As blood spurted from his shattered nose and taunts rained down from the ramshackle terraces, Ross Stewart felt his love of football reignited.
Having been discarded by professional clubs, the striker’s confidence wasn’t the only thing that took a battering as he turned to the junior game to rescue his fledgling career.
It proved the making of Stewart, who was then a raw and gangly 18-year-old and now, seven years later, is a prolific forward whose barrage of goals for promotion-chasing Sunderland in English League One have thrust him into the Scotland squad.
It’s been an unconventional route to prominence for the Ayrshireman, who turned out for local junior clubs Ardeer Thistle and Kilwinning Rangers after several unsuccessful years in the pro youth system with St Mirren, Celtic and latterly Partick Thistle.
“It has served me well,” Stewart tells BBC Scotland. “When I went and played juniors, being in an adult environment, I really took to it and fell back in love with football, the camaraderie and the banter.
“You’re not treated like a youth player, you’re treated like an adult. I was playing well and scoring goals and just worked my way up the junior leagues, then got my chance to go back to the senior set-up.”
Wonky noses & Dad paying the transfer fee
The ‘juniors’ is something of a misnomer. It is semi-professional football – with its own governing body separate from the Scottish FA – where players can range from promising teens to former internationals in their 40s.
The fiercely competitive and unforgiving environment is no place for shrinking violets, as Stewart can attest. He still has the scars to prove it.
“The one I always think back to is we played Pollok, who have a big junior ground,” adds Stewart.
“I broke my nose that day. I can just remember being sparked out and getting called all the names under the sun. There’s no remorse for any type of injury at that level, you’ve just got to get up and get on with it.
“I tried to turn inside someone and I got a shoulder straight to the nose. There was blood everywhere, my nose was pointing sideways, and you’re getting called a ‘diving you-know-what’ and all that.”
His decision to drop down the levels paid off when Stewart’s eye-catching form earned him a move to the SPFL with League 1 Albion Rovers – but the deal came with a unique twist.
Kilwinning wanted Â£1,500 for their prize asset, but Rovers could only pay Â£1,000. Enter Stewart’s dad, Cameron, to make up the difference. It has proved a savvy investment that has soared in value since as the forward progressed to St Mirren, Ross County and then Sunderland.
“Dad says me living out my dreams is enough for him but I’ve probably paid him back in terms of complimentary tickets to watch my games now,” says Stewart.
“I’ve got a lot to thank him for. He played junior football too in his younger days, as a sweeper. So it means we have contrasting opinions on the game a lot of the time. He always gives it the, ‘You’d have hated playing against me’.”
‘I’d love to play for Scotland’
It is little over a year since Stewart swapped a survival battle in the Scottish Premiership with Ross County for the task of trying to get ailing giant Sunderland out of League One.
They fell short in the play-offs last season, despite Stewart scoring in a semi-final second-leg win, and their current promotion tilt is fuelled by Stewart’s goals.
Entrusted as the club’s main striker this term, he has flourished. The 25-year-old has 22 goals in 38 games and has now earned international recognition – something he admitted in January was a target of his.
“The opportunity to represent my country, especially with the route I’ve taken in football, would be very surreal for me,” says Stewart. “It’s something I would love to do but I don’t want to get caught up in it too much.
“At times it can be tough because I want it to happen but at the same time, my focus is going to be just to keep doing well for Sunderland.
“If I can do that hopefully these things fall into place and take care of themselves.”
Stewart has lofty ambitions at club level, too. Having fought his way up from the juniors with unwavering determination and belief in his ability, he doesn’t want to hang around in England’s third tier for long.
He arrived as a virtual unknown to Sunderland fans, despite having forged an impressive reputation at County, and is now a cult hero among a support who have nicknamed him ‘The Loch Ness Drogba’.
Having turned down offers from the Championship to join Lee Johnson’s side, Stewart is revelling in the adulation in a football-obsessed city.
“Growing up watching football and knowing how big a club Sunderland are, once I heard they were interested, my decision was made,” he says.
“I wanted to go and test myself at a club that size. It has gone as well as I could have hoped and I’m lucky that the fans have really taken to me. We get 30,000 at home games and the noise makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“With the nickname, fair play to whoever came up with it. I don’t mind it at all. I just hope we can give them something to be excited about.”
Stewart has reportedly attracted interest from clubs including Swansea City and, with a season-and-a-half remaining on his deal, knows this season will be pivotal to his future.
“I love playing here so there’s no reason that I’d be in a rush to move on,” he says.
“You’ve always got the ambition to play at the highest level you can so that’s something down the line I’d consider if the opportunity was there.
“But this season I want to stay and try to get this club promoted because they’re too big to be in League One.
“I’ve not had any talks with Sunderland about a new deal, it’s probably about seeing out this season first and going from there.”