Kevin Stewart: 'I've faced Lionel Messi – promotion is more important'

‘I’ve faced Lionel Messi – but the stakes are a lot higher in promotion clash’: Blackpool midfielder Kevin Stewart looks ahead to League One play-off final against Lincoln City

  • Stewart played against Messi in his one previous game at Wembley, for Liverpool
  • He was once described by boss Jurgen Klopp as the toughest tackler at the Reds 
  • And he insisted facing Messi paled into insignificance compared to promotion 

Blackpool’s Kevin Stewart played against Lionel Messi in his only previous game at Wembley, but even that thrill won’t compare with facing Lincoln City on Sunday with promotion to the Championship up for grabs.

‘This is more important. The stakes are a lot higher,’ affirms the midfielder, who was part of Liverpool’s team that thumped Barcelona 4-0 in front of 90,000 fans at the national stadium in a 2016 pre-season tournament.

‘Having said that, it was amazing to go up against Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta. I’d studied Sergio Busquets more than anyone as a defensive midfielder and ended up snatching the ball off him and put someone through. 

Kevin Stewart is set to play for Blackpool in the League One play-off final on Sunday afternoon

Stewart played against Lionel Messi while at Liverpool but called promotion more important

‘Yeah, it was a good day, but it was still a friendly and this game is about the future. We’ve got a manager and players who I think would do well at a higher level.’

Blackpool have lost just one of 15 games Stewart has played in since he signed for the League One club in January as a free agent.

Neil Critchley’s side went on a great late run to reach the play-off final, making the Seasiders narrow favourites to return to the second tier after a six-year absence.

Stewart’s experience has been invaluable. Released by his first club Spurs, he joined Liverpool, where he played 20 first-team games and was described by Jurgen Klopp as the toughest tackler at the club.

Injuries marred a £4million move to Hull and he spent the first half of this season without a team until Critchley, who remembered Stewart from his own time as a coach at Liverpool, snapped him up.  

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp once called midfielder Stewart the toughest tackler at the whole club

‘Working on my own for six months was tough but I wanted to come back in good shape. I replicated what I’d do at a club — training times, gym sessions.’ he said.

‘Liverpool also let me use the facilities at Kirkby which was a massive help. I couldn’t go inside because of Covid but I could use the pitches and footballs, I worked really hard.’

Any Blackpool trip to Wembley will conjure up memories of the legendary Matthews Cup final in 1953.

More recently, the Tangerine army have experienced the highs of reaching the Premier League under Ian Holloway and lows of relegations under the detested Oyston ownership, before they were forced out in 2019.

Stewart converted from a full-back into midfield during his time at Anfield on the advice of academy director Alex Inglethorpe. ‘I loved it straight away and did well,’ he says.  

Stewart and his Tangerines side will face Lincoln City at Wembley with the chance to go up

‘I pride myself on making it hard for the best players on the opposition. Tackles, clean sheets, that is what drives me on.’

Having knocked out West Brom in this season’s FA Cup, Stewart thinks Blackpool have a footballing style that would suit the Championship.

In 23-goal Jerry Yates, they also possess the third-highest scorer in the regular League One season and will be backed by 4,000 fans with Blackpool’s full allocation sold out.

Stewart, who said his interest in property helped keep him ‘sane’ during his break from the game, will be cheered on by his biggest fans at Wembley, two-year-old son Xai and baby Zak.

‘Xai came on to the pitch after the play-offs against Oxford and started kicking a ball about. I think he’s got the football bug,’ says the 27-year-old. ‘My wife is coming, her parents, my Dad. I’ll have a few supporters there.’  

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