Stuart Findlay: ‘In Scotland we have been trained in a uniform way of playing – MLS shows how different football can be’


There are many turning points in a footballer’s career, but few are as significant as the one Stuart Findlay faced in the early months of the 2017-18 season.

He had just returned to Kilmarnock for his second loan and things were looking bleak. “I started thinking about what’s next, starting over,” Findlay says. Athleticism.

The Scottish defender had come through Celtic’s academy and enjoyed productive loans to Greenock Morton, Dumbarton and Kilmarnock before making a permanent move to Newcastle United, where he struggled to fit into Rafa Benitez’s first-team plans.

This second stint at Killie was supposed to rejuvenate his struggling career, but it didn’t pan out. “I was thinking ‘do I need to come down a league? Do I have to work part-time?’ That was a black spot.”

At the start of October, Killie was bottom of the Scottish Premiership, having failed to win any of his first eight matches and scoring just five goals. They parted ways with manager Lee McCulloch and two weeks later appointed Steve Clarke. Everything changed for Killie and for Findlay.

They finished third in 2018-19, their best league result since 1966. Clarke would take the Scotland national team job that summer, but his legacy, with Findlay a key figure, lived on.

“Being a part of this, what Steve built, was so special,” says Findlay, now 26. “I will never be able to show how grateful I am for how much the club, the fans, the people who work behind the scenes have all helped take me from a low point of not trusting, wondering what was next. , to a point of looking to the future and showing that I was a leader on the pitch. That’s the only reason I’m sitting here today, in a really good league, playing a really good level.

Findlay is at the Philadelphia Union training ground talking on Zoom. His enthusiasm for the club and the lifestyle change he embarked on in January 2021 is clear, despite having featured in just 11 competitive matches so far.

“I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, it’s no secret,” he said. “But the life I’ve had for the last year and a half is something I couldn’t have imagined and I loved it.”

Findlay reaffirms how difficult it was to leave Killie, a club he “holds very close to (his) heart”, but the opportunity to move to Major League Soccer in the United States was too compelling.

He had six months left on his contract and, after injuring his ankle, knew he would not have many games left at Kilmarnock. And then he heard about the interest from Philadelphia.

“The moment was funny,” he says. “Some players have the opportunity to move to Scotland or down south, which is obviously a great career path. But not many people have the opportunity to go to a place like this, and I knew that I would regret not moving here in the future if I didn’t.

There were a few quirks landing in the United States. Findlay mentions that he went to a restaurant for dinner for the first time and was worried his credit card might be stolen when the waiter pulled it off the table to make payment. There is also his strong Glasgow accent.

“I felt like a stranger at first because people didn’t understand me,” Findlay laughs, “but you get to the heart of the matter quickly.

“It’s only when you move here that you realize how different it is from Scotland. My wife’s mom and dad just finished and they didn’t know what to expect, but they love it. I am very happy. Best time for sure!”

Findlay in MLS action against New England Revolution in 2021 (Photo: Getty)

In Scotland, players piled into a coach to go up, down and across country, with the greatest distance Kilmarnock would have to travel in the top flight being the 200 miles to Ross County’s Dingwall ground. In Philadelphia, they hop on planes to travel thousands of miles across different time zones.

“It’s crazy how your mind adapts to it,” Findlay says. “You’d think it would be a shock, but you fall into the following pattern: ‘That’s exactly what we do for away games’. On the weekends we play in New England, and it will be one hour, a nice short flight. Last week it took five hours to get to Los Angeles, and then there’s a three hour time difference. It’s really only when you really think about it and you know it. compare to Scotland, where you have a three hour drive to Aberdeen and think that’s bad!

There are also distinctions on the ground. Tactically and in football culture, MLS is more diverse than Findlay’s experiences in the Premiership. “With the Scottish game each team obviously has their own tactic,” he explains, “but it can be a bit of a question of who can perform better on that day because a lot of teams are tied and believe the same things.

“But you come here and you realize what a different contrast in styles can do. You have teams that are ‘total football’, playing from the back no matter what. Then you have teams like us, who play with high intensity and pressure, it’s very visible how the different teams play here.

“In Scotland, apart from Celtic and Rangers, every team might try to play a bit of passing football, but they tend to play the same direct, high-intensity style, everyone going blood and thunder. This league shows how different football can be.

“Our sporting director is a German (Ernst Tanner), and he tried to build a club and a team influenced by ‘gegenpressing’ (the counter-pressing tactic introduced by Ralf Rangnick and popularized by Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund) You have other teams with managers or sporting directors from South America, and they want to play tiki-taka. They bring in players from those countries who can play that way.

“We have 16 or 17 different nationalities in our dressing room, and they all bring a bit of culture on and off the pitch. It is very different from Scotland.

“I remember at Kilmarnock we had Aaron Tshibola and Youssouf Mulumbu representing the Democratic Republic of Congo, but most of the team were from Scotland, England and Ireland. It’s a similar culture, and we all come in a uniform way of playing and we’ve all been trained to do that.

Findlay believes British football can learn from MLS – and vice versa.

“Coming from the UK, it’s unique not to have a relegation system in place, which might add something here, a bit of peril,” he says. “It doesn’t matter a lot about winning the league, which is maybe a bit of a downside, but the play-offs are so exciting.

“It’s strange that the award can be won by a team that finishes seventh in the league, but at the same time that’s what makes football great. It’s about those teams that come out of nowhere and go play-offs have obviously worked in other American sports, and they’ve proven they can apply it to football.

In Findlay’s first year with Philadelphia, they reached the Eastern Conference play-off final against former Celtic manager Ronny Deila in New York. Prior to the game, however, Philadelphia suffered a COVID-19 outbreak that crippled its team selection. Findlay started and played well, but NYC won 2-1 to advance to the MLS Cup Final, which they duly won.

Although he hasn’t played as much as he would have liked, he believes he has still developed as a player. He came through Celtic’s academy as a ball-playing centre-back, captain of their Under-17 side and being an important figure in their development squad before deciding he wanted to leave on loan. Stints in Scotland’s lower leagues were his apprenticeships in the physique of senior football, before “discovering the art of defending under Steve Clarke” on his second spell at Kilmarnock.

“I learned to sit, to be tough, and we did so well under him,” Findlay says. “When I came to Philadelphia, it was more of an aggressive front foot defense. It’s about adding different strings to your bow. If my team wants me to sit down, I can do it now because of the way we played Killie. If my team wants me to be proactive and on the cutting edge, now I can do that too. Although I didn’t play here as much as I would have liked, it was really worth it because I learned this style of defense which will help me in the future.

Findlay will be eagerly watching Scotland’s World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine on Wednesday from the United States, but he retains ambitions to return to his former coach Clarke’s international setup. Clarke gave him his Scotland debut in a 6-0 win over San Marino in which Findlay scored but, thanks to a combination of injuries, lack of playing time in Philadelphia and impressive competition form as a central defender, this second selection has so far proven elusive.

“I have to play week after week at club level,” Findlay says. “It’s so simple. I can’t even start looking forward to the national team when I’m not at the level I need to be at club level.

That will involve contributing to Philadelphia’s charge for the play-offs, where they aim to take the heartache out of last year’s conference finals and do better.

“At our best, we don’t think there’s anyone in the league who can top us,” he said. “Hopefully we will show what we really are.”

(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)


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