RYAN Stevenson is free to play for Hearts in the League Cup semi-final on Sunday week after the club reached agreement with St Mirren to reschedule their league match for next Wednesday.
The midfielder, who is the most experienced member of Gary Locke’s squad, will serve a two-match suspension after being sent off during the frenetic finale to Hearts’ 3-3 draw with St Johnstone last weekend. Those matches were originally going to be this Saturday at Ross County and then the semi-final at Easter Road against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday, 2 February. But, with the St Mirren match having originally been scheduled for the League Cup weekend, Hearts were able to reach agreement with the Paisley club to stage that one next midweek at Tynecastle.
“That was one of the reasons why we tried to get the game organised,” Locke said yesterday. “I think you can see in the games this season where Ryan’s been missing, he’s been a big loss to the team.
“Obviously, the semi-final is a huge game for the football club, and we’ll give ourselves a better chance by having all of our best players on the pitch. I’m delighted that St Mirren have kindly agreed to rearrange that fixture. It’s not ideal, in as much as we’ve got a game four or five days before the semi-final, but at the end of the day it’s great that we’ve got Ryan available for such a big game.”
St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus, who was sent off with Stevenson last Saturday, already knew he was free to play in his club’s semi-final against Aberdeen the day before the Hearts-Inverness clash. The Perth club already had two games arranged before the League Cup match: last night’s game at Partick Thistle and the match against Dundee United on Monday.
Hearts goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, meanwhile, said he was delighted to learn that Stevenson will be able to take his place in the team at Easter Road. “It’s a boost for us that Ryan will be available for the semi-final,” MacDonald said yesterday. “It’s good, because we need all the experience we can get and he’s our most experienced player.
“It makes it a lot easier for us to have him involved, and it’s good for Ryan, because he was a bit gutted that he was going to be missing the semi-final. Now he’s had a reprieve. He can come in and play.
“The flip side is we’ll have another big game four days before a semi-final. The squad is thin. It’s an extra game, but the semi will take care of itself because it’s a big occasion for a lot of the boys.
“We were there last year, we got to the cup final, a lot of them will have experienced that and a lot of them will want to get there again. One of the reasons you play football is to get to cup finals. It’s been a disappointing season, but we have a chance to put a silver lining on it.”
MacDonald was equally pleased to learn that assistant manager Billy Brown will be in the technical area for that game, after the club administrator reversed an earlier decision to let Brown go. “The boys are all delighted,” the goalkeeper added. “It’s a lot for the gaffer to take on just now, as difficult as this season has been.
“Even from the coaching side of things, we need as much experience as we can get. Billy has that in abundance.
“I’m not saying that he’s old – but he is,” MacDonald continued. “Nah, it’s great for everybody, because Billy is great around the changing room. He’s good for a laugh, as serious as he can be – he has a real spirit. We’re delighted that he’s here for the next few weeks, anyway.”
While MacDonald was one of the players who urged Jackson to keep Brown on until the expiry of his contract at the end of this month, he accepted that he and his colleagues would be powerless to do anything beyond that period given the club’s parlous financial position. “We knew his contract ran until the end of the month, and we were all happy for Billy to keep going.
“Obviously what happens to Billy at the end of his contract, there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s up to the people behind the scenes. But for the time being, especially with a big semi-final coming up, for us it was vitally important that nothing really changed too much. We need to try to keep things as steady as possible right now.”
While Stevenson can now figure in Locke’s plans, the manager thinks the semi-final will come too early for another midfielder, Jason Holt, who is still recovering from injury. Jamie Walker is also out.
• Jamie MacDonald was speaking as Hearts promoted the SPFL’s first ever sticker album, published by Topps, and available in supermarkets and all good local independent newsagents.