How rejection, Rafa Benitez and Steve Clarke made Stuart Findlay the defender he is today
|Stefan Bienkowski||Nov 17, 2020||3|
At some point this season Stuart Findlay is likely to make his 150th appearance for Kilmarnock Football Club.
The central defender from Glasgow didn’t come through the Ayrshire club’s youth academy, nor is he an ageing servant of the club. In fact, when he first arrived at Rugby Park it seemed certain that Findlay’s time at Kilmarnock would be short and entirely insignificant.
After coming through Celtic’s youth academy and successful loan spells at Greenock Morton and Dumbarton, Findlay arrived at Kilmarnock in June 2015 with the intention of making the step up to Scottish Premiership football. The only problem is that he wasn’t good enough. And neither were Kilmarnock.
During his 22 league appearances for the Rugby Park side that season, Kilmarnock conceded 36 goals and despite the best efforts of Gary Locke and then Lee Clark, the club finished in eleventh place. They lost the first leg of a relegation play-off with Falkirk 1-0, but secured their top-flight status with a 4-0 win in the second. Findlay sat on the bench for both games.
“That season was a really tough one for me,” the 25-year-old defender tells TheTwoPointOne. “I was in and out, I didn't really play the way I knew I could have played.” After the final game of the season Findlay packed his bags and left Kilmarnock. But he certainly doesn’t look back on that season with any bitterness or resentment.
“If I'm honest, I didn't do enough in my first spell at Kilmarnock,” admits Findlay. “They were probably right in their decision to tell me that they didn't want me back. So I can take that on the chin because it was probably true.”
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However, unlike most loan moves in which the young player can return to the comfort of his parent club to lick his wounds and rebuild his confidence, Findlay’s exit from Kilmarnock coincided with his contract expiring at Celtic.
“Celtic told me I wasn't good enough, Kilmarnock told me I wasn't good enough and in my head it was the first time in my life that I doubted if I was good enough,” says Findlay. “I had done it at Dumbarton and Morton, sure, but I couldn't make that next step up and then I couldn't break through at Celtic either. So for the first time I seriously questioned what I was going to do with myself.”
It’s at this point in most careers that the player in question moves down a few divisions, picks up a part-time job somewhere or gives up on the game entirely. Yet, Findlay’s career isn’t exactly a normal one. And, just as all hope seems lost, the iPhone in his pocket suddenly begins to ring. The young player answers the phone to the sound of his agent excitedly informing him that a club were interested in offering him a deal. No, it wasn’t Livingston, Dundee or Partick Thistle. It was Newcastle United.
Findlay had been aware of Newcastle’s lingering interest in him since he had captained Celtic’s youth teams but admits the news was “the most baffling phone call in the world” to him. Knowing fine well that it almost certainly meant reserve team football for the foreseeable future, the defender still packed his bags and moved out of his family home for the first time. Opportunity never knocks twice at any man’s door and Findlay wasn’t about to let this one pass him by.
On paper (or, most likely, Wikipedia) Findlay’s move to Newcastle simply didn’t work. In two years at the English giants, the defender made just one first-team appearance for the club and returned to Scotland soon after. A complete waste of time and unquestionable failure, right? No, not quite.
“People think I may have wasted a year or two because I only made one appearance in a year, but the experiences I got on the pitch and especially off the pitch in that year is something that was just amazing,” says Findlay with some confidence. “I went down to Newcastle and went from being a boy in a man's team at Kilmarnock to probably being a man in a boy's team at Newcastle.”
At 21 years of age, with three loan spells under his belt, Findlay stepped into Newcastle’s Under-23 side like a seasoned professional. Alongside fellow central defender Curtis Good - two years his senior - the former Celtic youth product became a leader among Newcastle’s young and impressionable players.
After watching his career flash before his eyes and his self-confidence hit rock bottom, Findlay slowly but surely returned to what he knew best: defending and leading from the back with a constant stream of instructions and encouragement for his team-mates. Then, just as things were beginning to look up for him, another opportunity presented itself.
Ahead of an FA Cup third round replay, Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez was facing something of an injury crisis. As such, Findlay and another three players from the U23s were called up to first team training. Although the Spaniard informed Findlay at the end of the training week that he’d done well but wouldn’t be in the matchday squad, the young Scot then arrived at the training centre on Friday morning to find his reserve team manager, Peter Beardsley, waiting for him at the front door.
