This time last month, Goal Singapore had exclusively reported that Woodlands Wellington's Darren Stewart had been given the opportunity to take over the helm at A-league side Newcastle Jets .
Stewart, however, declined the offer, choosing to stay with the S.League outfit instead. His rejection to return to his hometown and manage the club he had played for was a move that surprised almost everyone in the football fraternity, something that the 47-year-old acknowledged that he was fully aware of when Goal Singapore caught up with him.
How the Newcastle deal came about
Stewart’s name had been linked to the Jets job for quite some time, almost six months according to the man himself, with the local press in Newcastle also getting in on the act. Although nothing was officially put on the table, until Jets CEO Robbie Middleby got in touch in April.
“I got an email and a phone call that morning,” Stewart recounted. “It was basically 'Get on the plane tomorrow and come for the interview'.”
At that time, Stewart was totally convinced that he was going to take the offer and return to his former club.
“We were playing on Thursday (against Warriors FC) and I checked out all the flights,” he said. “I was absolutely certain I was leaving on Sunday for the interview on Tuesday. There was nothing that was going to stop me going back to the interview. Nothing."
“I was pretty confident I would have got it."
It seemed a logical enough thought at that time that Stewart’s homecoming was finally going to materialise. In a way, it was like a dream for the 47-year-old, who was set to return to the club where he had first started his professional football career.
However, in an amazing twist of fate, he would come to make a 180-degree turn and change his mind. All it took, according to him, was five minutes with the Woodlands heirarchy.
A pivotal five minutes
The moment Stewart got the official request to go for the interview for the role at Newcastle, he immediately paid a visit to the Woodlands board members. Despite the meeting being on a game day, he knew he had to get it off his chest.
The conversation lasted a mere five minutes before Stewart made his mind up to stay. So what did they say to make him change his mind in such a short period of time?
“It was the humility, the way that they spoke to me; they really wanted me to stay,” Stewart explained when asked that question. “They told me I should go back for the interview at least and that they would book the air tickets at their cost. It was unbelievable. Then I said to myself, 'I’m at the right place'. I knew it wasn’t right [to leave]."
“You know, not many people would do that. And straightaway I thought, this were genuine people I am working for. I shook both ladies’ hands and just said I’m not taking the job. And that was it, that’s how it went down.
“Woodlands didn’t bribe me and say ‘We’ll give you more money, we’ll give you an extended contract’. Nothing. And that made me pleased as well because that’s the easiest thing they could have done."
The Rams narrowly lost 1-0 against Warriors that fateful evening, but Stewart knew at that point that he couldn’t desert his players after only a few months into his new job.
“I realised I couldn’t walk out on the 20 guys that I’ve just started to build good relationships with,” he said. “Walking out was totally unfair."
“In the end, I know I made the right choice.”
It seems like I’m an alien
When word got around that Stewart had declined the offer, it came as a shock to most. Everyone disagreed with his choice, while the people closest to him back home, especially his family, felt let down.
"It’s my hometown, I’ve captained the club over 100 times," he revealed. "All my friends and family go to every game. I probably disappointed them big time.”
“It was tough telling my parents. They’re not getting young anymore and thinking their son’s coming back after 20 years away from home. I probably disappointed them big time. Even the boys (Woodlands players) said ‘You crazy or what?’. My mum and dad, my extended family, my daughter who lives in Australia now, they were just like, 'You idiot, what have you done!'
"The amount of SMSes I got, it was tough. It was a really tough three or four days for me. My brain was all over the place.
“It seems like I’m an alien. Honest to god, not one person has said to me that I’ve made the right decision except myself, and that’s all that matters.”
As for Newcastle, according to Stewart, they too were disappointed with his decision but respected his choice, knowing that he did not snub the offer.
“I handled it with Newcastle in a professional manner, and I got two outstanding replies from the football advisor and the CEO about how they appreciated my honesty and that I’ve got integrity,” he shared.
“One of them even went to the stage of saying ‘No wonder the players are playing for you, you don’t just want to walk away’."
Despite assuring himself he made the right decision, Stewart was honest enough to admit that his bank account hasn’t been his best of friends in recent times. But knowing the kind of person he is, money has never been an issue for him in making a decision.
Back when he was playing for Johor FA in the Malaysian League in the early 1990s, he had offers from Selangor FA that tripled the wages he was on. But Stewart was happy in Southern Malaysia and had a lot of great friendships that he treasured more. The former Australian international ended up staying with Johor for eight years, winning the 1998 Malaysia FA Cup in his final game with the club, a memory he holds as his best football moment as a player, even above making his national team debut in front of his hometown crowd.
"I have never put money before any contract, it’s irrelevant," he said. "I knew roughly what I would have been earning [at Newcastle]. And it was just pointless talking to Woodlands, saying, 'Look this is what they are offering me, what can you do?' That would be unfair to Woodlands, and I didn’t even discuss if they could give me a little bit extra that would make me stay. It was nothing to do with that."
“I’ve been brought up pretty well,” he explained. “My dad is pretty much the most honest man I’ve ever met. I’d like to think that I learned a lot from him. And my mum is very caring person, which all mums are.”
"I might be a bit richer if I put money before everything else but I just never have. My mum always tells me, 'That’s you'. I think it’s a good thing, a good trade."
There is no denying that a potential move to Newcastle would have been an ideal post and by all accounts, Stewart was a shoo-in. But having set his roots in Singapore for nearly two decades and then being taken in by the Rams after what he deemed "a sad ending" at Balestier, there was no way he could find it in himself to walk out.
“If I was thinking of long term career, the Newcastle job was perfect,” he admitted. “They have made the final six for the last four to five season and I believe I could have got them into that. We’ve got some players that I could have taken from Singapore."
"The number one thing was, I didn’t want to walk out on Woodlands, they gave me the opportunity after what happened with me at Balestier (being dismissed after winning the club's first silverware). And Woodlands gave me the opportunity. It’s a great life I've built for myself here for over 20 years. I knew it was the right decision because I haven’t looked back, I haven’t thought about it.
“I’m happy at the moment. Who knows what life has in store. It’ll come knocking in (offer to coach Newcastle Jets) another day, and then it might be the right time. I’m only 47, I still regard myself as a young coach, I'm learning still. I’m on my pro license now with Uefa, which I’m finishing in August."
With the life changing episode behind, Stewart, who was recognised with the Coach of the Year honour at the 2013 Goal Singapore Football Awards for his achievements with the Tigers, is firmly focussed on his goal of turning Woodlands Wellington into a major force in Singapore football.
“The dream goal is to bring this club into a top three club,” he said. “It’s not achievable this year, but with the support of the excellent management team that we’ve got, we can definitely in the next year or two get there, without a doubt at all, and without changing too much around. We’ve started planning for next year already. I'm enthusiastic about the future at Woodlands.”
With the Newcastle incident now firmly behind him for now, one can only hope Stewart’s extended stay in Singapore with Woodlands will be vindicated by the Rams fulfilling their objectives for this season and beyond.