Despite being nestled in the quiet obscurity of Xanthi in north-eastern Greece, IBWM managed to track down globe-trotting Jordan Stewart. Here’s Alistair Hendrie.
Many people talk of travelling the world and immersing themselves in different lifestyles. For a lot of us, it’s a dream. Footballers are no different. The chance to experience a separate breed of fans, culture and football is sometimes too tempting to pass up.
This is where Jordan Stewart comes in.
At the end of last season, Stewart was 27; not a veteran just yet, but approaching a dangerous crossroads in his career. Whilst at Sheffield United, the versatile Brummie’s progress was being blunted by a mixture of injury and an unconvinced Kevin Blackwell. Discarded, unused, deemed surplus to requirements, Stewart was told he could leave.
He then jetted off on holiday during the summer to mull over his next career move. Out of nowhere, the phone rang. A small club in Greece by the name of Skoda Xanthi were after him. An excited Stewart was shown around the club soon after and was instantly charmed. In a previous interview with me, Stewart told me he had always wanted to play abroad, so this was his chance.
After a whirlwind first nine months abroad, Stewart has (kind of) learnt a new language, scored his first goal in Greek football, and his club sit within reaching distance of a Europa League place. Here is Stewart’s story of life over new shores.
You moved to Skoda Xanthi at the start of this season, so how does Greek football differ from English football?
It’s not as fast or physical as the Championship. Sometimes, if you just touch a player, the guy goes down and the referee gives a foul. I used to get quite frustrated, but you get used to it. The football is quite attacking and matches are very open.
And what tactics and styles of football are most popular over there?
Most teams play 4-3-3, and you very rarely see 4-4-2. If a team is on the back foot, a lot of the time they will split into two banks of four and then just play on the counter. There is a good standard of football here though.
Last weekend, you drew 1-1 at Iraklis and lost the lead in the last minute. Do you view this as two points lost or one point gained?
It’s two points lost. After we scored, we had a man sent off and didn’t have much possession. It was like we were playing for the three points, but not trying to score. We had our backs against the wall for the rest of the match when we went down to 10 men. Their goal looked offside at first, but we’ve seen it again and it was just onside. These things are difficult when you only see it once in the heat of the moment.
You now sit 11th, six points from a Europa League place, but four points above the relegation zone. What’s it like to play in such a tight league?
It’s a lot tighter than I’m used to in England - totally different. I’d love to play in the Europa League – it’s a priority of ours but this is a hard league. We are unbeaten in three and have to keep going.
You must have been pleased to score your first goal for Skoda Xanthi, a late equaliser against Iraklis earlier in the season. As a defender, is the other end of the pitch just as important to you?
Yes, I like to get forward a lot. When Micky Adams was at Leicester, I played in midfield a lot as well. But at Skoda Xanthi, it’s a priority to defend as I’m a left-back. I like scoring but it’s not really my job.
After watching a few videos of you on YouTube, it seems you only ever score from 25 yards out! Was it one of those?
(Laughs) No, sadly it wasn’t! I played a one-two with a teammate, but the ball was blocked by a defender. Thankfully it fell kindly for me and I managed to hit it across the keeper from close-range.
There seems to be some big names in the Greek Super League. George Boateng plays with you at Skoda Xanthi, and Olof Mellberg and Gilberto Silva also play in the league. What does this say about the league?
The league is improving because of it. I didn’t know much about Greek football or Skoda Xanthi before I came here, but there are a lot of players coming here from England and France. Jean-Alain Boumsong is another big name who is at Panathinaikos, and Matt Derbyshire did very well there. We had Nathan Ellington on loan here at the start of the season. He did very well in pre-season and also scored for us against Panathinaikos.
How do you approach the games against the bigger sides, such as Olympiakos and Panathinaikos?
The build-up in the town itself is a little different. When you talk to the fans, they are supportive but talk as if they know we are going to lose because we’re expected to. The manager, Nikos Papadopoulos, doesn’t do too much differently. In his team talks before the big matches, he doesn’t say a lot and just tells us that these are the best players, and these are the players we have to beat to get where we want to be. I don’t think of these matches too differently to be honest. We just want to win and get the three points every time.
In terms of the title, Olympiakos are 10 points clear at the top. Is the league won or do you think they will slip up?
Olympiakos and Panathinaikos in second both drew last week, which was a setback for both teams. However, I can’t see anyone catching Olympiakos with six games left.
There was a lot of crowd trouble at a recent match between the two, with fans running onto the pitch attacking players. How do you feel about the fans in Greece?
They are true hardcore supporters of their team but they’re all crazy! But they’re very passionate about their sports in this country which is good to see. Before the matches, every cafe is full of fans, drinking, smoking and talking about nothing but football. You hear stories about players from Olympiakos and Panathinaikos not being able to leave their houses after a loss for fear of being attacked! The Aris fans are very hostile as well. There are always a lot of bottles and coins being thrown onto the pitch at their matches, and I’ve also seen them throwing seats onto the pitch. Their matches with PAOK in particular are always fiery. It’s very different in Greece, fans seem to be able to run onto the pitch and get away with it. You barely ever see people being thrown out of the stadium for some reason!
And are Skoda Xanthi fans just as nuts?
(Laughs) No, they’re a little more mellow. We’re a modest club, quite a small club, and only get attendances of around 6,000 to 7,000.
I’m sure few readers have heard of Xanthi. What kind of a place is it?
It’s pretty small and quiet, there’s only a population of about 50,000 here. The nearest town is Thessaloniki, and that’s about a 2 hours drive away. The people are very friendly; they come up to you in the streets to talk about football. It was hard at first without knowing the language. You’d go out for dinner and all the menus would be in Greek, you wouldn’t have a clue about anything!
So have you been getting better at the language?
I’ve been learning since I came here and can have conversations about football. It’s OK though as most of the players speak good broken English. But it’s not like the Greeks all talk together and the others are separate. We all get on well and have a good laugh together.
Bearing in mind you said you didn’t know much about Greek football before joining, have you changed or improved as a player since joining Skoda Xanthi?
I’d say I’ve had to adapt. During my first few matches, I’d go running down the wing and there’d be nobody there. They like to pass it around at the back a bit more. Playing in a different league has helped me as a player though. I found it hard at first, but I’m playing well now.
What are your plans for the rest of your career?
I have another year left on my contract here, but after that I’m not sure. I’d love to play in America though. My plan is to retire playing there and stay there. I went to L.A. when I was 21, and I loved it. I go back every year. Major League Soccer is a good league and my ex-Watford teammate Jay DeMerit plays there for Vancouver Whitecaps. I spoke to him a few weeks ago and he’s really enjoying it. Of course, David Beckham playing there has done a lot to raise the profile and popularity.
Alistair Hendrie is a sports journalist and writes Premier Leagues articles at www.epltalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/allyh84