“He told me to get changed and go home because I was involved in the squad that night,” says Findlay. “It's probably good in a way that I didn't have time to be nervous or have a sleepless night. I just got flung into it. I turned up at the stadium thinking I'd maybe be on the bench if I was lucky and then the team got announced and I found out I was playing in front of a full house at St James Park against Birmingham City in the FA Cup.”
Newcastle won the game comfortably, with two goals from Scotland international Matt Ritchie, while Findlay partnered fellow Scot Grant Hanley in defence. Just over eight months after his last appearance for Kilmarnock (a drab 1-1 draw which Findlay played at left-back) the young defender was walking off the pitch at St James Park to the welcome embrace of a manager that had won the Europa League and Champions League.
“Benitez came up to me and said: 'You played really, really well today. However, when I was the manager at Real Madrid I had Sergio Ramos and he did A, B and C a little differently so that's what you need to work on, but you're doing well’. And that took a minute to sink in,” notes Findlay with a grin on his face.
“I thought ‘I’ve just been released from Celtic, told I’m not good enough for Kilmarnock, now I’m having one of the best managers in the world try to tell me how to be more like Sergio Ramos’. He obviously didn't really mean it in that way, but to have his name mentioned in the same sentence as mine shows you how quickly football could change.”
Newcastle may not have offered Findlay much first-team football but in little over a year the young defender had rebuilt his confidence and proved to himself that he could play at a higher level. And, when Kilmarnock came calling with the offer of a second bite at the cherry, the 22-year old returned to Scotland as a very different player.
“I always knew I had the ability but I just had to be able to show it,” admits Findlay. “I think with the confidence and leadership starting to come out, all of these things came together and it stood me in really good stead for re-starting the career that I've had at Kilmarnock."
Yet it seemed as though history was intent on repeating itself. Findlay returned to the Ayrshire club - now managed by Lee McCulloch - only to find himself once again struggling to nail down a position in a team that were staring relegation in the face. After just eight games the manager that had brought Findlay to the club was sacked and the young defender wasn’t sure he’d be of much use to his successor.
“I was heading back to Newcastle in January since my loan move was only six months, so I thought he might not want me and I'd have to go try again somewhere else,” recalls Findlay. Yet Steve Clarke threw him in at left-back in his first game in charge - a 1-1 draw with Rangers - and started the defender in all but seven of Kilmarnock’s remaining league fixtures that season as the club climbed to fifth in the table.
The following season, after signing a permanent deal with the Ayrshire club, Findlay missed just seven of the 38 games that took Kilmarnock to third place and confirmed their place in the history books. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also jointly awarded Kilmarnock’s player of the year award alongside Gary Dicker.
“I can’t really put into words how influential he was,” admits Findlay, when asked how important Clarke has been to his career. “You were never unsure of what to do, you knew what was expected of you and you knew how to play to his system. I think that suited me down to the ground because once he took the doubt out of my mind of what to do, it just made my life so much easier. I think as a club we obviously took massive steps but individually I think the amount I improved was something I never expected. I'm just so thankful that it did.”
Despite an experimental and rather bumpy six months under Clarke’s successor, Kilmarnock are now back on track with Alex Dyer at the helm. After 13 games the Ayrshire side sit comfortably in sixth place, with Findlay an ever-present feature in a team that look as though they’ve finally gotten over Clarke’s move to Hampden.
Whether Findlay remains at Kilmarnock beyond the end of the season, when his current contract comes to an end, is only something the defender and his employers know. Yet at 25 years of age, his career as a central defender is still undoubtedly in its infancy and a move back down to England could be on the horizon after two fantastic seasons at Rugby Park.
However, that doesn’t seem to be on the defender’s list of priorities at the moment. “I think it would be madness to look beyond Kilmarnock right now,” suggests Findlay. “I’m still a Kilmarnock player. They’re the club that took the trust in me and until the day Kilmarnock decide they need to let me go or something else happens, I’ll be repaying that trust in me.”
For now, Findlay is just working on getting to 150 for Kilmarnock. Perhaps until the next opportunity presents itself.