Stuart Kettlewell is a phenomenon not usually found in Scottish football. Having started his career as a part-time amateur with Queen’s Park, he has graduated through each of Scotland’s professional leagues with distinction. Now entering his fifth season with Ross County, Kettlewell has proved himself to be an integral part of a squad that recently finished fifth best in the country, with his performances central to the first half of the 2012-13 campaign.
His goal against Hibernian in a 3-2 victory last October – the game that marked County’s first home win in the top flight – gave Kettlewell the honour of scoring in every division as he progressed through the leagues. Plenty have scored in each division, but few have done it through an upward trajectory. Kettlewell has labelled himself as a “journeyman” in the past because of his career path, almost with a sense of self-deprecation, but in having achieved what he has with only three clubs, there is a stronger argument for classing him as an anti-journeyman.
Kettlewell has gained experience from nearly 300 league appearances, an impressive statistic for a Scottish footballer who has only just turned 29. There is a school of thought that success in the sport is driven by stability, either by the permanence of a management structure, sporting philosophy, by sticking with the same team, or most plausibly a blend of all of these aspects. Kettlewell has had stability through most of his playing years and despite starting out as an amateur, his career is an unqualified success – he has achieved promotion from the Third Division, won the First Division championship, and has starred in the country’s top tier.
Over half of Kettlewell’s league appearances were with Queen’s Park and it is there where he still holds a particular fondness, particularly in relation to the side developed under Billy Stark’s tutelage. Stark, who now coaches Scotland’s U-21 team (and who recently oversaw a win as interim manager for the full national side against Luxembourg), took charge at Hampden after Kenny Brannigan was asked to stand down following an altercation at Borough Briggs at the beginning of the 2004-05 season.
Although the Spiders had made steady progress from a position towards the bottom of the Third Division to mid-table, it took Stark’s policy of encouraging players from the club’s youth system and drilling the team with a ground-based possession game for the club to thrive again. Queen’s Park gained promotion to the Second Division in 2006-07 before Stark was head-hunted by the Scottish Football Association, midway through the following campaign.
It is worth considering the success of Billy Stark’s Queen’s Park team in the context of Stuart Kettlewell’s own career. I meet with Kettlewell earlier in the summer at his Dingwall home, a house situated in a quiet cul-de-sac which seems perfect to bring up a young family. With his children playing happily in the background, and his amiable partner pottering around during the course of the interview, it is clear from the outset that Kettlewell leads an enjoyable, stable life. It becomes obvious that the circumstances which brought him here are reflected in his playing career.
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As a schoolboy, Stuart Kettlewell showed enough promise to be scouted by SPL clubs but nothing came to fruition. “I think Rangers tried to get me when I was younger,” he says. “I had been on holiday and nothing materialised from it. The only other option I had was from Queen’s Park.
“I must have been about 15 when I signed, and literally the next day, Rangers contacted me to tell me that they were still interested in me. In all honesty [signing for Queen’s Park] was the best thing that I could have done. I was a bit gutted because Rangers seemed like a great opportunity, but I simply told them that I had signed for Queen’s Park and I was just going to go with that.” He speaks without any obvious hint of regret.
“It was the best grounding that I could have ever asked for,” Kettlewell continues. “I would recommend it to any young kid because you really are taught the values of football: you’re taught how to play the right way, you’re brought up the right way, you’re taught how to live your life the right way. As I say, it really is a fantastic club. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”
Sitting across from him, it is even more apparent than from observing in the stand just how exceptionally lean and fit he looks. However, his slender frame was possibly holding him back from breaking into Queen’s Park’s first team under John “Cowboy” McCormack. An opportunity arose as soon as Kenny Brannigan took over.
Kettlewell made his debut for Brannigan’s Queen’s Park as an 18-year-old, coming off the bench to play for nearly half an hour against Albion Rovers on 8 March 2003. “It was Brannigan’s first match actually,” he recalls. “I was on the verge of getting into the first team and I was told at the time by John McCormack that I wasn’t quite strong enough – I was too slim – but as soon as Brannigan came in he pitched me right into the team.
“I’ve always been thankful to him for that. It didn’t necessarily work out too well for him at Queen’s Park, but the fact that one of the first things he did when he came in was to put me in the team – all you can ask for is a chance.”
We discuss some of the players who were already there at the time. “They are all guys that I still keep in contact with,” Kettlewell assures. “There was a nucleus which was there basically from the start of my time there, all the way through until I left.”
