For three USL Championship seasons, Tommy Stewart was a lethal striker for the boys in Old Glory Red.
When he arrived from across the Atlantic, the forward brought a title-winning pedigree and a precise finish. He was the perfect fit under new Head Coach Preki, a hardworking striker with an eye for net and a relentless drive that demanded nothing short of his best.
Before the man with the third most goals in club history joins Rob McAllister on Saturday’s edition of Republic Rewind, reliving the 2014 USL Championship trophy-winning match, Stewart discusses the first very season in Republic FC history and the night where the Indomitable Club was crowned champions.
You've had a very impressive playing career, how much did your time in Sacramento mean to you?
“It’s the club I reflect on the most because it goes beyond football for me, to be honest. It goes way beyond winning, I mean it was great to win, but I just look at it in terms of the community and what it meant to people. What football brings, how people can fully connect. I think we had 12, 13, maybe more nationalities of players coming in and we gelled straight away and had that chemistry. That’s difficult to do, and then you have the hard work, the dedication, and then you have the 12th man standing behind you, it’s not that you will win, but you’ll have a good go. You’ll have a good crack at it and then it’s consistency after that and the foundations were just stabilized straight away from the get-go. But it just seemed to keep getting better and better and better, it was like a layer came and then another layer and that’s probably the best way I can describe it because I’ve played with some great teams in some great matches but nothing had quite struck me like Sacramento.”
What was so compelling and exciting about joining Republic FC?
“You could tell how much it meant to this city to do something it’s never done before and it’s difficult because it’s a team that had never kicked a ball together before so everybody realistically took a risk joining the club, myself included, but it was an opportunity and sometimes when opportunities like this come up you want to take them but I looked at other clubs that I’ve played at, on paper at the time they were bigger clubs, so it’s up to you to build year after year after year, but for us to go into that and do something straight away, that’s unheard of. It was pretty amazing.”
What was different about Republic FC that first season relative to other clubs you’ve represented?
“There wasn’t a huge difference in that clubs want to build the fanbase and community but that’s easier said than done. That doesn’t just happen, and in Sacramento, the capital of California, it should have a team so for us to be able to do that, and the way it unfolded, it was different than what I’ve experienced."
"I’ve been at some great clubs and the front offices were all brilliant but I think the difference for me was from the community, to the players, they sort of bounced off each other and I haven’t felt that at a team because I think people knew you as a footballer and as person. Usually at other teams, they know you as a footballer, as your profession. They don’t have that relationship where I think in Sacramento the fans and community really had a relationship with the players, the front office, and it just blended perfectly.”
How would you describe your style of play you were bringing to Sacramento and how did it fit so perfectly into the system that first season?
“I was probably coming into my peak and coming off the back of quite a lot of silverware, so I was still so hungry to do something and do damage in that league. It just felt like, for me, number one, first and foremost is hard work. I’ll always be a hard-working player. I’ll always make sure I’m at my best fitness and I want to show the coaches and players see that around me that I’m a fighter and no matter what, I’ll fight."
"More importantly, I think your attitude and professionalism are two of the biggest things I would bring and once they blend, you can’t go wrong, you’ll have success. But I’m a team player and I think that is what players appreciated most about me, I’ll do the donkey work and the hard work and defending that you don’t get credited for sometimes. You can have an unbelievable game as a good defensive striker but you could have a bad game and score a goal and people will go ‘oh, well he scored’ so sometimes it’s better to have a bad game and score. The key for our team was really going after it, giving 100% and we were able to recruit a team that understood that."
You finished the regular season strong with four goals in your last two games, was this when you and the team were finding your best form?
“I think as the season grew, the whole team was really finding out about itself and really believing we could go out and win. If you look back, we played Harrisburg City in the first game of the year and lost to them. We felt like we were the better team, but we ended up losing to them, funny how it turned around in the final. I think once you get a new team and it’s gelling and coming together, I think you get a few defeats or a couple of draws and you think ‘we could have done better but let’s stick together and try to jog out a few wins’ because it will click, and it clicked for us."
"Certainly going into the last seven or eight games, we were really hitting good form and that’s what you want, but we felt we could score from anywhere on the pitch and for me, as a striker, you could have a bad game but still be a threat because we had a good enough team where if someone didn’t score, another would. If I didn't score, RoRo would. If RoRo wouldn't score, someone else would. We weren't afraid of anybody, we were afraid of making our own mistakes. We felt defensively good from front to back so the only way another team was going to score was if we made one or two mistakes and give them opportunities.”
