HE has risen from the junior ranks to Scotland’s top-flight in just four years, but Ross Stewart is determined to prove he belongs in present company.

Last season’s curtailed campaign was even shorter for the Ross County striker than for others after a serious hamstring injury struck before New Year.

A steady stream of visiting scouts from north and south of the border had, by then, been alerted to performances and goalscoring prowess that brought him 11 goals.

As a mark of his progress in Dingwall, that equalled his entire season’s tally the year before as County won the Championship.

Pundits and team-mates have already spoken of a possible future Scotland call-up for the 6ft 2 ins tall finisher who welds power and pace to penalty box instinct.

Back in 2016, Irvine-born Stewart was still turning out for Ayrshire juniors Kilwinning at the age of 20, before a move to part-time Alloa.

Limited opportunities at St Mirren in 2017/18 persuaded him to take still raw talents to second tier County despite the Buddies’ elevation to the Premiership.

It is a move that has paid off handsomely, with manager Stuart Kettlewell showing great faith in a striker who, with Monday’s penalty kick winner, set out a marker for the campaign ahead.

“I’ve always put pressure on myself to do well. Coming off a pretty good season last year, there are going to be a lot of people saying ‘can he do it again?’ Stewart admitted. 

“I will certainly give it my all every time I cross that white line. It was great to get a goal in the first game of the season, and hopefully I can build on that and get some more. 

“As long as the team is winning I will be happy. “

As Kettlewell noted after the slender victory over Motherwell, there has been a change in Stewart. He no longer looks the gangly, slightly cumbersome athlete he did early in his Staggies’ career.

But the biggest change appears to have been in mentality, with Kettlewell describing him after the game as now being like “a leader of the orchestra” in terms of imposing a vocal, authoritative influence on those around him.

“I worked hard during lockdown,” Stewart stressed. “Just as I was coming back into the team after injury, Covid happened, which was quite disappointing. 

“But I used that time to get my body ready for where it needed to be for the first game back. I felt good out there and it was good to get 90 minutes under my belt.  

“I was delighted with how the night went, to get the goal and help the team get the three points. 

“It’s a great start for us and we’ve got to use it now and build on it come Saturday. 

“It was a really difficult game to start with and we knew that coming into it. 

“Credit goes to the back four for their performance in helping us keep a clean sheet, but more importantly to the team as a whole. That was something we had pointed out that we wanted to improve on from last season. 

“We got the shut out and the 1-0 victory, and hopefully there are plenty more of them for us this season.”

County seemed to adapt quickly to the unusual environment and atmosphere at the empty Global Energy Stadium, bringing an intensity to their play that often, even while on the front foot, Motherwell couldn’t match.

“It was just great to be back,” Stewart admitted. “It has been a long time coming. Circumstances are what they are, but as players we will take it so long as we can play.

“We have to find ways as a team and as individuals to motivate ourselves and go and do a job. 

“That’s what we did against Motherwell, and credit to the team for getting that win.”