What was notable about Kettlewell’s debut against Albion Rovers was the number of familiar names in the team who carried on for a few years, including Tony Quinn (still playing at Hampden after nearly 12 years), Danny Agostini, Stevie Canning and Richard Sinclair. Some were eventually phased out as their careers progressed, but the steady core kept within the squad during Brannigan’s time gave Stark the requisite platform to bring through and nurture the club’s youth graduates.
Queen’s Park finished in eighth in Kettlewell’s first season, but made slight progress in 2003-04 by ending up in seventh. Although the year was marked by a lack of a consistency, Kettlewell’s role in the team became more prominent and he made 24 league appearances. He never actually took part in a win in the league until the beginning of December 2003 when he came off the bench in a 3-0 home win over East Stirlingshire, before impressing and securing a starting role in the centre of midfield.
The best result for the club was early on in Brannigan’s last full season, a 2-1 away win at Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the League Cup. Caley Thistle won promotion to the SPL later that season but were usurped by the Spiders, despite fielding a first choice team featuring Bobby Mann, Russell Duncan, Ritchie Hart, Barry Wilson and Paul Ritchie. The result was arguably the first sign of things to come, but Brannigan could not find the team’s extra level of performance with any consistency.
“I was injured for that game”, Kettlewell remembers, “but it was a fantastic achievement. We didn’t necessarily do too well under Kenny; just one of those things. I don’t think we did particularly badly, but we didn’t reach the heights that we did when Billy Stark came in. Kenny’s gone on to do alright for himself at Queen of the South and is now coaching in Canada.
“We didn’t necessarily do too well under Kenny; just one of those things.”
“The Third Division at the time had a lot of experienced pros and a lot of stalwarts. We were a fairly young side, we started getting better when the younger boys such as me and Stevie Canning managing to pick up some experience – the more games you play the more experience you get and that seemed to help us progress. I played close to 200 games in all competitions there, which was a lot of football for someone of my age. It wasn’t just myself but there was a large number of players who played over 100 games for the club. It was obvious that the team was getting better with more games it played.”
Billy Stark was appointed manager with part of the 2004-05 season already underway. At the beginning of the campaign under Brannigan, Kettlewell had lost his place as a regular starter but showed patience for his opportunity under Stark. It eventually arrived at the end of August 2004 when Paul Harvey was injured after 15 minutes, in what seemed to be an inevitable Gretna win at Hampden. Ryan Baldacchio scored just after half-time for the visitors, but a surge of goals from both teams took the score to 2-2 before Kettlewell’s late winner. It was his first senior career goal.
“I remember it well,” he gushes. “At the time, Gretna were the big spending club with a lot of really good players. In the Third Division it was kind of fairytale football, spending a lot of money. I was only a young kid at the time. They were taking four or five goals off most teams. It was actually a pretty good goal, it was a decent finish from outside the box.
“I get a lot of stick for scoring with sliding tackles and tap-ins, so it was quite a special moment for me. They were the top team in the division at the time.”
Kettlewell kept his place in the team and finished the season with 32 appearances. With Alan Trouten, David Weatherston, David Crawford and Mark Ferry all coming through, there were promising signs of momentum as Queen’s Park finished the league in fourth.
There was a noticeable change in the manner that Stark had set up his team from the outset, with a focus on encouraging the inexperienced players through the youth system and getting them to play attractive, possession based football. This was arguably a concept unique to the Third Division during that period. Kettlewell discusses what he saw as the distinction between Brannigan’s approach to managing the first team to Stark’s method.
“At the time we had players like Ally Graham, who was a monster centre forward,” he explains. “Having the likes of him up front, you had the option of being more direct and the ball could go from back to front in that sense. Kenny brought in a few experienced guys, the likes of Paul Harvey in midfield, who technically was unbelievable. By the time he was at Queen’s Park, he was losing his legs a little bit but he was undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players I’ve ever seen.
“So when you look at Kenny Brannigan’s time, he did try to bring in a few experienced pros, which was never really the done thing at Queen’s Park – most of the time you’re producing players yourself. Kenny tried to change things a wee bit. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong thing do, but comparing him to Billy Stark, he was all about trying to bring through players.”
By the time they had joined Queen’s Park in their late thirties, Ally Graham and Paul Harvey had been with 25 clubs between them. Their career paths could not have been more different to those whom Stark brought through and Kettlewell is delighted to talk about the celebrated 2006-07 side.