When did you first fully believe that this could be a title-winning team?
“I fully believed it when I signed, that was one of the things I said I was going to do when I signed, way before we did win, I said I’m coming here to win. I believed we would win, or challenge, at the start of the season but once the season unfolds, anything can happen. Players get injured, there’s different components like red cards, illnesses to players, form that you can’t guarantee – but I always thought that if we could string together five or six games well, and you’re staying with the pack at the top, then that’s when you can hit your potential."
"We had a few young players that were talented enough to take another step, myself included, and I really felt we kept on and there was a month where we peaked and then it was just a matter of staying humble and focused and hardworking and it was a matter of hitting the training ground on a Monday and just going 100% again.”
Without The Miracle at Bonney, there is no championship. Can you describe that special night in the Semifinal?
“You know it’s going to be a big game against LA. You know what’s next when you get through. And not even from a player’s self, I think it was just from the media and the crowd and walking out of the tunnel hearing everyone screaming ‘let’s beat LA!’ and as players, it becomes not just a game of football, it becomes let’s play football and let’s beat LA.”
“I just remember Joe Wagoner saying when the rain came, there was a different twist in the air. There was… can I describe it? Probably not, but I don’t need to really because I think everybody that was there knows exactly what I mean. The pendulum just swung, and you could just sense that if we only needed one chance to score and it fell to RoRo. Then we got the second goal and I just remember us having that belief because we had scored a lot of goals through the season as a team and thankfully, we had a couple dead ball situations where RoRo put them away."
The Miracle had to be physically and emotionally exhausting, could you celebrate or was it full-steam ahead and full focus on the championship?
“As much as we wanted to celebrate that night, I think the emotion of the game, we worked so hard as a team to get through to the next round and we dug in and there was almost a relief in the air because even though we were a good team with good players, if you lose that game, nobody cares, nobody watches the final, season gone. I think it was gratitude for all the hard work then you totally regain focus the next morning, it’s back to a recovery session and there’s no talk of the game. It’s just a matter of pure focus, pure dedication, turn your attention to Harrisburg, Harrisburg beat us the first game of the season, what are you going to do? Simple as that, really.”
“No time for celebration. Miracle? It’s not a miracle if we don’t win the final. It’s a comeback, and it wouldn’t have been called the miracle if we didn’t win the title because it means so much more that fact that we won the final, with our fans, at home, the very first year. It’s phenomenal.”
What was the build up like to the championship after that wild win over LA?
“It put everything into perspective, this was why I made that first decision to come to Sacramento, so far away from home. I believed in the project and we saw the project unravel. We had a group of very loyal and talented players but without the hard work, you don’t get too far. But leading up to it, it was just special because you knew it was at home, you had that slight advantage and we were really good at home. It felt like the night favored us, but you don’t want to get caught up in that. You had business to take care of and we had history to take care of. You go into the match thinking, ‘you either want to be part of history or you don’t’.”
You scored the final goal in the final game, that had to have been one of the most special moments of your career…
“Most definitely. It was the last goal of the season, the one that clinched the final. Just so much weight, what it meant to me. It meant everything to me and still does. I knew I was going to score; I just knew. I couldn’t start the game; I pulled a nerve and thought I had a hamstring strain but I knew it wasn’t a hamstring strain I just knew I wasn’t 100% so I didn’t start and at the beginning of the match I told Preki I’ll come on and score, I just need some time and I knew I was going to score. I came on and had a couple of chances, it was coming, and whenever the ball came in from James Kiffe I took a touch and beat the keeper and put it in the back of the net but in that moment, you knew you had come through and once that second goal went in, there was no way back. The game is dead, the game is done, we had won. You can just play out the last minute, smiling, and a half knowing deep down that you had won and this is over and my whole family was there in the crowd – my sister, my mom, my dad – so that made it that much more special for me.”
"My mom passed away but she got to see something so special and I'm thankful for things like that because it all goes back to the beginning. I think extending the chance for my family to go to America and try this, for them they weren't really knowing what it was going to be like with me taking a risk, but all of it came together it that moment. It felt amazing, it just really felt amazing and I'll forever remember that moment."
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