Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart opens up about his personal heartache

Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart opens up about his personal heartache

By Paul Davis | 04/06/2019

Rotherham United chairman Tony Stewart opens up about his personal heartache
Millers chairman Tony Stewart

RARELY is Tony Stewart lost for words but he has to compose himself before he can speak.

The Rotherham United chairman is in his spacious office at his ASD Lighting firm on Barbot Hall Industrial Estate.

We're talking golf, we're talking Millers, we're talking about his hopes for next season.

Then, suddenly, we're talking about Joan.

Stewart lost his beloved wife in March. He has a company and a football club to look after. The show has had to go on. Yet the businessman has suffered since that dark day only three months ago.

Less than a week after Joan's death, Stewart was at Bramall Lane for the derby against Sheffield United and he stutters before fully recalling the wonderful tribute when all four sides of the ground rose in the poignant solidarity of a minute's applause.

“It was incredible,” he says. “The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. The acknowledgement came from the whole crowd, not just the Rotherham fans.

“It was humbling. It was a surprise. I didn't expect a reaction like that. It was lovely to feel that Joan was being commemorated by so many people.”

Stewart has just returned from Rotherham Golf Club and cuts a healthy figure as he stretches out behind his sprawling desk on a Monday afternoon.

He likes the sun and the sun likes him, so he's deeply tanned after several rounds in the previous few days.

The polo shirt is blue and Boss, the trousers match and the black shoes are as sharp as his desire to return to the Championship after last season's relegation. He's lost weight and looks at least a decade younger than his mid-70s age.

“I had been asked by (Blades chairman) Kevin McCabe about a minute's silence,” he adds. “As nice as that gesture was, I said 'no'.

“To listen to all the applause was a sad but beautiful moment. It was so gracious of all the fans to put the memory of Joan in the minds of everyone in the stadium.”

It's the first time I've seen the club's owner since the March 14 presentation at Buckingham Palace of his OBE for services to business and the town of Rotherham and I take the chance to congratulate him. In the most tragic of ironies, Joan missed out on the ceremony having been the person to inform him of his impending honour late last year.

“Receiving the award was bitter-sweet,” her husband says softly. “It happened only about ten days after she died. It was a sad time. It was a great time but a very sad one as well. The memories of Joan will always be there for me.”

Sitting a few feet away is the couple's son and Millers vice-chairman, Richard, who flits in and out of the room as he attends to ASD business.

Father and son share an office and are sharing their hurt.

“It's not just myself,” Stewart Senior says. “There's Richard as well. We've been good for each other. We've propped each other up.

“Even though we have had the grief and sadness, we have still got the memories. It's the memories now that keep us going.

“We're here, now, to carry on. And we are carrying on – carrying on with our aim to create a more successful football club.”

After 11 years at the helm, his enthusiasm remains undimmed.

“I'm planning to stay around,” he says. “At the end of the day, if someone could come in and run the club better, satisfy the fans and put in mega-money, I'd have to consider that.

“But I've not had anyone knocking at my door. I've nobody who is pushing me.

“My thoughts are about moving forward with Rotherham United and making sure we do the absolute best that we can for the town and the fans.”

He's jovial again, back to what he does best: plotting for the future. We're both nursing mugs of tea, the conversation flows and the smile is warm and genuine. Stewart is finding a way to carry on.

There's a flash of silver on his wrist, a tasteful watch that whispers money rather than shouts it.

And there's a flash of gold on his finger. His wedding ring.

This article first appeared in the Advertiser