24th April 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
For Kevin Stewart, making his full Premier League debut in Liverpool's exceptional 4-1 victory over Stoke City a few weeks ago would've felt like the perfect reward for all his perseverance.
For the man who joined the Reds in 2014 from Tottenham on a free transfer, he can now be absolutely satisfied that moving to Anfield was the best move for his career. Upon arriving on Merseyside, Stewart was a budding fullback, but Liverpool's U21 coach Michael Beale and academy director, Alex Inglethorpe, who had previously worked with Stewart at Tottenham, thought he possessed all the attributes to become a fine midfielder. And so the transformation began.
"Kevin came here as a full-back a bit like Flanno (Jon Flanagan) as he wanted to be a right-footed left-back," Beale said.
"He could also play centre-half but that was never really his position.
"In his first or second training session with us I had a conversation with Alex and we both felt he had the qualities to play in midfield. Two-footed, very athletic."
Just before Christmas of 2014, with Liverpool's U21s facing Norwich City, Stewart emphatically repaid Beale and Inglethorpe's faith by putting in a hugely encouraging opening shift in his new position.
"I sprung it on Kevin. We hadn't worked on it in training, but I played him in midfield and he was outstanding that night," Beale explained to the Liverpool Echo.
"It took us back a bit. We thought: 'wow, we'll persevere with that'. He played four or five more games in midfield before going out on loan."
Loans at Cheltenham Town and Burton Albion followed in 2015 to continue his development and to give him a taste of senior football.
To start the 2015/16 campaign Stewart yet again went on loan, this time to Swindon Town, where everything appeared to be going nicely early on, with him playing seven times. However, things took a turn for the worse in September when Stewart's progress was disappointingly hindered by a nasty knee ligament injury that would keep him on the sidelines for four months.
In the meantime, Jurgen Klopp had obviously been appointed to take over the managerial reigns of Liverpool, and by the time Stewart had recovered from his injury in early January, the German tactician saw him as a part of his plans. Klopp wasted no time in integrating him into his side, handing him a start against Exeter City in Liverpool's FA Cup clash on January 8.
The determined 22-year-old went on to make an additional three FA Cup appearances before coming off the bench to make his Premier League debut in his side's 6-0 demolition of Aston Villa.
Unfortunately, just when his prospects were on the rise, Stewart was floored again in February, this time succumbing to an unlucky ankle ligament injury when attempting to block a pass in training.
"It was frustrating being out again because things were going well for me," he noted.
"I just focused on working hard to get back fit as soon as possible and I was back quicker than expected."
And his diligence paid off, for being fully fit put him in the perfect position to step in for the suspended Emre Can and injured Jordan Henderson for his team's Premier League contest with Stoke City.
From his central midfield post, Stewart once again demonstrated how far he's come by putting in an accomplished performance. Although he endured the odd nervy moment in his full Premier League debut, which is completely acceptable, there could be no doubting that he looked comfortable at the level.
Defensively, he worked tirelessly to help his teammates and win the ball back for his side. Whenever a teammate needed assistance, he would vigorously track back or push across to support them. Whether dropping back to help his centre-halves, sliding over to cover his fullback or picking up a blown marking assignment Stewart's selflessness stood out throughout.
Aggressive in the tackle, Stewart was always eager to get stuck in and win back possession, which when combined with his energetic pressing, would've undoubtedly been something Klopp would've loved seeing.
In addition to being positionally sound, the way he tracked the likes of Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri whenever they ventured into his designated area of operation further evidenced his strong awareness and footballing intelligence.
In Liverpool's possession phases the technically proficient Stewart preferred to keep things simple, choosing to play things safe and not get too expansive with his passing. Meanwhile, his ability to turn away from danger when placed under extreme pressure served as another highlight of his offensive work and ensured he was a key component in Liverpool being able to keep the ball competently.
All things considered, Stewart's strong body of work underlined what a valuable member of the Reds' squad he is and should continue to be. Having a dependable, hungry, tenacious presence ready to step up in the absence of any of Klopp's first-team regulars is a terrific asset to have for the German mastermind.
In his post-match comments, Stewart made a point of showing his gratitude towards Klopp for believing in him and giving him a chance, saying: "He takes the pressure off players and gives you the belief to go out there and perform. I do get nervous but I think a few nerves keeps me aware and on my toes.
"The manager has shown a lot of faith in me and that gives me confidence. I need to keep improving and listening to him.
"It was great to play the full 90 after coming back from injury and to be part of such a good team performance."
Stewart, who Beale says is the hardest working player at the club and who regularly has to get kicked out of the gym at closing time, will be desperate to keep picking up minutes whenever he's presented with an opportunity.
Having recently signed a new deal with Liverpool, and now almost two years into his tenure with the Merseyside giants, it'll be fascinating to see how his transformation from fullback to midfielder continues.
With such a brilliant attitude, appetite for work and willingness to learn, there's absolutely no reason to suggest he can't be another one of Klopp's success stories.
In this case, Tottenham's loss is most definitely Liverpool's gain.
Licence to Roam features more articles from Edward.
Kevin Stewart From Full-Back to Midfielder at Liverpool FC
24th April 2016. By Edward Stratmann.