“You look at the team that won promotion,” he smiles. “I think maybe about 80 per cent of them had played youth football for Queen’s Park, which is incredible – it’s pretty amazing. If you look at them now – I watched them against Rangers – there’s 17, 18, 19-year-olds promoted from the youth system.
“I think they really are a blueprint for a lot of clubs. More clubs really need to stand up and take note of what they are doing. There’s not a lot of money in Scotland anymore and you look at Queen’s Park and they’re producing their own players.
“Guys like Paul Paton just signed for Dundee United, David Weatherston plays at Falkirk [who has since been released by Gary Holt after replacing Steven Pressley], Barry Douglas at Dundee United [now at Polish side Lech Poznan], these players are playing for some of the top teams in Scotland. Other clubs need to be doing the same because you can’t go out and spend all sorts of money on players – you need to produce your own.”
“I think they really are a blueprint for a lot of clubs. More clubs really need to stand up and take note of what they are doing.”
Kettlewell talks in glowing terms about his former team-mates. He enthuses about Weatherston (he describes the forward as “the fastest thing on two legs”), Alan Trouten and David Crawford, but special praise is reserved for Paul Paton and Paul Cairney, two Queen’s Park graduates currently playing in the SPL.
Paton, who is likely to star as a holding midfielder for Jackie McNamara’s Dundee United (just as he did for Partick Thistle in the last 18 months) was originally being fielded at right-back. “He wasn’t really converted to central midfield,” Kettlewell attests. “The first few games he played was in midfield with me, he did exceptionally well. He is quite lucky in a sense that he is good in two positions – I even saw him at centre-back at times filling in.”
This was not an unusual sight at Thistle either, as he was occasionally used as a right centre-back as part of a trio when McNamara experimented between using a back three and four during matches. “He will tell you that he prefers to play in central midfield but he fell into the right-back slot”, Kettlewell goes on. “I can’t remember how it came about, but he went to right back and he was exceptional. He’s one of those boys who will give you eight out of ten most weeks, in any position.”
Although they are different types of midfielder, Kettlewell’s career track is aligned almost parallel to his old team-mate Cairney, now at Hibernian. Cairney has played and scored while ascending through the divisions; he settled and developed further with a First Division side in Partick Thistle; he started brightly in the SPL; and lost his place in the first XI in the second half of last season through form and fitness.
Kettlewell looks back at his time alongside Cairney with pleasure. “In the season we were promoted, it was us who played centre midfield. I loved playing in midfield with him. Of all the guys who came through at that time, in my opinion he was the best.
“I think he’s a fantastic player. He’s been a bit unfortunate more recently at Hibs. I know Leigh Griffiths was scoring most of the goals but you should look at the assists Cairney had, plus he chipped in with a couple of goals as well. In the first half of the season at Hibs he was outstanding and he maybe tailed off a wee bit in the second half, but probably the whole team did. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with him – he’s excellent on the ball, scores goals, sets up goals… Pretty much everything you want from a midfielder.”
Although Queen’s Park finished two places lower in 2005-06 than the previous season, they ended up with their highest points total since Kettlewell’s debut. He and his team-mates would excel themselves the following year.
Stuart Kettlewell was made the Queen’s Park team captain during the 2006-07 season as a 22-year-old, an outstanding achievement for the player. His pride becomes obvious as much from his beaming non-verbal language as through his word choice.
“It was a privilege for me,” he reminisces. “The club captain at the time was Richard Sinclair, who is now on the coaching staff at QP. He was finding it hard to get into the team and had missed a bit through injuries as well. Coming through youth football, I was always the captain for every team that I played for, it was a role which I always seemed to take on and I always enjoyed the responsibility.
“I think Billy Stark saw those qualities in me. I think Richard approached the manager to tell him that he thought that I should be captain. He remained club captain at that point, but he went back to Billy a couple of months later when we went on an exceptional run and said that he felt the time had come for me to become club captain.
“At Queen’s Park there were there duties as a captain and it was a real honour for me to do that, at a fairly young age. It was great, I loved every minute of it. It is a big honour at Queen’s Park and you’re expected to do duties in terms of speeches at events. It was good experience for me as a person off – well as on – the pitch.”
