Tributes have been paid to Ballymena-born footballing star Arthur Stewart, following news that he has died at the age of 76.
The former Northern Ireland international footballer made his debut for his home team in 1958 at the tender age of 16, against Bangor in the County Antrim Shield.
He remained a fringe player throughout the subsequent 1958/59 season, missing out on a place in the 1959 Irish Cup final side as the Sky Blues were defeated by Glenavon.
It wasn’t until the following season that 18-year-old Arthur began to become a first-team regular at the Showgrounds, playing the entire season at full-back.
Stewart left his hometown club for Glentoran in 1961 and was revered at the Oval, where he was part of a revival of the East Belfast club during the mid-sixties and starred in the legendary Detroit Cougars team that toured the United States during the summer of 1967.
The gifted footballer went on to play for Derby County, signing for the club in 1967.
Stewart made a total of 35 appearances and scored two goals.
He won four of his seven caps for Northern Ireland while he was at Derby.
A move back to Ballymena followed in August 1970 and he stepped up as player-manager in 1971.
Stewart - who was named Ulster Footballer of the Year in 1974 - also had short spells with Distillery, Bangor, Cliftonville and back to Glentoran as well as a period in the United States.
An article on Ballymena United’s club website said: “It is with great sadness that we learnt of the passing of former player Arthur Stewart.
“Not only would he be high on the “greatest player” list for many supporters of that era, but Arthur was also revered as an absolute gentleman.
“Quite simple Arthur was one of the greatest players to grace the famous Sky Blue shirt and an honour to call him one of our own.
“He will be sadly missed by all.”
A Glentoran spokesman said: “We are sorry to hear the news that former Glentoran player, manager and legendary Detroit Cougar Arthur Stewart has died.”
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Cllr. Paul Reid, expressed his condolences and said Mr Stewart was well respected, not just in footballing circles for being amongst the top players in Northern Ireland, but for being an absolute gentleman who will be sorely missed by all.
“During his two spells with the Sky Blues, Mr Stewart made almost 400 appearances, scoring 33 goals, making him one of only three Ballymena United players to win the coveted Ulster Footballer of the Year award,” Cllr. Reid said.
He added: “A gentleman on and off the pitch, my thoughts and prayers go to his family and friends at this sad time.”