IN their club’s parlous predicament at minus 15 points, the players at Hearts are almost being asked to be superhuman.
None more so than Ryan Stevenson. The one-time midfielder is now the Tynecastle club’s one-man strikeforce, as evidenced in the fruitless afternoon he endured in the opening weekend loss to St Johnstone. It was the sort of soulless experience he knows won’t be a one-off as a glorified under-21 squad attempt to stave off relegation at the administration-stricken club.
“That’s the way it’s going to be. There can’t be any other way. There’s no real getting away from it, I’m going to be the striker,” the 28-year-old says of his lone forward role. “We don’t have anyone. Even young Callum [Paterson] hasn’t really played up front and is still finding his feet, not just in the SPL but in the game in general, so I’m sure there will be plenty like it.
“No-one can be under any illusion that it’ll be anything other than a tough season for us but hopefully we can get a couple of points, a win maybe, and get the confidence into the team and see where it takes us.”
Hearts will need goals to do that. In Perth they never looked like scoring. Stevenson’s best total in a season has been 17 and, as he says himself, that was in the Second Division and he was playing in his more accustomed central role. But, hold on, as Hearts followers might point out, the player has scored some important goals for the club. One was in an Edinburgh derby – the same fixture his team face today at Tynecastle – when fielded up front by Jim Jefferies in the season following his 2010 move from Ayr. The posting is hardly alien to him, then. Context is everything, he pleads.
“I don’t mind doing it. At least you’re playing. I’ve always played midfield but, when I first came to Hearts and played up front, I enjoyed it. But we had a really good team and I had really good players around me. We were sitting third in the league and chasing Rangers and Celtic at one stage, which made it easier because I had more experienced guys playing round about me. I’ll get on with it and work as hard as I can to try to do well for the team.”
To make good on that aim Stevenson will try to soak up as much knowledge as he can from strikers coach John Robertson, who comes in twice a week to coach the frontmen, on the same free basis under which Billy Brown is assisting manager Gary Locke.
“It speaks volumes about what kind of men they are that they would do that,” says Stevenson. “You look at how many goals he has scored and so everything he tells you, you take on board. It is only going to help me. I know this year I’m going to have to score my fair share of goals. I think if we are going to get ourselves out of the situation we are in, we are going to have to have a couple of players who are going to get between ten and 15. If you look at the teams which did decently last year, they all had players scoring goals on a regular basis.”
It must be comforting to see men on the training pitch at Riccarton because Stevenson, Jamie Hamill and Jamie MacDonald are the only three players who can be placed in the fully-grown bracket in the squad. Stevenson balks at the notion of being a mentor himself, despite the environment in which he developed as a young player at St Johnstone.
He adds: “Owen Coyle was there, Paul Bernard had come from Aberdeen and there were the likes of Darren Dods, Jim Weir as captain and Grant Murray – we had a lot of really good older pros. When you take a step back and think about it, most of that team were at the age I am now and above. As a youngster, I was the exception. Now I’m the exception the other way at 28. It shows you how much things have changed.”
Not for the better, of course, and yet the atmosphere among the Hearts playing pool right now is as good as Stevenson has ever known it in his two spells with the club. He jokes that there aren’t enough players for there to be any cliques, as existed when you had foreign legions headed up by a Lithuanian influx.
Stevenson never considered leaving in the summer he says, because he loves playing for Hearts – and at the wonderfully atmospheric Tynecastle every second week. That is why he returned to the club from Ipswich Town after a six-month exile when the situation with late wage payments and lack of communication led to him leaving under a cloud in January 2012.
“It was an easy decision to stay [in the summer] to be honest. Going back to the first time [I left], the biggest thing was the unknown, the communication barrier that was up between ourselves and the owner. This time it was a lot more straightforward, everyone was honest and, when it came down to it, it was easy enough to decide. The most important thing was this time the administrator came in and told everyone exactly where the club was, how bleak the situation was and what they were trying to do with myself and the two Jamies. That was all we could ask for – honesty.
“I spoke to my agent once, the manager a couple of times, but I phoned them back almost straight away.
“It’s a massive challenge and for me, I was quite excited come last Sunday. Playing in Scotland most of my days, you get used to it, but this season every game there’s something to fight for and, if we manage to overturn it, that would be some achievement.”
Stevenson can look at this afternoon’s derby in two ways. It might seem a good time to play Hibernian because of their current struggles. But he admits that his club’s capital rivals could feel exactly the same way.
“It could be the making of either team, it is such a massive game.” Yet, it is a game that, at best, could only bring Hearts to within 12 points of the team immediately above them. Cutting in that chasm as quickly as possible is a necessity if the great escape is to pulled off. He has no interest in local bragging rights, though, for one simple reason.
“Last year there was all the talk of the change, that Hibs are starting to become the dominant force in Edinburgh. For me it’s just something I don’t want to get involved in. They beat us twice, once with an own goal and the other time with a last-minute goal. If that is what they think then that is what they think. For us, this year, I really think it is about the situation we are in. If they don’t finish above us then they’ll get relegated.”