Captaining a side who plays at the national stadium is not something the ordinary player gets to experience, and it is something that Kettlewell reflects upon. “You used to have to remind yourself that you were playing at Hampden,” he remarks. “If you were having a bad day, a bad performance, you would look at your team-mates and say: ‘Look where we’re playing’.
“I know it was only in front of a few hundred or a thousand people, but I think at times you took it for granted that you had the best facilities in Scotland. You had to remind yourself sometimes that it was a privilege to play there and that you’ve got to make something of it. It was special playing there. I always had an ambition of playing there when the stadium was full.”
He almost had his chance later in his career. “I was lucky enough to get back with Ross County, twice, in the Scottish Cup. Unfortunately I never played – I was on the bench – but it was an amazing experience looking back,” he says.
“You had to remind yourself sometimes that it was a privilege to play there and that you’ve got to make something of it. It was special playing there.”
The season turned out to be a memorable campaign for Kettlewell, Stark and the club as a whole and there was a hint of what was to lie ahead early on in the season. In late August, Aberdeen, unbeaten in four league matches, arrived at Firhill with a virtually full-strength side including Russell Anderson, Barry Nicholson and Darren Mackie for a League Cup tie. On a balmy Tuesday evening in Glasgow’s West End (moved from Hampden to make way for a Rolling Stones concert), Queen’s Park recorded their greatest result of the modern era by beating the SPL side on penalties after a scoreless draw.
“I remember the match really well,” beams Kettlewell. “It was an amazing experience, to think that all of our team had just come from work. I had to take time off work and got off early. Aberdeen would have been relaxed in their hotel during the day while we had boys who were on building sites (I was in an office). It was an amazing achievement for a Third Division club.
“I think we did it in some style, in all honesty,” the former captain indulges. “We were comfortable in the game, it wasn’t ‘backs to the wall’ stuff. I remember reports after the match suggesting we were a team who approached the game in the right manner. We were playing in triangles, keeping the ball off them… Maybe we weren’t much of a goal threat during the 90 minutes, but we weren’t up against it.
“I didn’t take a penalty. I had cramped up – I tried an overhead kick clearance with what must have been the last kick of the ball! It was probably a good thing I didn’t take a penalty, Derek Soutar didn’t get anywhere near the penalties.
“It was certainly the highlight of my career to that point. It was fantastic.”
In mid-January, Queen’s Park sat in fifth place amongst a number of teams closely competing for the play-off places. The club would then embark on an outstanding run of form, winning 13 of their final 15 matches before concluding the season in third. The Spiders finished with the league’s best goal difference and best defensive record.
“To tell you the truth,” Kettlewell recollects, “Although the record goes down as clean sheets and the ‘keeper takes a lot of credit for that, I’m sure David Crawford won’t mind me saying that he didn’t have a notable save to make during the whole time. That shows how good the defence were – we laughed about it, he might have only had a couple of saves to make. We were all given a medal for breaking records during that spell – it was testament to how strong the whole team were in defending.”
Their third place finish paired them against Arbroath in the play-off semi-final but despite finishing the league campaign two points above the Spiders, the Red Lichties were efficiently dismissed by an aggregate score of 4-1, with David Weatherston and Alan Trouten scoring a goal each in both legs.
Queen’s Park reserved their finest performances of the season for the final against East Fife. While the first-leg (once again moved to Firhill because of Hampden’s staging of the UEFA Cup final) was a thrilling affair that saw the “home” side prevail 4-2, the return fixture was an entirely one-sided encounter. Paul Paton crashed home a 30-yard drive after four minutes before second half goals from Trouten and Frankie Carroll secured a 3-0 victory. Queen’s Park had achieved promotion for the first time since 1999-00 – their possession-based approach was as effective as it was aesthetically pleasing.
“Without being disrespectful to anyone else from the Third Division,” says Kettlewell, “I think a lot of people said that you couldn’t get out of the league playing passing football. Everything that we did at Queen’s Park under Billy Stark was about technique, passing the ball and trying to play the right way.
“We didn’t have a target man or even a big striker. We couldn’t play back to front. We always played from the back. The midfield was the strongest part of our team; we scored a vast number of goals from the middle of the park. We had Weatherston playing up front but we tried to pass the ball all the time and you could start to see that getting better and better. It was testament to Billy, who I can’t speak highly enough of.
“From my point of view, I loved every minute of working under him. I thought he was an exceptional manager. He fitted into the ethos of Queen’s Park so well with his view on how to play football. It just all fell into place.”