and, really, I think the stadium played a part. Steve, and he will say this in his own words, came to see me and he saw what was happening with the new stadium and the club moving forward. He could see the ambition I had, that I was prepared to put money into it and I was passionate. I think a guy in football has that instinct, and we were attracted like a magnet to each other.”
He’s quick to dispell the misconception he was a Sheffield Wednesday fan as a child: “I grew up in an area, High Green, where traditionally families supported Wednesday, but I was just a fan of football. I wanted all the local teams to do well.”
By now my tea was drunk. Stewart had been quick to offer a nice brew. Tea. Not coffee. In a mug. Not a cup.
I always joke in our house that Rotherham United are like a good mug of tea with one sugar to me. They’re sweet, warm me up and are one of the first things I think about when I wake up. Yep, no wonder the kids don’t find me funny.
Stewart’s mug, obviously his special one that he uses all the time, is twice the size of mine.
A bit more Rotherham United than Owl, I’d say.
Millers fans idolise him. Stewart is far, far and away the most popular figure in Rotherham. Alex Revell may have given him a run for his money that magical play-off-final afternoon in May, but the grateful affection the townsfolk feel for Stewart and the esteem in which he is held is deep-rooted and everlasting.
Supporters sing his name at nearly every match, and this personable man of the people never lets them down. According to unreliable Football League statistics you won’t find on the internet, Stewart delivered more waves last season than the Queen.
He had to take the club out of town to Don Valley Stadium when Millmoor could no longer be called home. They never blamed him and he repaid their faith with New York Stadium and glory. He’s the man who made them promises and didn’t break them.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Stewart states matter-of-factly. “They’ve seen a new stadium, they’ve seen a new type of football. I said early on that the recipe to get fans in is to give them the vision. The vision came probably six years ago, and they’ve seen it enacted.
“There are a lot of people, and not just in football, who promise things but then don’t deliver. The patrons of Rotherham have delivered a lot of what we said and we still haven’t finished, so the dream goes on, and the ambition, passion and drive are still there.
“When we had the open-bus ride to celebrate after Wembley, there wasn’t 2,000 or 3,000 people, there was 5,000-plus. The area round the town centre was jam-packed. The fans deserved it. It was the club sharing the achievement with the town.
“We said there’d be a new stadium, we said there’d be attractive football and we said we’d be in The Championship in five years. I think they’ll forgive me for being a year out. It’s nice to look back at that, isn’t it?”
‘Nice’ might not quite do it justice.
One man galvanised a whole town. One man - with a little help, he’ll be keen to point out - pulled off the seemingly impossible. One man built a stadium and a future.
With stirring echoes of that fabulous, now-famous line from Sky commentator Daniel Mann when Revell scored his longe-range Wembley wonder goal ...
‘Ambitious ... but brilliant.’